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Vin Denson interview

Vin Denson was the first British rider to win a stage of the Giro. He tells Cyclist about being a domestique and close friend, Tom Simpson.

Vin Denson portrait
Steve Westlake
18 Feb 2016

Cyclist: How did you get into cycling?

Vin Denson: I started by playing football, and I was always running and jumping over ditches in wartime to get stuff from the fields for my mum because you couldn’t get groceries like you do now. But I injured my knee and someone said, ‘You have to take up cycling because it’s the best sport for lubricating joints.’

Cyc: You became a super-domestique for some of the top riders, but did you ever want to be a team leader?

VD: No, I don’t think so. I did my National Service and then had six years in the building industry, so by the time I was a pro I was 26. But the domestique is always the strongest in the team. The team leader would see that and would make sure you won some smaller races. You were no fool being a domestique because you’d get the rewards. 

Cyc: What was it like riding for French superstar Jacques Anquetil?

VD: He was always very nervous at the start of the race. He’d often say his saddle was the wrong height, so I’d carry a spanner and change the saddle height and he’d say, ‘OK that’s perfect.’ Then when the attacks started he’d say, ‘My saddle’s too low,’ so I’d get my spanner out again and change it to where the mechanic had set it originally. Then, before the stage finish he’d comb his hair for whichever side the cameras were on. A few times he’d say, ‘Oh f***, I’ve dropped my comb,’ so I always carried a spare one for him. And a bottle opener. 

What was Van Looy like? A complete bastard. 

Cyc: Anquetil was well known for his controversial stance on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Did you see any evidence of this?

VD: Anquetil admitted to taking drugs and he said, ‘My accountant, my surveyor, my architect – they can all take what they want. Well, why not me?’ I pulled him to one side and I said, ‘Because you chose sport, you’re an example to the youth of France. You don’t need drugs, you beat us anyway.’

Cyc: You rode for Rik Van Looy too. What was he like?

VD: Van Looy was a complete bastard. I never got the correct pay from Van Looy. He wouldn’t tell you he couldn’t pay you, either. He’d be all smiley but he’d get someone else to tell you.

Cyc: How close did you come to winning a Tour de France stage?

VD: I was in the Solo team and we’d won six stages at the Tour. The stage I really wanted was the one to Thonon-les-Bains on the Swiss border but the team really let me down. I had a one-minute lead, then two minutes, and then a motorbike comes past me and on the board I see I’ve got about 20km to go and there’s a group of 21 riders 1m 35s back, with the bunch five minutes further behind. I look at the numbers in the group and there isn’t one bloody Solo rider in there! The group caught me and at the finish I came third in the sprint by a tyre, but they should have put someone in that group to protect my lead.

Vin Denson

Cyc: You’ve said previously that Tom Simpson was like a brother to you…

VD: I had a good time with Tom. We’d known each other since we were about 15 or 16 and were very close. A journalist once made me laugh because he said, ‘When you and Tom argue, you argue like brothers, and always in French!’ 

Cyc: What do you remember about the day he died?

VD: On Ventoux, Lucien Aimar and Julio Jimenez attacked and I gave Tom a handsling so he could stay with them. Then I punctured, and by the time I’d ridden up to where Tom had stopped there was a big crowd and he had an oxygen mask on. I pushed past the crowd and the DS shouted at me to get back on my bike because he didn’t want us to lose another rider. That night I came down the stairs in the restaurant and there was silence. Harry Hall came to me and told me that Tommy had died. I think it was Rudi Altig who said they’d had a meeting and because Tommy was like a brother to me they wanted me to win the stage the next day. I said I didn’t think I’d start, but they said, ‘No, you’re upset, but this is our decision and that will be our homage to Tom.’ 

Cyc: What happened on the next stage?

VD: Barry Hoban [of the British team] jumped us with 40km to go and the other riders said, ‘What’s he doing? We don’t want him to win, we want you to win.’ But I said, ‘If you start chasing after him it’s like taking a gold ring off someone’s finger, let him win.’ I finished that stage but from then on, each time I saw a British jersey I thought it was Tom. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I thought, ‘This isn’t right, we shouldn’t be racing like this,’ so I abandoned.

Cyc: Do you still follow cycling now?

VD: There was a period when I wasn’t really interested. I was only interested in the fun and camaraderie that we had. I’ve recently started to enjoy it and I think it’s because the drugs have been controlled since Armstrong. Froome has got a great character, he’s got a nice sense of humour and I think he handled the French press really well. I think we know that Wiggo likes himself but Wiggo is a great rider and whatever he puts his mind to he does it and good luck to him. All he’s got to do now is win the team pursuit in Rio and he’s made it. And I tell you who’s making a big rise, and that’s Ian Stannard. Stannard is looking like a super-domestique. 

Cyc: Finally, tell us about your stage win in the 1966 Giro d’Italia

VD: The day started along the coast and I was planning to lead out one of the lads in the team for an intermediate sprint, but suddenly I found myself clear with these two Italians and the lead started to go up to four or five minutes. The DS tipped me off that one of the Italians was pretty rapid in the sprint so I thought, ‘I’m not going to lose to him.’ I deliberately dropped a bottle and shouted, ‘Oh Christ!’, making a big show about it and looking back. They both looked back too, and that’s when I got the jump. In the end I won with about 50 seconds on them and eight minutes on the peloton. Anquetil gave me a big handshake afterwards and said, ‘Well done! Great ride!’

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