When the route of the 2014 Tour de France is finally unveiled in full detail this morning, for one person watching from the audience in Paris’ Palais des Congres it will be a very special moment indeed: Yorkshire’s Brian Robinson, Britain’s first ever Tour de France stage winner back in 1958.
To describe Robinson as a pioneer is an understatement of major proportions. He was a member of the first British team to ride the Tour in 1955 and one of the country’s first two finishers, taking 29th, with GB teammate Tony Hoar 69th.
Just two riders from Great Britain had taken part in the race before, in 1937, and after the GB team rode in 1955, for many years you could still count the number of GB Tour de France participants on the fingers of one hand - and sometimes you only needed one finger. But from 1955 to 1961, Robinson was always amongst those Tour racers for Great Britain, winning two stages, one in 1958, the other in 1959.
Living in Mirfield, Yorkshire, Robinson, now in his eighties, tells Cyclingnews just hours before the presentation takes place, that to be able to see two stages of the Tour in his native county is “wonderful, all the enthusiasm there is for this there. It’s sometimes difficult at my age to get enthusiastic about things but this is different - it’s really great.”
As for the Tour coming to Yorkshire after all these years, Robinson says that as a young racer in France “it would have been the last thing you could have imagined back then. You were too busy surviving!”
Racing was a very different kettle of fish back in his day, with conditions much harsher - in terms of the terrain, equipment, build-up, you name it - and Robinson describes his first Tour as “a battle for survival. I just focussed on getting through ok.” Just as one example, sports director at the GB team, Syd Cozens, had virtually no road background having only directed track riders, and most of the British riders’ advice on how to tackle their maiden Tour came from a friendly British journalist. Only Hoar and Robinson got through to Paris, though.
“None of us knew anything, to be honest,” Robinson says, “It was a very steep learning curve, and obviously I learned really quickly. It’s a matter of how to eat, how to ride, how to follow the others and then using that experience.”
Fast forward 59 years and the Tour in Yorkshire and the Leeds to Harrogate via the Dales on the Saturday stage, Robinson predicts will end in a bunch sprint, with Sunday’s hillier incursion into the Peak District from York to Sheffield much less likely to do so - and he knows both areas very well from club runs up there.
“I consider Holm Moss [tackled on stage two] ’my’ climb’” he says. “And we’d go into Derbyshire at least once a month on club runs.“
“That last climb [close to the finish] before Sheffield is really hard, it’s not a Cav day, Harrogate is where there’s ten kilometres of reasonably flat roads coming in, he should be all right” he recalls.
Either way, Robinson is sure to be enjoying the Tour’s Yorkshire start to the full - and come next July he won’t be alone in that.