Barry Hoban’s tally of Tour de France stage wins beats every British rider bar Mark Cavendish. There’s much more to Hoban than his palmarès, though, as Chris Sidwells found out when he visited him at home in Wales
Best of Barry
Hoban raced as a pro for 16 years, but when did the world see the best of Barry Hoban?
“You saw the real Barry Hoban after I left the Sonolor team in 1971; so 1972, ’73 and ’74, when I was with Louis Caput in the Gan-Mercier team.
“With Caput I had a directeur who believed in me, who trusted me, and I’d never had that before. If I’d had Caput earlier in my career, you would have seen a different Barry Hoban. But with Antonin Magne in Mercier-BP it was all about Raymond Poulidor. He was the leader no matter what race. I mean, I was giving up my wheel for Poulidor in Paris-Roubaix.
Excuse me! I should never have had to do that; Paris-Roubaix suited me, not Poulidor.”
To prove his point, Hoban finished third to the Paris-Roubaix master, Roger De Vlaeminck, in 1972, when two punctures at crucial times cost him victory.
He won two stages in the 1973 Tour, then a stage in 1974 and 1975. Hoban won Ghent-Wevelgem in 1974, and nine other races in the same year. That was Hoban at his zenith, but he was 32 when the purple patch started, and 35 when he won his last Tour stage.
“I had a great rapport with Caput,” he said. “He’d ask, ‘Are you OK for this or that race, Barry?’ And if I said yes, I was in, because he knew I’d do a ride. If I said I didn’t want to ride, like I did once with Paris-Nice, he was fine about that too. Caput was great at nurturing riders, and he was modern.
“Caput was one of the first directeurs who went into diet. He used to tell the soigneurs, ‘Don’t let the riders go to the table until the food is ready, or they’ll be eating bread and all sorts.’ We were ravenous, but he didn’t want us filling up with empty calories. He was also into health foods. He gave us something called Vitagermine, and a porridge-like stuff for our bottles. He worked with dieticians too.”
Hoban’s career spanned three decades; it also spanned the careers of three of cycling greats: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. Hoban made his Tour debut when Anquetil became the first rider to win five Tours, and he didn’t mind saying that he was awestruck by ‘Maître Jacques’.
“Anquetil had an aura about him, and he was a gentleman,” Hoban said. “I was a first-year pro and he’d won five Tours, but he had this presence, and he had it in races too.”
Hoban recalled one experience racing against Anquetil. “We were riding the Four Days of Dunkirk [in 1966] and he wanted to win, but he had to close a two-minute gap on this stage, so off he went,” he said.
“We had to gang up to beat Hinault. He was elbows out, snarling”
“Whoom, right down the middle of the road, crouched in his superb time trial position, and a few of us got on his wheel… but Anquetil was riding so hard it wasn’t long before we couldn’t [reach him]. So he just looked round at us, shrugged and got on with it. We crossed the gap, Anquetil towing us along, and the bunch stayed where it was, and the break stayed where it was; it was just Anquetil and us that moved.”
Hoban had a similar experience racing against Eddy Merckx in 1969: “It was in the E3 Prijs and Rik Van Looy was in the break that was two minutes up. Well, mention Van Looy to Merckx and it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. He had to beat Van Looy so he went, and a couple of us got on him,” he said.
“We started going through and off, and Merckx was hammering along, so pretty soon we couldn’t. But Merckx didn’t just get on with it, he was shouting, ‘Come through, come through,’ and all sorts, but we couldn’t. Anyway, the bunch stayed where it was, the break stayed where it was, and we crossed the gap.”
Hoban ended up riding in all five of the Tours de France that Merckx won. “Merckx turned pro believing he had a divine right to be great. You could see the pent-up ambition in him, and the aggression. Bernard Hinault was the same, but Merckx would shout a lot. Nobody ever did a long enough or hard enough turn for Eddy Merckx.
“But he was the best, although people often forget he also had the best team, a team he handpicked from the best riders he could get. Merckx was dedicated; he had every attribute, which is why he won nearly everything, and why he won so much. I mean, Milan-San Remo seven times; it speaks for itself.”
The last Tour Hoban rode, in 1978, was won by Bernard Hinault on his debut, aged 24. “He turned pro at 19 but was kept in France until he was ready to win the Tour, which he did at that first attempt,” said Hoban.
“But I already knew how good he was. He’d raced in the Breton criteriums and we had to gang up against him to beat him. He was there, elbows out, snarling and trying to win everything.”
At the Yorkshire Grand Départ of the Tour de France this year, Hoban was reunited with some of his old rivals. But rather than be fiercely competitive as they were then, there was a mutual respect and friendliness between them.
“We all mellow,” Hoban said. “Something happened at the Grand Départ that touched me. I was chatting to Hinault and Stephen Roche when a French photographer came up and asked us to pose for a picture. I stood between them and said: ‘Un petit entre deux grands [one small between two large]’. Hinault said, ‘No Barry, we were the same. We were all racers.’”