it was robert millar that got me into cycling. not personally, you understand; i didn't know him at all in the early eighties, but the fact that a diminutive glaswegian could mix with the hoi polloi of international racing, finishing in paris in fourth place while wearing the tour's polka dot jersey was, to put it in a nutshell, pretty damn impressive. and since i happened to have a ten-speed racer in the garage, quite obviously i too could ride up hills every bit as quickly because i was also born in glasgow.
sadly, my city of birth hadn't granted me with the same qualities of grimpeurship as had been bestowed upon mr millar. my fierce attack on dundonald hill resulted in my pulling to the side before the summit and almost being sick.
however, i have no recollection whatsoever of realising that, in the early 1980s, robert millar was one of very few british riders racing at the highest level. this was at least partly due to total ignorance on my part, confounded by an almost total lack of interest in those three weeks in july by the mainstream press. who knew there was also a three week tour of italy and a similar period of time spent in spain? it was many a long year before i discovered that robert almost became the first brit/scot to win the vuelta in 1985. second place was doubtless scant recompense for millar, but scarcely worth mentioning in my daily newspaper.
though a volume that would have been a darned sight thinner had it been published around the time of robert's king of the mountains jersey, ellis bacon's great british cycling would have been a very handy book to have read to lessen my ignorance of britain's role in cycling's rich heritage. it might conceivably have been a tad more accurate if the publisher had entitled it a history of british bike racing, rather than using an alternative definite article, for great british cycling is truthfully one man's vision of british cycle racing achievements since james moore's beating of 118 others in a french race, allegedly the first ever road race between paris and rouen.
and to be honest, it's all the better for it.
i'll readily confess that the prospect of reading over 300 pages of britain's historical racing legacy was one i expected to be somewhat hard-going. our occasional bursts of sporting prowess should hardly be ignored, but surely it would take a highly skilled and imaginative author to bring this to us in an entertaining and readable fashion. thank goodness for ellis bacon.
in an e-mail i received from mr bacon only last week, he offered the following "Rather than re-tell, for example, Robert Millar's story (a favourite of yours, I know!), which has already been told by various people, not least by my esteemed colleague Richard Moore, I've tried to take a slightly more alternative look at things.". true to his word, that's exactly what he's done. and regarding such a voluminous edifice "It took a good year to complete in the end, as it turns out thatĘthere's rather a lot of British bike-racing history. Who knew!? Enough for multiple volumes, really."
other than those who are steeped in this sort of thing, the fellows who used to appear on eurosport's pre-tour stage couch for instance, i figure the majority of readers will find many an unknown nugget of information within. rather than simply provide an overview of each success (or lack of), ellis bacon has sought out some of the lesser known protagonists for chapter length interviews. gents such as tony hoar "Well I knew you were supposed to hang around and then jump at the last minute...but that was about all I knew [...] why they put me up against (local sprint champion) Gobber Fleming, I'll never know - and I jumped him. I guess he thought he was going to be able to catch me, but he didn't."
there are also words from tom simpson's room-mate during the 1967 tour de france, welshman colin lewis, who retired from racing in the mid-seventies. "At the side of the road up ahead, Lewis says, softly, he could see that someone had fallen off their bike.
"As I got closer, I could see that it was Tom."
[...] Lewis remembers the team manager, Alec Taylor, saying to him 'Tom's OK, so just keep going and keep looking back."
more recent winners also come under mr bacon's scrutiny, riders such as mick bennett, tony doyle, chris boardman and david millar. even the ever impressive michael hutchinson gets his own chapter. however, i can't help but point out the slight iniquity of ellis bacon's avoidance of retelling robert millar's story (though there is a precis of his career during a chapter featuring robert's protege, brian smith), on the basis that richard moore has already covered all the bases. robert's namesake, david receives a chapter dealing with his drugtaking misdemeanour and subsequent rehabilitation, despite making mention that the selfsame story "is documented in marvellous detail in (millar's) 2011 autobiography, 'Racing through the Dark."
however, that could conceivably be simply my scottish prejudice coming to the fore. there is, however, no mention of robert's subsequent involvement with british cycling. as robert told me "I was National Road coach from March '97 to March '98. (but) During that time I had no influence on the race program. All that was decided before I arrived." in the light of the post retirement activities relating to uk cycling by many other cyclists being featured, this seems an unfortunate omission, given that until the 2012 tour de france, robert millar was regarded as britain's most successful cyclist.
however, ellis more than redeems himself by offering a restricted summary of the more recent years of british success. for this we ought to be thankful considering the number of books that have already covered the past two or three years to the point of exhaustion. sure, there are riders whose contribution to britain's ever upward march towards cycling history are given fewer paragraphs than they likely deserve, but as ellis bacon made mention previously, that would take at least another volume to remedy. rather him than me.
aside from my admittedly prejudicial remarks above, this truly is a book well-worth reading. though it may have been a brit who won the world's very first road race, who amongst us thought dave brailsford's confident prophecy that he'd win the tour with a british rider within five years of fostering team sky would result in it happening twice? things may be very different nowadays; no longer is it seen as entirely necessary for stalwart brits to go it alone in europe, supported by dreams of not only surviving, but winning. britain's successes on the track and the road make for inspiring reading.
maybe in another five years, mr bacon will be able to fill another 300 pages
sunday 5 october 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................