riding the hot chillee london-paris event was, at first attempt, notable for many things, not least my first trip on the eurostar. aside from the palaver that exists passing through customs and immigration at gard du nord (they don't like you having co2 canisters i have discovered) the journey through the french countryside at speed was most pleasant, despite being hermetically sealed in a railway carriage. then, of course, came the darkness, an entire channel's worth, but a distance that seemed a lot shorter than i'd expected.
there has to be someone or something that attracted you to cycling in the first place. it could be a member of your family, it could be a friend of the family, or it could be a professional or amateur cyclist seen in a race, met in the bike shop or seen on tv. for me it was robert millar; i already owned a bike, i just didn't realise what it was capable of until i saw millar on channel four, going uphill very quickly and leaving others of nationalities that were definitely not scottish, trailing in his wake. inspirational.
of course, it's going to be different for every generation; were it that cycling history were taught as part of the modern curriculum, many of us would have had a veritable panoply of stars from which to choose, based on an appreciation of their talents and successes. but it's a hard fact that learning about those who shaped the world we were about to inhabit with a vengeance tends to arrive after the fact, by which time, formative hero worship may already be writ in stone. for the mighty dave t, apparently well into his pensionable years, brits like barry hoban and brian robinson featured on the posters on the bedroom wall. and if he hadn't needed to re-decorate recently, they'd probably still be there. true hero worship of true cycling heroes.
it's tempting to dismiss the current crop of starlets as having it easy in comparison to the fifties and sixties, though they still have to pedal over the same mountains and cobbles as those mentioned above. but what has changed in the interim, and i figure it's something that cannot be underestimated, is the modern internationality of professional cycling. robert millar recounts how on reaching paris, on his way to join the acbb as his first step towards to becoming a european professional, nobody came to meet him off the train. perhaps a small point, but one that's less likely to feature nowadays. with improved rail and air travel, it is perhaps a deal easier to leave home and country in the selfless challenge to become one of the modern peloton. look back to the first tentative steps across the channel by the british pioneers, and that strip of water must have seemed a lot wider than it does now. at least wider than it seemed from the comfort of a eurostar carriage.
brian robinson is renowned, not only in british cycling history, but that of the tour de france as having been the first from these shores to have won a stage of the tour, a feat accomplished in 1958. it's worth placing this achievement in perspective, for tour teams in the 1950s were not quite as is the case nowadays; there were no trade teams. as part of the 1955 english hercules cycle team (the first from the uk to compete) he finished 29th, having cemented his french, if not european, intentions during those three weeks. as jean bobet, brother of tour winner louison said "i knew that hercules manufactured five times as many bicycles as mercier, and that production of bicyces in england, overall, was ten times what it was in france. i was also happy to offer my services as interpreter to this new colony, but my initiative proved unnecessary. a month after their arrival, their leader, a certain brian robinson, remarked drily "hier on a pris la fringale. aujord 'hui, on est rebecquete". they understood everything, these english, they spoke the slang."
it was this determination or ability, similar to that of his eventual successor, robert millar, to become effectively a frenchman in france, rather than perceived as an englishman abroad, that separated him from many of his compatriots; there was no outward desire to run for the comforts of home. it brought him great respect from his peers and undoubtedly eased his time in the european peloton, for much of his tour racing years were spent as a constituent part of a national team consisting of more than one nationality. the tour's insistence that contest was between national teams obviously made it hard for those nationalities, even such as luxemburger charlie gaul, without the wherewithal to construct a team large enough to partake in each year's race. thus the minorities often found themselves combined in one team, separated by loyalties and often language. such was robinson's metier for most of his european career; that of hired gun. that he achieved the successes he did gives great credence to not only his cycling ability, but his fortitude in the face of adversity, not all of it financial.
what has changed considerably since the fifties is the gearing employed in the peloton. with many today using compact chainsets in training at least, it makes the kneecaps crinkle to hear brian robinson describe front and back ratios on the days from the start of a tour up until reaching the pyrenees. the flatter stages were ridden on a front chainset of 52/47 driving 14,15,17,19 and 21 sprockets at the rear. if that hasn't brought tears to your thighs, on reaching the mountains, the rear ratios were swapped for 14,16,19,21 and 23. the front was still 52/47. and the frames weren't of sub 1kg carbon either.
in the extracts from conversations between author graeme fife and robinson, the latter comes across as somewhat shy and retiring, not someone given to blowing his own trumpet so to speak, and it is testament to the writing and research skills of graeme fife that robinson's story has seen the light of day in such comprehensive and highly readable form. the empathy between the two is never in doubt, but left to the will of fate, it seems highly unlikely that robinson would have ever brought himself to write his autobiography. in which case the world would have been deprived of celebrating the career of an extraordinary pioneer.
there are modern day heroes of whom we are all aware, the careers of several that have been well documented both in print and in video, and there will be likely more arriving in the future who will receive the adulation and whatever equivalent of posters on the wall modern technology has substituted. however, at the risk of nailing my flag to a controversial mast, i have doubts as to whether their careers will receive the consummate literary treatment and tribute ascribed by graeme fife in this biography of brian robinson. coincidentally, i have always held the two finest volumes of cycling biography to be herbie sykes' the eagle of the canavese, and jean bobet's tomorrow we ride, both published by adrian bell's mousehold press. now he has a trio.
posted wednesday 15 december 2010..........................................................................................................................................................................................................