Still ped­alling

Brian Robin­son, re­cip­i­ent of our first Life­time Achieve­ment award, talks through the highs and lows of an ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer

Cycling Weekly - - CW AWARDS -

“Iwasn’t a great cham­pion but I was a bloody good bike rider,” says Bri­tain’s first ever Tour de France fin­isher Brian Robin­son when we ask him to sum­marise his ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer. It’s the only time in our halfhour con­ver­sa­tion that the ami­able and hum­ble York­shire­man re­ally bigs up his own rep­u­ta­tion.

At the age of 88, Robin­son cuts the fig­ure of some­one at ease with him­self and not in the least bit starry-eyed about his achieve­ments in the sport, which are nu­mer­ous. Most no­tably, he was the the first Brit to fin­ish the Tour in 1955, fin­ish­ing a re­spectable 26th. Af­ter a re­turn to the UK over the win­ter, he went back to Europe the next year and bagged a top-10 po­si­tion at the Vuelta a Es­paña. The year af­ter that he stood on the podium at Mi­lan-san Remo. He then went on to win a stage of the Tour in 1958 and then an­other the fol­low­ing year.

Per­haps even more im­pres­sively he won the Critérium du Dauphiné in 1961, in a some­what un­likely man­ner. “We had the jer­sey and I was on po­lice duty pro­tect­ing it. I sat on the back of these guys that had gone off the front un­til about half­way through un­til the di­rec­tor came through and said you can work, we’re gain­ing time. And we got a lot of time, about nine min­utes; they never saw me again.”

But for Robin­son it’s a fairly anony­mous TT re­sult that stands out as his best achieve­ment in the sad­dle. “Strangely enough it was a time trial; I got within three min­utes of Jac­ques An­quetil, which was quite good be­cause some other top riders couldn’t get within 10 min­utes — he was build­ing his rep­u­ta­tion then, he was a time tri­al­list. It’s a feather in my cap.”

All this would be enough to make him a wor­thy first re­cip­i­ent of Cy­cling Weekly’s Life­time Achieve­ment award, spon­sored by Bikezaar, but it’s his work for the sport fol­low­ing his ca­reer that re­ally makes Robin­son spe­cial.

He has been the pres­i­dent of the Dave Rayner Fund (which funds young Brits rac­ing abroad) for over a decade, is a pa­tron of Street­bikes, a charity that takes dis­used bikes, fixes them and gives them to kids to get them rid­ing, and had a ma­jor role pro­mot­ing the Tour de France Grand Dé­part in his back­yard of York­shire in 2014 — “I’d been buried for 20 years. They dug me up for the Tour com­ing to York­shire,” he quips. He will doubt­less reprise that role for the York­shire World Cham­pi­onships in 2019.

“He rolls his sleeves up,” says Keith Lam­bert, a fel­low mem­ber of the Rayner Fund com­mit­tee. “When he was vice pres­i­dent it wasn’t a ne­ces­sity to come to all the meet­ings that we had but he came to all those and voiced his opin­ions. He al­ways

gets up and goes on the Rayner Ride, the sportive we do. He was al­ways up there at 5.30am help­ing out and do­ing what­ever job — he’s been stick­ing up the signs be­fore now.”

Robin­son says: “I can ap­pre­ci­ate what it does for them [young riders], whether they ap­pre­ci­ate it I don’t know, but they can just do the job of bike rid­ing. In my day you worked all win­ter to fund the sum­mer and then to come back again.” Is he able to pass on any sage words of wis­dom? “All I can say is get on your bloody bike and ride it,” he says, laugh­ing. “In my day there was no coach­ing advice, just the odd rider say­ing you shouldn’t eat chips af­ter Mon­day [usu­ally a rest day], so I didn’t have a lot of chips.”

Eat­ing chips in France was a long way from Robin­son’s be­gin­nings. His par­ents worked mak­ing bomber parts in the fac­to­ries near Hud­der­s­field where he grew up. Robin­son, one of three children, didn’t get into rid­ing un­til his older brother got a job, and a bike to get to work on. It wasn’t long be­fore 13-year-old Robin­son was out on the club run with the Hud­der­s­field Road Club. He got his first ex­po­sure to the rac­ing big leagues watch­ing the 1948 Olympic road race in Wind­sor, aged 17. Four years later he would be on the start-line him­self in Fin­land — he fin­ished 27th.

When he re­tired from cy­cling — af­ter a pro­fes­sional ca­reer that paved the way for the likes of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Bradley Wig­gins, Mark Cavendish and the other Bri­tish stars of the mod­ern era — he swiftly re-en­tered reg­u­lar life. “I was rac­ing at the week­end and then on Mon­day I was back work­ing in the car­pen­ter’s work­shop,” he says, ges­tur­ing around his home con­ser­va­tory that we’re sat in and that once housed said work­shop.

He trained as a car­pen­ter and when his fa­ther died, the busi­ness moved into build­ing, a time dur­ing which he re­mained fairly anony­mous. We won­der if there were many peo­ple who knew him for years be­fore they found out about his rid­ing ex­ploits. “There’s one of the them through there,” he says, ges­tur­ing to his kitchen where his wife Au­drey is mak­ing sausage rolls, which he’ll later tell us to “keep our mitts off” when we re­mark on how good they smell. “She got to know when we got mar­ried but ini­tially she didn’t,” he adds. What was her re­ac­tion? “Not much, she’s not that into bikes, she’s not in­ter­ested re­ally. Her hobby is paint­ing.”

Robin­son seems al­most amused by the re­cent and con­tin­u­ing in­ter­est in his cy­cling ca­reer and while he clearly takes pride in what he’s done, it cer­tainly hasn’t gone to his head. We can’t help but think that the likes of Au­drey are a key com­po­nent in that.

“In my day you worked all win­ter to fund the sum­mer and then did it again”

Win­ning stage seven of the 1958 Tour

Robin­son be­came the first Bri­tish rider to fin­ish the Tour de France in 1955

Rob­son (right) strides pur­pose­fully in 1959

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