British cyclist Brian Robinson on a mountain pass during the ninth stage of the Tour de France, between Briançon and Monaco, 15th July 1955.

The Brian Robinson story: Paving the way, from Yorkshire to the Tour de France

Brian Robinson died last week aged 91, leaving behind a legacy that built the foundation for decades of British cycling success.

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This week the British cycling community said goodbye to a pioneer in Brian Robinson, a man whose passion for cycling never dried up, known for his self-deprecating humour and tireless will to share his stories with whoever would listen – suffering throughout his Tour de France debut; getting dysentery during the 1956 Vuelta a España; sharing a car with Federico Bahamontes, Jacques Anquetil and Andre Darrigade, etc. 

Robinson was the first of many in a nation which has arguably become one of our sport’s superpowers.

Louison Bobet leads fellow Frenchman Jacques Anquetil, Brian Robinson and Belgium’s Jan Adriaenssens on the Col d’Aubisque on stage 13 of the 1958 Tour de France (won by Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul).

British cycling fans have been spoiled since the mid to late 2000s with a growing population of superstar bike riders across all disciplines. While the Tour de France-winning years of the 2010s might be considered a zenith of sorts, the sport continues to be saturated with British talent, with the likes of Tom Pidcock, Fred Wright and families Backstedt and Hayter promising to give us something to cheer about for years to come.

It wasn’t always this way. Until relatively recently, British cycling lore had fewer characters, and of those, Tom Simpson is often the first port of call in the search for a ‘father figure’ for our island’s cycling heritage.

Simpson’s untimely death during the 1967 Tour created a vacuum in which all the years he would neither live nor race were compressed along with all the promise and legacy that might have followed but never had the chance. His marginally greater proximity to our own era and greater, more publicly recognised successes also work in his favour, but Brian Robinson had already set the stage, laying down a proven route for others to follow.

Racing in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Yorkshireman was the first British rider to finish the Tour de France (one of two on the same team) and then to win a stage, twice. His storied career also includes third at Milan-Sanremo, even after leading out his friend Miguel Poblet on the Spaniard’s birthday, fourth at La Flèche Wallonne and overall Dauphiné victory in 1961.

Robinson waits while Wim van Est and Martin Van Geneugden refill their water bottles during stage 2 of the 1957 Tour.

Yorkshire through and through

Born and bred in Yorkshire, Robinson’s formative years coincided with the Second World War, during which both his parents worked in a factory making parts for Halifax bombers. At around the time the family moved to Mirfield – where he made his home for life – a 13-year-old Robinson started riding with Huddersfield Road Club a year before he was old enough to join, and started racing at 18 while working for the family’s building business.

He continued to race in the UK until he had the opportunity to compete in the 1952 Route de France, an amateur version of the Tour, during his National Service with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Later that same year, he came 27th in the Helsinki Olympic Games, racing against an 18-year-old Jacques Anquetil who was at the beginning of his own storied career.

Robinson continued to make a name for himself as an independent (or semi-professional) for team Ellis Briggs at races like the Tour of Britain, finishing high up in the general classification and proving his ability on varied terrains. Little by little, he and a number of his compatriots were gaining the attention of sponsors and turning heads in Europe, paving the way to the biggest race on the international calendar.

Road to the Tour de France

Signing with Hercules in 1954 was a big step for Robinson, and for a number of his fellow Brits. Rather like Dave Brailsford’s plans with Team Sky back in 2010, Hercules wanted to send the first British team to the Tour de France – this was back when the Tour was contested by national squads. By 1955, they had brought together enough names to field a team made up of their own riders and those under different sponsors.

The first British team to participate in the Tour de France at the 1955 edition. Only Brian Robinson (sitting in the middle on the curb) and Tony Hoar (the dashing chap next to him in sunglasses) would finish, Hoar taking the ‘lanterne rouge’. The man giving the pep talk is team manager Syd Cozens.

