Tour de France: British records

Just three years after David Brailsford of Team Sky stated his team’s intention to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years (a statement that was received with a mixture of mirth and scorn at the time), Bradley Wiggins has fulfilled that dream. In fact, not only has he become the first British rider to win the Tour de France, but this year’s runner-up, Chris Froome, is also British and another potential future Grand Tour winner for Sky.

Wiggins, who placed a surprising fourth in the 2009 Tour, started this year’s Tour with impeccable credentials, winning Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. No one, not even the insatiable Eddy Merckx, has won all those races and the Tour de France in the same year. And the season’s not yet over, Wiggins is hoping to add to his already impressive Olympic track medal tally – 3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze  – with a gold for the individual time-trial at London 2012.

After crashing out early in last year’s edition, Wiggins started this year’s Tour as odds-on favourite – the first genuine British contender for overall victory since Tom Simpson in the 1960s. He was determined to seize the chance to cement his place in cycling’s hall of fame, as he explained:

A young Bradley Wiggins (image courtesy of John Taylor)

A young Bradley Wiggins (image courtesy of John Taylor)

Since I was 12, I always thought about winning the Tour, but never maybe thought that it would be a reality. The team’s preparation has been perfectly managed and our form this season gives us a great chance of being successful. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time and I’ll do everything I can to win the Tour de France.

Simpson’s Legacy

When Wiggins took the leader’s jersey on stage seven he joined a short, but illustrious list of British cyclists who have worn the yellow jersey: Tom Simpson, Sean Yates, Chris Boardman and David Millar. But their tenure in yellow was fleeting and none came close to triumphing in Paris. Indeed, Wiggins started rewriting the history books by stage 14, when he surpassed Boardman’s previous British record of six days in yellow. An avid fan of cycling history, it’s possible Wiggins has drawn inspiration from Simpson, one of his childhood idols and the first British rider to claim the race leader’s jersey in 1962. Simpson’s achievements paved the way for English-speaking competitors in a sport previously dominated by Europeans.

"Major" Tom Simpson (image courtesy of cycling archives)

“Major” Tom Simpson (image courtesy of cycling archives)

Simpson’s name will forever be associated with the tragic events that unfolded five years later in the fierce Provencal heat on Mont Ventoux, where he collapsed and died. However, it was Simpson’s bold and impulsive riding style – panache as the French would say – as well as his charm and charisma off the bike that catapulted “Major Tom” to fame both in Continental Europe and at home.

Narrowly missing out on the yellow jersey on his Tour debut in 1960, Simpson cemented his reputation with the fans and the press as a potential Tour winner. Having abandoned injured in 1961, he arrived for the start of the 1962 Tour in mint condition, physically and mentally, newly signed to the experienced French Gitane Leroux team. On 5 July, he became the first British cyclist ever to wear the maillot jaune, after the first high mountain stage of the Tour. Although he wasn’t a dynamic climber, he managed to stay with the leading group, which was enough for him to ride into the history books. That evening, former rider-turned-journalist Jean Bobet declared:

This is an historic day for cycling, even more so for English cycling!

Although he lost the jersey the following day, it instilled in him a belief that he might one day stand on the podium in Paris. But Simpson’s fundamental problem was his impulsive, almost reckless instinct to attack and push himself to his limits. However, the sport’s most demanding event is won by a cyclist who can sustain a controlled pace, and who knows when to attack his nearest rivals and, perhaps more importantly, when not to attack. [That sounds familiar – Ed]

In his 1966 autobiography, Simpson said something that must surely resonate with Wiggins:

I would like to win the Tour de France, but I cannot afford to have any bad luck, such as in the past attempts. If I fail it will not have been for the want of trying. As I look back now, all the sacrifice, aches and disappointments seem worth it, although I sometimes wonder if I could go through it again. Disappointments are always hard to bear at the time but common sense tells you that there is always another day tomorrow for you to have another go.

Equalling Millar

Robert Millar (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Robert Millar (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

In 2009, Wiggins finished the Tour in fourth place much to the surprise of many. In so doing, he matched the feat of Scotland’s Robert Millar, who recorded a similar result in the 1984 Tour as well as winning King of the Mountains. Millar wore the polka-dot jersey the previous year when he’d won a stage not unlike this year’s stage 18 from Pau to Bagneres du Luchon. He managed to outdistance more celebrated climbers over those fearsome, famous Pyrenean climbs to take the stage, and become the first British rider to wear the polka-dot jersey, albeit for a few days.

Millar loved the Pyrenees and this is where he won all three of his Tour stages, his last being in 1989. Although Millar’s stage win in 1983 represented the first won by a Scot, it was the fourth stage win by a Brit, with Barry Hoban, Brian Robinson and Michael Wright winning stages in previous years. But Britain’s cycling heritage goes back even further.

Rolling back the years

James Moore "Cycling Superstar" (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

James Moore “Cycling Superstar” (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Britain’s James Moore (who shares my birthday) was the winner of the world’s first official cycle race,  held in 1868 at St Cloud, Paris; he followed this up with a win in 1869 in the world’s first road race, Paris-Rouen, covering the 113 km distance in 10 hours and 25 minutes. He would become one of the first cycling superstars, dominating competitions for many years.

The first British rider to take part in the Tour de France was Charles Holland (a fellow Brummie), who started the 1937 Tour as a member of the British Empire team with Londoner Bill Burl and French-Canadian Pierre Gachon. The latter abandoned on the first day while the former was eliminated on day two for being too far behind. The French took a liking to “Rosbif” Holland, calling him Sir Holland and providing him with accommodation and mechanical assistance. But he was forced to abandon the race after 15 days when, in the mountains, he suffered a series of punctures and mechanical problems that left him stranded.

