Tales from the peloton, December 8, 2007
Several decades ago, a handful of race organisers took their roles a little too seriously. Cycling historian Les Woodland looks back at some amusing blazer-clad characters from the British racing scene.
I don't know what they call them round your way but to me they're Men in Blazers. It's a British expression but for all I know it's familiar round the world. Certainly the phenomenon is, because Men in Blazers are quite ordinary people who pull on a badged jacket… and become brainless tyrants obsessed with ever more minute details. At least so far as the riders are concerned.
The thought occurs because there was a wonderful outburst of blazerdom 40 years ago last summer. More of that in a moment but first, a tour de l'horizon.
One of the most entertaining blazer men was a rotund, grey-haired chap from the midlands of England, Benny Foster. You couldn't hope to find a bigger-hearted man but his willingness to push his way into levels beyond his capacity was legendary. In real life, this was a man who sold heating oil from door to door but in cycling he rose first to international team manager and then to organiser of the world championships in 1970.
Benny got not only a blazer out of that but a sign written car, in an era when sign written cars were something seen in cycling only among professional teams. Benny drove this car everywhere, throughout 1970 and long afterwards. And when it wore out or he had to hand it back, he paid for one of his own and, long after the event, had it labeled "World championship organiser 1970".
He could talk, too. I worked at the magazine Cycling then, in London, with an equally fresh-faced Phil Liggett, later race director of the Milk Race - which I'll come to in a moment - and a UCI commissaire and television commentator. It was always a delight when Liggett found Benny Foster at the end of the phone because only he had the nerve and fun to do what you usually see only in TV comedies, which was to put the phone into a desk drawer and close it. Taking the phone out again a few minutes later, Benny would still be talking without having noticed a thing.
There have been other examples, too. I forget now just when and where it happened - Holland, I think - but I know that riders in a winter six-day got so tired with the bumptious officiating of a blazer man there that two or more set off riding in the wrong direction. It cost them fines, of course, but the official's frustrated blustering as they raced clockwise round the track towards the laughing and co-operative field coming the other way was worth the money. The whole field probably shared the cost between them.
One year, back in Britain, the blazer community somehow got the impression that all the loudspeaker announcements to riders at track championships had to be in French. No matter that the races were in Britain, a country not known for its command of foreign tongues, nor that the officials hardly sounded like authentic Frenchmen. That was the way that someone had read the UCI rule book and that was the way it was going to be. Good, honest lads who had never been further abroad than a Chinese takeaway found themselves addressed with a mangled "Messieurs, les coureurs..." Next year, after a lot of ridicule, sanity returned.
Anyway, I mentioned Benny Foster and his world championships and I mentioned the Milk Race, which at the time was the biggest amateur stage race in the world after the Tour de l'Avenir and the Peace Race. The common link is an unassuming rider called Les West, whose talent increased in direct proportion to his protests that he wasn't interested and who always looked as though he was riding a bike he'd just borrowed from someone else.
As a professional, or in fact as just a part-time professional since he never got a proper living wage for it, he came fourth in those 1970 world championships at Leicester. That after saying he wasn't bothered and being far behind the winning break at one stage. Nobody outside Britain recalls that now, of course, but in Britain it was huge news and, abroad, even Jacques Anquetil took interest and offered West a place in his team.
West was a home-loving man, never a risk-taker, who drove painfully carefully in a mini-van and would do all he could to get home to his wife Pat - 'my lady' - rather than stay in a hotel even at someone else's expense. A man like that wasn't likely to give up working, however many big races and international trips he had as an amateur. That was the essence of amateurism in those more innocent days, flouted though it was by many, yet it brought him up against a Man in a Blazer you'd think would be nothing but sympathetic.
The rule for the 1967 Milk Race was that riders were to get to the start, on the south coast at Brighton, on the Friday night before the start. West, to be fair, should have warned someone that he wouldn't be able to make it. But this was a man with a lot more innocence than arrogance and he thought it more normal that he'd go to work as usual on Friday than that the race could simply sit it out for him, the greatest hope that Britain had for a victory.
He remembered: "All the time as an amateur I used to have a full-time job and go training three times a week at night. Which is hard to believe these days, but it's the gospel truth. I think we should have been there on the Friday and I didn't get picked up until Saturday dinner time. And, of course, we were a day late when we got to Brighton. We got lost going through London so we just rolled up as innocent as anything and they said we couldn't ride."
The Blazer Man was the organiser, Maurice Cumberworth. He was a man of all roles, sometimes a team manager, sometimes a national committee member and therefore a proponent of amateurism, always in the mêlée. Not particularly a difficult man but, shall we say, aware that he was the boss.
"Well," said West, "that was the night before, so I don't know what all the fuss was about. We had a bit of an argument, but the thing was you couldn't really argue too much. Bob Thom [the manager] told us to shut up and get out of the way, and they had a meeting.
"But they were going to say, right, half the team weren't going to ride, because Brian Rourke had been in the car with me. I mean, the Great Britain team were going to not ride. Can you imagine that on the Continent? I was one of the top riders in the race and they were going to stop me riding. I mean, on the Continent they'd come and fetch me, wouldn't they? And when I got there, they'd say 'Well, thank god you've turned up; you had us worried.' But that's the difference. I laugh about it now."
Maurice Cumberworth has long since vanished. I don't even know if, like Benny Foster, he has since died. Nor, if he's still alive, if I can also laugh about it now. West laughs, though. And for good reason. After being 18 minutes down at mid-distance, he won by more than 17 minutes. Despite "not being bothered".
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