One of the stories Robinson liked to tell was of how the team’s invitation came about, recounting that it was “the result of a drunken night somewhere, maybe the World Championships” (all quotes from Alasdair Fotheringham’s touching obituary).

Drunken decision or not, the invitation was sealed, and the British team had work to do. Robinson and his teammates had a busy schedule of races in France, the Netherlands and Belgium ahead of their Tour debut and the Yorkshireman for one showed real promise. However, the Tour was a different challenge altogether.

“We were riding on the britches of our backsides,” Robinson said in his latter years. “We just read all we could, and learnt what we could before we went. There was nobody with any experience of racing at that level in our country.”

Ten Britons started the 1955 Tour and only two finished.

“This was one world, and that was another,” Robinson once said, comparing the UK racing scene with that of Europe. “It wasn’t just like a step up from what we knew in Britain, though: they were so fast, it was more like going up an entire storey of flats.”

Heat exhaustion, punctures and a distinct lack of experience were dangerous rivals, let alone 22 stages of anywhere between 102 and 275 kilometres (14 stages exceeding 200 km).

“Each night, we’d be looking at each other round the dinner table, wondering who would abandon next. We were like the 10 green men, hanging on the wall.”

Half a century after this picture was taken on the Col du Galibier during stage 9 of the 1955 Tour, Robinson would describe the novel experience of riding through crowds as ‘very hard’: “People running alongside you and yelling and screaming in the mountains stages…’Boom-boom-boom’ in your head. You don’t get that in the Yorkshire Dales.”

The 1955 Tour was a wearing experience, but Robinson had got the bug and he kept coming back, spending nine months of the year in mainland Europe and becoming a familiar face at several editions of La Grande Boucle. It was only a matter of time before he chalked up a significant result, it was only right.

That first pro win came in 1957 when he beat three-time Tour champion Louison Bobet to victory at the GP de la Ville de Nice by almost a minute. It was the beginning of his best years among some of the most famous riders of the era, and in 1958, a year after a wrist injury spoiled any hope of a meaningful performance, Robinson scored his first stage win.

That said, it wasn’t one he could properly celebrate, earning the top step after Arigo Padovan was relegated for his dodgy sprint. However, he was able to write himself a better story just a year later with a long-range solo breakaway on stage 20, beating the peloton to Chalon-sur-Saône after dropping Frenchman Jean Dotto with a hair-raising descent (check out some wonderful footage here).

It was a huge result. A pioneering result. But Robinson’s assessment was something else.

“I wasn’t that patriotic,” he once told reporter and author Alasdair Fotheringham, “it just meant my money was a bit better the following year.”

Robinson ultimately called time on his career just a couple of seasons later, shortly after winning the 1961 Critérium du Dauphiné. He had company by then, British blood infiltrating the sport with ever greater success. Tom Simpson, for instance, was making a name for himself in Classics and stage races, and Barry Hoban was about to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Yorkshireman in heading to France.

Their predecessor meanwhile returned home to Mirfield, but he was never far from the cycling conversation.

Yorkshire cyclist Dean Downing, Councillor Keith Wakefield, Welcome to Yorkshire chief Gary Verity and former cyclist Brian Robinson gather with local school children on the start line on the Headrow in Leeds marking one year to go until the start of the Tour de France 2014.

He wasn’t one for huge pomp and circumstance, and indeed, there wasn’t much demand for it in the decades that followed his retirement, but Robinson continued to ride his bike and to spread the good cycling word from his home in Yorkshire for the rest of his life.

He was an ambassador for the 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire (and Cambridge/London) and for the Tour de Yorkshire stage race that built on the enthusiasm that followed. He was also president of the Rayner Foundation from 2008 until his death, a charity whose mission is: ‘to build a better future for the sport of cycling in the UK by inspiring, empowering and supporting the next generation of cyclists,’ and whose beneficiaries include Adam Yates, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Jake Stewart and Fred Wright among many others.

Brian Robinson was the beginning of British cycling as we know it. His legacy is the future.

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