Obituary: Brian Robinson, 1930 - 2022, 'he was the real pioneer'

Cycling Weekly reflects on the life of a man whose actions opened a door, allowing British cycling to flourish

Brian Robinson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The word legend is parlayed around far too much in sport, but for Brian Robinson, who died in October aged 91, it was a fitting sobriquet. The news of his death was announced a fortnight ago.

The Yorkshireman, born in Mirfield in 1930, was one of the first British riders to make the move over to the continent and compete as a professional cyclist and in doing so became a pioneer of the sport. 

After serving his National Service, he pressed on with his attempt to break into the world of elite cycling in the early 1950s with British teams that travelled abroad to race.

He was the first British rider to finish the Tour de France, in 1955, when he finished 29th, and went on to forge a successful career on the continent.

Robinson finished eighth at the 1956 Vuelta a España, and came third in Milan-San Remo the following year. But it was in 1958 that he really made history, becoming the first rider from the UK to win a stage of the Tour de France; the following year he won another.

His victory on stage seven of the ‘58 Tour, from Saint-Brieuc to Brest, came about after he was pushed into the barriers in a two-up sprint by Arigo Padovan; he was awarded the victory with the Italian relegated.

Brian Robinson

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The next year, he won stage 20 following a long solo breakaway, beating the peloton by some 20 minutes on the 202km day from Annecy to Chalon sur Saône. Padovan was again second.

He went on to win a stage and the overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in 1961, the first victory by a British rider, and a feat that would not be matched until Robert Millar won it in 1990.

It was not only the manner of these achievements that made them special, but that he was the first to do them, at a time when going to France to be a professional cyclist was practically unheard of.

He retired from professional cycling aged 33 in 1963, and inherited his father’s joinery business, having paved the way for Brits like Tom Simpson, and the plethora of riders from the UK who have achieved great things in the sport since then.

Later, Robinson was a president of the Rayner Foundation that supports young British riders racing abroad, was patron of the charity StreetBikes and was a major figure in bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire in 2014 and the 2019 World Championships.

In 2018, he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Cycling Weekly awards, for his efforts on and off the bike.

The Rayner Foundation said that the "cycling world has lost a giant and a true friend" in a statement last week.

"The Committee of the Rayner Foundation are very sad to learn of the passing of their dear friend Brian Robinson," the statement reads. "His lifetime achievements are legendary, and we have been honoured by the influential role which he adopted in our formative years. He became President of the Foundation in 2008 a position he held until his passing.

"The work of the Foundation has always been close to his heart and we have been privileged to share his wisdom and benefit from his leadership. He will be sorely missed, and we would like to pass on our condolences to his family, our thoughts are with them."

Maverick

Speaking to those who followed in Robinson’s footsteps, one gets a sense of the impact that he had for British riders who followed in his wake. No other rider from these shores had broken into the continental racing scene, but with some solid results under his belt as part of British teams racing abroad, Robinson packed his bags and headed for France. 

Robinson earning a contract with St Raphaël in 1956 can be attributed to starting the chain of events that led, sometimes quickly, sometimes more slowly, to British cyclists contending for and winning some of the biggest pro road races in the world, including the Tour de France. 

Robinson’s trailblazing path was followed by riders like Barry Hoban and Simpson, then later Millar and Sean Yates. Later still Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, and modern day riders like Tom Pidcock.

He did all this at a time when even the travel seemed out of this world. As Hoban, who followed Robinson’s lead, and went on to win eight Tour stages, told Cycling Weekly last week: “When I went in 1962 I suppose it was still a wrench. It was still something that the young British riders don't have to do today. You don't have to leave home, pack your bags, and disappear to a foreign country not knowing the language at all. Which is what we did. 

“But I think I had it a lot easier than Brian. Brian was the real pioneer. He went over there with next to no money, if no money, just racing and trying to win a few primes to get the next meal type of thing.

“The continent was a million miles away, for the difference it made. There were no package holidays or anything like that. You didn't go anywhere. People in the north of England on holiday, went either to the west coast or the East Coast. Going down to London was like going to a foreign country. So Brian, really he was the inspiration.”

Brian Robinson

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Hoban was nine years Robinson’s junior, so the fellow Yorkshireman was one of his idols when he was getting into the sport.

“As a young teenager, 15, 16, Brian was like a hero to me,” he explains. “It was a Daily Express Tour of Britain. He was coming through Stanley, where I lived. I waited about two hours for them to come by. I just remember, Brian was the main British rider there. He was an inspiration really. When I went to the continent, Brian was right at the end of his career. I think I rode one professional race with him. I think it was Brian's last race in 1962.“

Keith Lambert, a former professional and friend, says: “As a rider, he was obviously as hard as nails. He had to be a bit of a maverick, obviously, as they all were. We have now got to be thankful that they did that.”

Wonderful guy

One thing that is clear from speaking to those who knew him is that Robinson was well-liked by everyone, not just those close to him. And despite his accomplishments he remained grounded.

“You get a type of person, I know one or two, not many, who never have a bad word to say against anyone,” Hoban says. “I wouldn't be one. But Brian never had a bad word to say against anyone... He was really, really likeable.”

“I looked up to him, obviously, from his exploits as a rider, but because he was pretty local to me, when I was a pro, that's when I first befriended him.” Lambert says. “And then with what happened with Dave [Rayner], he was quick to get involved with that as well. He's just such a wonderful bloke, it has been a pleasure to know him all these years.

“He was never on the committee of the Fund. Having said that, he came to all the meetings… He stood back from that and was just happy being president. But he always had plenty to say and all the right things to say as well. So he's been actively involved from the start virtually.

“The welfare of the sport, particularly young riders, was what he cared about. It was hard for him when he first went [abroad]. He did well out of it, obviously, but it must have been really hard for him in those days. He was happy with what [the Rayner Foundation] were doing and wanted to be part of it, to try and pave the way for young lads to do what he had done. 

“He was very quiet, but it’s wrong to say he was just in the background. He said what he thought, and he was quite forthright at times, But he always said it in such a manner. He was well mannered, and he came across as such a gentleman. He would offer advice, but he didn't bang the table with it.”

Brian Robinson

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Still riding his e-bike late into life, Robinson always kept active. Jake Womersley, his grandson and another former pro, explains: “He could never just sit down and relax. He always wanted to be in his shed or garage building something. He always maintained his own house. Even up until a couple years ago, you'd drive past and he’d be up a set of ladders, fixing windows or something like that.

“He struggled the past two years because he went downhill. He had been sat in a chair for the past two years basically not being able to do the stuff he loves. But up until just before Covid, he was still getting out on his e-bike on a Wednesday.”

Despite being a pro from another era, another world basically, Womersley says that he used to offer training advice: “One of the things that sticks in my head is that he was saying that if you don't ride your bike over 21 mile per hour, it doesn't count as training.” An old-school racer to the last.

Robinson is survived by his second wife, Audrey, and her family, and also his children Michelle, Louise and Martin, and his grandchildren Jake and Becky.

Brian Robinson’s funeral will be held at Huddersfield Crematorium (HD2 2JF) on 23 November at 12.30pm. The service is open to the public, although seating is limited. Speakers will be set up outside. Any donations to The Rayner Foundation (www.theraynerfoundation.org)

This obituary originally appeared in the 3 November issue of Cycling Weekly.

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