Fifty-seven years after Brian Robinson became the first Briton to make it to the Tour de France finish, the Yorkshireman returned to the French capital again this weekend, ready to congratulate Great Britain’s first winner, Bradley Wiggins.
“It’s gone perfectly really, hasn’t it? And we’ve got two, two men capable of winning the Tour in one year is ridiculous really,” he said.
“He’s at the top of the tree. There’s no better accolade than winning the Tour de France. He’s on top of the mountain, if you like… Sky’s control proved to be the right formula.”
What does Britain’s first Tour finisher, 29th back in 1955, make of Wiggins?
Robinson said: “I read his autobiography. I thought ‘when you go on a five-month drinking binge, that’s not a bike rider’s business’. But then again, we’re 60 years on, things change.”
“I was a bit perturbed about that, but he’s got his head together. Obviously Brailsford’s done a good job.”
As a British pioneer, he roughed it out as compatriots went home and made the cut. He learned French, worked as a builder in the winters and slept in fields when money wasn’t to hand.
But after riding the Tour on a guest or national team for a couple of years, he earned the respect of his peers and a ride on the St Raphael squad in 1957.
Robinson rode in a different era of woollen jerseys, riders travelling by train together to races and more self-sufficiency.
Robinson became Britain’s first Tour de France stage winner in 1958 after Italian Arigo Padovan got relegated for an irregular sprint against him.
“He pushed me into the barriers, I droped back, came back and nearly got him. I was daft enough not to elbow him, but then I could have been disqualified,” he told CW in 2010.
A year later, his second stage victory was clear cut, winning alone by twenty minutes.
He has been glued to the television these past few weeks watching the evanescence of a first British Tour champion – and runner-up.
Team Sky’s control in this year’s race impressed Robinson , but he acknowledged the change compared to his era when riders had less science and more freedom.
Bahamontes, Gaul and the big guns
“You don’t get the amount of attacks there used to be in my day… you don’t have a Bahamontes who takes off in the hills and takes ten minutes out of everybody.”
“It would have been nice to have a bit more panache a bit earlier on. It only really came in the mountains, attacking on the last climb,” he reflected.
“Nobody’s set off at the bottom of the hill and done a climb like Bahamontes and Gaul. They used to turn around, cock a snook and say ‘goodbye boys, we’re off’. Well, that’s what it felt like, anyway,”
He recalls the 1955 Tour when Antonin Rolland would be “lefttenant” to Bobet, keeping the yellow jersey safe for him.
“The big guns would canter along in the back, a bit more obscure… Rolland took the flak, Louison normally took it over in the time-trial and won.”
Robinson has stayed in touch with Raymond Poulidor, Jean Bobet and Andre Darrigade and hopes to meet up with them in Paris.
Rayner Fund prez still riding
At 81, Robinson keeps busy, as part of the Welcome to Yorkshire bid for a Tour de France start and president of the Dave Rayner Fund charity, which has its annual dinner in November.
“Cavendish and Wiggins are welcome, I’ve just finished writing Bradley’s invitation,” he added.
Sixty years on from his first European race, the Route de France, where he marvelled at the mountains and flashing windscreens reflecting sun from their summits, Robinson still rides.
He gets out twice a week with “the old guys”, doing 40 miles down the valley to Holmfirth and back – even if a long-term leg injury means he can’t quite put the power down like he used to.
There’s more from Robinson on Wiggins in the July 26 issue of Cycling Weekly.
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Wiggins