Ned Boulting: Here’s To You Mr Robinson

Ned Boulting gets a shout out from a British cycling legend – Brian Robinson, the first British winner of a stage of the Tour de France

ned

I was filming recently on Holme Moss, riding up the iconic Yorkshire climb with the Ravensthorpe Cycling Club. I won’t forget that day in a hurry.

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For a start, I think I’d been a little blasé about the climb. Maybe watching a trio of rather fruitless Francophone attacks during the 2014 Tour de France had rather emasculated the climb, and made it look, frankly, piffling.

So it was that, in my infernal arrogance, I set off with a gaggle of a dozen or so riders from Holmfirth, and straight into a blast of icy headwind. I took this badly, and started to complain. To my shame, the Yorkshiremen and women around me seemed quite unperturbed by this unwelcome moving wall of cold air. With hindsight, an absence of headwind might have spooked them more. I dug in for the long haul.

Through the veil of my ‘mithering’ – I think that’s what they call it up there – I could just make out the top of the climb. From a little bridge, and a left-hand turn, it rears up ahead, long, exposed, and really rather steep. I tried to settle into a rhythm, and hold onto the coat tails of the three other riders in my group, only to experience the nausea of losing contact with the back wheel, and slipping away on the climb, until I had no one and nothing for company other than my increasingly worrying breathing. Then it started to snow. Sideways.

By the time I reached the top, a few days later, I could barely see. It was only a quirk of good fortune, divine intervention or a trick of the light that allowed me to make out the figure standing by the side of the road, hooded against the cold and grinning widely. “Well done, Ned.”

It was only Brian bloody Robinson. He is known by most as ‘the first British stage winner on the Tour de France’, which is indeed true. He won stage seven of the 1958 Tour to Brest. He won again in 1959; a virtuoso solo ride. But there was a good deal more to him than that.

He could climb brilliantly. His time trial was excellent, though not always to be measured against the very best. But then, the “very best” were some of the most exceptional riders the sport has ever known. He could win from a small group, often with a long-range attack. In style, he was like a turbocharged Pete Kennaugh, though his achievements were far greater.

Later that afternoon, over tea and biscuits, in the warmth of his house in the village of Mirfield, where he has always lived, save for the years he spent racing abroad, Brian plunged me into the wonderland of his rich past. I’d known about it for a long time, and spoken to him often, but suddenly it felt very close and very real. Perhaps my heroics on Holme Moss were playing with my head, or perhaps it was the sense of scale of his achievements laid bare.

A box of photographs, newspaper cuttings, letters and keepsakes had been emptied at random onto the table in front of us.

Faces, almost exclusively in black and white until we got to pictures of his children and grandchildren, floated at random to the fore. There was Brian with Federico Bahamontes. Brian and Tom Simpson, Charly Gaul, Jacques Anquetil. There he was winning, with a 19-minute advantage, another stage of the Tour de France, finishing third in Milan-San Remo. And still more – pulling on the leader’s jersey from the Tour de l’Ouest (the race that announced him to the world) and on the Dauphiné in 1961, a lead he held to the end.

He lived and raced in an era of legends. He knew them all personally, often as friends, from Jean Bobet to Roger Riviere. He raced with them and against them. When he came home and retired, he started work the very next day as a builder. Next to no one cared about his hidden career. For decades, until very recently, his brilliance lived in the shadows, largely forgotten.

At 86, he still rides most weeks, spinning those legs on an electric bike. Sharp as a tack, keen and humble and still, even now, massively underestimated. To be cheered up Holme Moss by one of the greats, well, I’ll lock that memory away for a long time.

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