We caught up with Barry Hoban at his home in mid-Wales to deliver his award and hear about his remarkable career.
Ask Barry Hoban what the best ride of his 18-year career was and he doesn’t hesitate long before answering. This is perhaps surprising considering how many rides he has to choose from, of which dozens ended in victory, and on the biggest stages. Until Mark Cavendish came along, he was Britain’s most prolific Tour de France stage winner, with eight.
“The best ride I ever did… Paris-Roubaix, 1972,” he says. This is also a touch surprising because it wasn’t one of his wins — until he explains how his ride to third place unfolded. “In ’72, I was flying. I was right up there with everyone. [Eddy] Merckx, [Roger] De Vlaeminck, [Eric] Leman, all the top-notch riders going through the Arenberg Forest. You never want to puncture in the Arenberg — I did. I lost two minutes before a team-mate gave me his wheel,” recalls Hoban, now 80, with the zest of a young pro reliving a race from the previous day.
“I went, and I rode… boy — I was passing people as though they were stopped,” he says of his chase back to the group. But his uncompromising pursuit across the pavé had left his back wheel buckled and in need of replacing.
“I put my arm in the air, the team car screeched to a halt, I got a back wheel. So I had another chase again. By the time I got back, De Vlaeminck had gone.”
Hoban launched another chase but never did quite catch eventual winner De Vlaeminck, or André Dierickx, who also attacked while Hoban was catching his breath.
“I know perfectly well, that day, without that puncture, it would have been a different story. I probably spent about 50K of that race chasing to get back on — I still finished third,” Hoban says, with justifiable pride.
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These days he lives in mid-Wales but he grew up in Yorkshire around the Leeds-Wakefield area — an upbringing he reckons did absolutely no harm to his bike riding potential.
Hoban’s father was a grass-track racer — “he had bits of bike around all the time”. One of his early cycling experiences was cobbling together a bike from bits and pieces out of the shed, and impressing his mates by keeping up with the bus on the four-mile route to school.
After joining a local club, Calder Clarion, it quickly became apparent to Hoban and to those around him, that he had something of a talent for sprinting — and more.
“I knew I could always sprint,” he says. “[But] in Yorkshire if you couldn’t climb a hill you couldn’t ride a race. Because the races all went up hills. And of course… at the end of the season, there were hill-climbs. I won hill-climbs up the Old Chevin, up Holme Moss, so I realised I could climb. I could sprint. I was pretty good on the track. I was British national pursuit champion twice. I was a very good all-round rider.”
Eventually, aged 22, he made the next step — heading over to the Continent in search of a pro career. These days that’s seen as straightforward for a talented British rider, even inevitable. But in the early Sixties it was much more of a journey into the unknown.
After two years in the Independent ‘semi-pro’ class with Bertin-Porter39-Milremo, during which time he won more than 30 races by his own estimation, Hoban turned full-pro with Mercier-BP-Hutchinson — the team he stayed with for the majority of his career.
Hoban’s pro career lasted until 1980, spanning two decades that are often regarded as a bit of a cycling golden era — vintage and comparatively innocent. He rode against some of the sport’s greatest, including Merckx of course, and was a team-mate of Raymond Poulidor at Gan-Mercier.
And the effusive Hoban was well capable of beating even Merckx on his day — one such day was Ghent-Wevelgem, 1974.
We asked him what it was like beating Merckx and De Vlaeminck in the final. “Don’t forget Eric Leman,” he says. “And [Walter] Godefroot, and [Frans] Verbeeck…. There was the crême de la crême of Belgium there.”
He made it into the final selection with them all, into the last kilometre of 244 and only the sprint to negotiate.
“I was beautifully placed. And the sprint’s going flat-out at that point, but I was blocked. I was praying: ‘open up, open up’… ” suddenly Hoban is back there, on that day 45 years ago, straining every sinew at 35 miles an hour, breath rasping, “And Leman and De Vlaeminck opened a gap. Well, I didn’t need to be told twice… I went through that gap like greased lightning.”
It was one of the biggest wins of his career. But as we know, there were a lot of wins to choose from.