How Robinson became Britain’s first Tour de France star

Brian Robinson at 80 is the British Tour hero the sport hardly knew! Until now, with the long-awaited publication of his biography, “Brian Robinson – Pioneer”.

This full, and fascinating story about the first Brit to win a stage of the Tour de France over 50 years ago reveals a different age, tougher in many respects, but it reads as fresh as it if were yesterday.

Complementing the book is an equally riveting new film Entitled “Brian Robinson: A Gentleman Cyclist”. This is surely the best cycling film Ray Pascoe has ever produced, with wonderful archive footage of the Tour and Robbo,  never before seen by a British audience.

You can see a clip from film, catch the man in person and listen to extracts from the book read by author Graeme Fife at the Brian Robinson Tribute, showing at the Hammersmith Cyclists’ Film Show in London on Sunday, January 30.

The book of course is another tour de force from the pen of author Graham Fife, whose prose does for bike racing what HD has done for TV, throws the often pitiless suffering endured by racing cyclists into stark relief.

The author tells how Robinson, this phlegmatic, but warm and generous Yorkshire clubman in post-War Britain,  became the pioneer, the first Brit to break into and leave is mark on Continental cycling.

For as well as being the first Brit to finish Le Tour, he was also the first to win a stage – winning two. He was also the first Englishman to win a Continental professional stage race, the Dauphine-Libéré in 1961, which is one of his proudest moments.

It was difficult era to ride such a tough race as Le Tour, but as Robinson recalls, the equipment and roads have changed, but what doesn’t change is the race itself.

One particular passage in the book says it all for me. It concerns Robinson’s Tour debut in 1955, when he finished 29th overall.

In it, Fife describes how on the Pyrenean stage to Pau,  Robinson – his name repeatedly being broadcast by the radio van – displayed “enormous courage to push himself almost certainly beyond a sensible limit without cracking”.

He finished “a mere 2-45” behind the winner, Jan Brankart, who went on to second overall in Paris.  Robinson admitted it had been the hardest day in his life, a discovery of what it was going to take to make it as a pro in France.

Fife writes: “He had reached up and pushed himself up to a level of stress, on mind and body, which he had not previously attained. To go there and to come through without breaking – even though he could barely speak – gave him an insight into his own capacity and a confidence in it which nothing else could impart.”

Double Tour winner André Leducq praised Robinson. “Bravo.  You climbed splendidly and descended like the devil.”

When Robinson finished 14th overall in his next Tour – 1956 – his best ever overall result – triple Tour winner Louison Bobet paid him this tribute: “Bravo Brian. Next year I hope to ride the Tour again and you will be on my danger list.”

Fife on Robbo: ‘he’s very down to earth, very direct, which is great’
Three months to research and write, that’s how quickly Graeme Fife knocked out this book. “Brian would say to me I can’t recall too much. But he’d dredge stuff up when I found enough information to jog his memory,” says Fife.”The thing about pros is they are all down to earth, very direct, which is great.”

Robbo on Fife: ‘Graeme has done a great job’
Robinson says he couldn’t have got anywhere near recalling all the detail had it not been for Fife’s knack of digging it all out. “Graeme has the knack of asking the right questions. I do agree he has done a great job, I am glad I had the chance to meet him a few years ago long before the book was mooted. “The whole story is far better coming from someone else, it avoids ‘I did this and I did that’ etc. I don’t really know how he managed to put all together.”

Hammersmith Cycling Festival
The Hammersmith Cycling Film Festival,  Sunday, January 30. Programme starts at 1.45pm.

Includes 15-min clip of, Brian Robinson, Gentleman Cyclist, plus archive film of the Milk Race and Herne Hill racing. Details: Box Office: 020 8237 1111.

Brian Robinson. Pioneer.
By Graeme Fife. Published by Mousehold Press-Sport and Publicity. £17.95.

Related links

Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish