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