CW looks at the life and times of Yorkshire’s Tour de France trailblazer Brian Robinson
From Pennines to Pyrenees
“I started cycling because it was our only transport. We had relatives living over Harrogate way, so one Sunday every month we rode over to see them, because it was the only way to do it. It was wartime and there were no cars about or anything,” Robinson says, recalling his first cycling experiences.
He rode plenty, but didn’t race until he was 18. “My older brother Des raced, but my dad thought I should hold off. I was suspected as a diabetic early on, so maybe it was that, but the diagnosis was during the war, and my ration book had no sugar in it, only extra cheeses and bacon. Anyway, I never got in the habit of using sugar and the diagnosis was never confirmed. It never bothered me in races.
“My first race was an early-season restricted gear 25, and I did one hour and 13 minutes, but I couldn’t get into an open event with that time until June. I’d been training with Des and others in the Huddersfield club all the while we waited to get in.
There were four of us in the same position, me, Tommy Oldfield and two others, and eventually we got in a 25-miler in South Yorkshire that didn’t have a full field. We took six out of the nine prizes and I went from a 1 hour 13 to a 1 hour 3. I could get in races with that time, but I wasn’t bothered about time trials, I wanted to do road races.”
Robinson became a good all-round road racer, and he says his early Yorkshire time trials helped him win his second Tour stage, which he did in a long lone break that took him 20 minutes clear of the rest. But if he had one flair it was for climbing. He won his first national title in the 1952 hill-climb championships on Mow Cop, and for a while Robinson held the record for Holme Moss, which is climbed on stage two of the 2014 Tour.
“The hill-climb was from the old shepherd’s hut just after the sharp left bend after Holme Village. I did 6 minutes 5 seconds, but a hill-climb specialist called Ronnie Stringwell out of the Bramley Wheelers beat it later with 6 minutes 3 seconds. He was national champion a couple of times before me. I’m told my time would be up there on that Strava thing if it had been done today,” he says.
It certainly would. There are many Strava segments on Holme Moss, but the one closest to the climb Robinson did is the Official 100Climbs route, and the current best for that is 7 minutes 6 seconds by NFTO pro Russell Downing.
However, Robinson says ‘his’ climb ended at the left-hand car park, which isn’t quite at the top. The 100Climbs segment drags on for another 250 metres to the summit, but Robinson’s time stands well alongside Downing’s.
Holme Moss is Robinson’s mountain really, but it was put in perspective by what came next. “I did my national service in the army, which because I was already a good cyclist before meant I did it with the Army Cycling Team.
The officers created big rivalry between the services, and we were like pro riders really. In the summer I had to ride once a week to the barracks in York to collect my pay, and that was it, I was free to train. I stayed at the barracks more in winter, but still trained for 75 miles most days.
“Anyway, the army entered a team in the Route de France, and that was the first time I saw real mountains. I remember riding towards the Pyrenees and they just got bigger and bigger.
Then I saw these flashing lights at the top. I asked someone what they were, and they said that it was the sun reflecting off the windscreens of cars parked on the roadside, waiting for us. I said: ‘Are we going up there?’
“Oh yes,” he replied.
Robinson was inspired. This was where he wanted to be. He did the Olympic road race in Helsinki, picked for the team alongside his brother. He turned pro for a Yorkshire bike shop team, Ellis Briggs, in 1954. Then got his big break in 1955, when he moved to the top British team, Hercules. They decided to base themselves in the South of France to take on the best, including the Tour de France, and the rest is history.
Cycling family Robinson
Brian’s older brother Des gets overlooked in almost every story you read about Brian. It’s understandable; after all, Brian played such a huge part in British cycling history. But Des was good; very good.
He was selected for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, where he did the road race with Brian. Then he was the BLRC national road champion in 1955, the year he also won the Tour of Britain, which was sponsored by Kellogg’s back then and was called the Oats Race.
Des was class on a bike, and class, as they say, lasts forever. Many younger racers in West Yorkshire, a generation who are masters racers now, remember how he helped them when they tried to make the grade. Dave Sowerby, owner of Mirfield’s bike shop, Sowerby Brothers, was one of them.
“Des looked after a whole load of us as kids back in the late 70s. None of us went on to achieve anything, but we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to him nonetheless,” he told us.
Brian and Des were the first generation of racing Robinsons.
The next is represented by Brian’s daughter Louise, until this year the only British world cyclo-cross medallist at senior elite level. She has been a Great Britain international at cyclo-cross and mountain bike, and in 2000 she emulated her father with Olympic selection for the mountain bike cross-country at the Sydney Games.
And now there is a third generation: Jake Womersley, who races for the Haribo-Beacon team is Brian’s grandson. His auntie Louise bought Jake his first racer, a cyclo-cross bike, and he won the national youth cyclo-cross series.
He raced four times for the Great Britain team in cyclo-cross last winter, taking 17th at the Worlds and 14th at the European junior cyclo-cross championships.