Tales from the peloton, October 29, 2007
"If there's ever another British team in the Tour then I'm in. I'll put them on Pinarellos and I'll sort out their clothing. I'll be glad to be involved." Who says that? A man called Phil Griffiths. Cyclingnews' Les Woodland calls how the former racing cyclist helped form Team ANC, which went on to compete in the 1987 Tour de France.
And why would you think that remarkable? Because Griffiths was involved in the last largely British team to ride the Tour de France. However, from the tales you hear you'd think he'd want anything but to go there again. Because the ANC team of 1989 was riddled by riders claiming not to have been paid, of riders going to court to see they were paid, of a sponsor turning on his heel and walking off, of a disintegrating mid-race structure.
Is this what encouraged the head of development at British Cycling to say he wanted the country to have its first Tour team since ANC? Is he right to be inspired by any British Tour team?
Well, let's get a few things straight. First, ANC wasn't a British team. It could have been but, according to Griffiths, "the sponsor liked playing manager as well as sponsor, and he took on riders who weren't suitable." So this "last British team" had two Frenchmen, a Czech, a New Zealander and an Australian – which out of nine riders is more than half.
The only truly British teams to have ridden the Tour were in 1955 and 1968, and even then one of the riders in 1968 couldn't speak English. He'd lived almost all his life in Belgium. Of the other teams, 1937 included a Canadian and 1967 an Australian. But enough of nit-picking... what was this ANC team that had such a crazy time in the Tour that a journalist chronicled it all in a book called Wide-eyed and Legless?
The initials ANC stood for a rough, straight-speaking, not highly educated man from public-assisted housing: Anthony Capper, known as Tony. He was a chain smoker and reputed to weigh 127kg – what the British call 20 stones and Americans know better as 280 pounds.
"He was a gambler," Griffiths said. "He'd spend the entire budget before the Milk Race [the Tour of Britain], gamble that one of his riders would win it and that he could go back to the board and get another £100,000. He did it – and it worked. The man was a visionary, a poker player. However, you had to ask him ten times for your money. Everyone who asked ten times got paid. But you did have to ask."
Capper came into the sport because of a sole professional called Mickey Morrison. Capper knew nothing about bike racing, had never seen a race, but obviously liked Morrison's letter because he stumped up cash. Intrigued by how it was being spent he went to watch Morrison ride on the Isle of Wight, an island of the southern English coast.
"Capper found himself watching a car rally behind the race," Griffiths recalled, referring to the team cars jostling for position. "He realised there was more to cycling than he'd thought – and he fell in love with it. Now, here you have a man who had a parcels delivery business, a one-man band, and people told him to expect five to six per cent growth. Capper forecast 70 to 80 per cent, and he was right. He told me I would one day turn my clothing business into a million-pound operation. I laughed, but he was right."
Griffiths was a name in British cycling, an experienced roadman and a champion time trialist. As such, he met Capper in 1985 when Morrison introduced him at a race at Aintree, near Liverpool. Griffiths says Capper asked to have the race interpreted. Griffiths says he analysed that of the break of five, Dudley Hayton would come fifth because he was interested only in the primes and that Phil Thomas would win the sprint. A month passed and Capper called him. He needed a man to run his team for the Sealink International, a stage race backed by a ferry company, said Griffiths. The two men had a connection because Capper's transport company was in the Potteries town of Stoke-on-Trent, where Griffiths lived.
By now Capper's involvement had grown to a team, at least by British standards. One of the team members won the race, a lively Liverpool youngster called Joey McLoughlin. It was after that, Griffiths said, that what had been an arrangement for a single race turned into a full-time contract. In 1986, the two went to see the Tour de France. There, on Alpe d'Huez, Capper predicted: "This where we're going to be next year. We're going to ride the Tour."
Capper began looking for other backers. Griffiths said he had contacts with Continental companies frustrated that existing sports agencies had been unable to find them contacts within British cycling. Again Capper gambled. Without the extra support that he needed, he sent his team to Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Nice. That would underline his seriousness and encourage backers to sign.
He was rewarded: Malcolm Elliott finished third behind Joop Zoetemelk and Steven Rooks in the Amstel Gold Race.
"Believe me, he would have signed anyone," Griffiths says. "Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, he'd have signed them. He spent ages wining and dining them, cracking jokes. We nearly had Phil Anderson for the Tour. We spent ages talking to him, negotiating. I forget what happened now, whether he didn't want to come or he got a better offer, but it shows the scale that Capper was thinking of."
The Tour came closer but the extra support stayed distant. Capper gambled again. It cost £37,000 to enter the Tour, for which he'd negotiated a wild card entry. That £37,000 was all there was in the budget. The team was broke. However, that never deterred a gambler and Capper's hope was that his riders would distinguish themselves and that he could ask his board for more.
The team didn't do well. The only rider to have ridden the Tour before was Graham Jones. The start was in Berlin and ANC looked as though it had come from the east side of the Wall, not the west. Instead of a heap of good equipment to go with their Peugeots, they had just a heap: no time-trial bikes and just four sets of disc wheels among nine riders for the prologue. Hardly anyone made it to Paris and the only success was Elliott's third place on the stage to Bordeaux.
"We'd have done better with the right finance," Griffiths noted. It never came. Adrian Timmis noted that he spent four weeks riding round France without seeing a franc. Which brings scoffing but no denial from Griffiths.
"Timmis... A classy rider but maybe he was too timid. With Capper you had to ask for your money ten times. If you asked ten times, you got it. Timmis didn't ask, or not strongly enough. He was too weak. In the end, everybody who asked got paid. I got paid, the others got paid. Elliott had to go court, yes. However, he got his money. Tony James went to court and the case went on so long that by the time it was settled there was no one left at ANC who knew there'd even been a cycling team, so in the absence of anything to the contrary, they paid out. Every case was different.
"Capper was a poker player. He'd look you straight in the eye without flinching. You got what you asked for but you never got more. He had one good call after another and it made him."
In the end, though, he grew sick of the sport. He was revolted, Griffiths reckoned, that nobody had seen the opportunity. On the morning of July 23, he squeezed himself into his car at La Plagne, in the Alps, and left his team to cope without him.
"He just turned his back and went," Griffiths noted. "He just walked out of cycling."
That year he sold his share in ANC for £1 million. To lessen tax, he left the country. He disappeared. Nobody is sure what happened after that except that it seems he lost a packet in a harbour side development in Holland.
"Unbelievably," Griffiths said with deliberate irony, "Tony never quite committed his share of investments." It seems that somebody insisted that he did. Capper, somewhat the poorer, returned to the transport business in Bristol.
"He went back into the business he knew but it wasn't a success. Now he's disappeared. I can say of the man that he taught me to employ people for their strengths. He taught me a lot about business. He had vision, drive, energy. And I look back on the team with pride. It was the beginning of Malcolm Elliott, and I helped get him his contract with Fagor. Joey McLoughlin and Adrian Timmis went to the French Z team. The team was the start for Steven Swart. The French riders all got other teams.
"It hurts me when ANC is associated with other failures, like McCartney. There was nothing of McCartney about ANC. ANC was a success and a lot of good things have come of it. I know about Dave Brailsford's plans for Britain, and if they come to anything then we'll be delighted to be involved, to equip the team. But when I see the placings that riders are getting now, they'll have to go some to get to where we were with professionals in the 1980s. And British Cycling is doing such a good job looking after them that I wonder how well the riders will be able to look after themselves afterwards. We'll have to wait and see."