The British returned to the Tour post-war in 1955. Two of the riders from a British team sponsored by Hercules, the Birmingham-based bicycle manufacturer, made it to Paris, which, given their relative inexperience was an impressive feat. Robinson placed a very respectable 29th while Tony Hoar was Britain’s first Lanterne Rouge. Consequently, you could legitimately claim that Robinson was the first Briton to finish the Tour.

Within weeks of the Tour, however, the Hercules team had imploded and the following year Robinson rode for an international team, finishing 14th, his best overall result. In 1957, he rode for St Raphael and the following year became the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France, after having attacked just 50km into stage 7 to Brest, with Arrigo Padovan. Although Padovan actually won the stage, he was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct, thus handing the victory to Robinson. Robinson followed this up with another stage win in the 1958 tour while riding for a Luxembourg-Mixed nationality team. Again, he attacked early, this time on his own, and went on to win by more than 20 minutes.

Back to the future

More recently, most of Britain’s stage wins – Sean Yates, 1988; Chris Boardman, 1994, 1997 and 1998; and David Millar, 2000 and 2003 – came in prologues or time-trials. Millar, however, also won two road stages, one from a breakaway in 2002 and the latest, also from a breakaway, on stage 12 in this year’s Tour. It was his fourth Tour victory and came after three other British stage wins, by Froome, Wiggins and Cavendish. GB’s haul increased to seven overall with wins on the last three stages – another national record.

On this year’s final weekend at the Tour, Mark Cavendish was named the best sprinter in Tour history, an accolade one would imagine being handed out at the end of someone’s career, not part way through it. By the end of the Tour this year, he has totalled 23 stage wins and he is surely the rider most likely to break Merckx’s career record of 34 Tour stage wins. His fourth consecutive win on the Champs Elysees represented the first time that stage has been won by the current World Champion.

Now, it’s only left to wonder who will be the second British winner of the Tour – and when?!

Tour de France hosts: Et enfin Paris!

The first Tour de France both started and finished just outside of Paris. Its conclusion was at the Restaurant Pere Auto in Ville d’Avray, south-west of the capital. The peloton then rode to Parc des Princes for a lap of honour. The race finished in the Parc every year thereafter until 1967 when it was demolished. From 1968 until 1974, it ended at the Bois de Vincennes velodrome while every subsequent edition has finished on the famous cobbled Champs Élysées in Paris. Making Paris – in Tour terms – the hostess with the mostest!

Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the French president back in 1975, granted permission for the Champs Élysées to host the final stage of that year’s Tour which concluded with 25 laps of a circuit. Since 1978, the final stage has started outside the city with riders completing six or eight laps in the city. In 2003, the Tour’s centenary, it was ten laps.

Tour de France 1934

Antonin Magne (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Antonin Magne (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

So let’s dip into the archives again and look at some of the more memorable Tours, starting with 1934 which was dominated by 1931 winner Antonin Magne – wearer of the yellow jersey for the entire race. Indeed, the French had the sort of Tour they can now only dream about – winning most of the stages. Indeed, every member of the French team won at least one stage.

The Tour was also memorable because of the sacrifice of 20-year old Rene Vietto from Cannes, winner of the mountains classification and fifth overall, who gave up his own chances of Tour victory by giving first his front wheel and later his bicycle to his team captain Magne. Vietto had been persuaded to take up racing by none other than Alfredo Binda but, despite a successful career, he never won a Tour. There’s a memorial to him at the top of the Col de Braus in Nice.

The Tour’s final stage, 221km from Caen to Paris was won by the Belgian Sylvere Maes, who went on to win the 1936 edition of the Tour after the 1935 edition had been won by Belgian Romain Maes – no relative. It’s the one and only time the Tour has been won in consecutive years by different riders with the same surname.

1934 saw the introduction of the split stage and the individual time trial. Stage 21 was split into two parts, and the second part was an individual time trial, the first in the Tour’s history. Previous ones had been team time trials. In addition, changes were made to the bonification (points added or seconds deducted) system. A stage winner received 90 seconds bonification, and the runner-up 45 seconds. Plus the stage winner received a bonification equal to the difference between him and the second-placed cyclist, up to a maximum of two minutes. A similar system was applied on mountain summits counting towards the king of the mountains classification. Also, the number of touriste-routiers, cyclists competing in a French regional rather than a national team, was reduced to 20.

Tour de France 1960

Roger Riviere (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Roger Riviere (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

The 1960 Tour de France was notable for the absence of one Jacques Anquetil who was exhausted from riding in and winning the Giro d’Italia, so Roger Riviere was that year’s favourite for the win. Teammate Henry Anglade, runner-up from 1959, took the lead on stage four and expected to become the new team leader. But Riviere was having none of it and attacked on the sixth stage despite pleas from team management to desist. As a result, Jan Adriaensens took over the leader’s jersey with Anglade saying that was where the French lost the Tour.

Gastone Nencini took the overall lead in the mountains, meaning Riviere, now in second place, would only need to keep pace with the Italian as, with his superior time-trialling skills, he could take back time on the crucial stage 19. Trying to stay in touch, plummeting down the Col de Perjuret on stage 14, Riviere missed a corner and fell 20 metres down a ravine – Tour and career over. Nencini went on to win the 1960 Tour de France.  The final stage, 200km from Troyes to Paris was won by Frenchman Jean Graczyk who also took home the points jersey and overall combativity prize. Graczyck’s nickname was Popof, believed by some to derive from his habit of attacking alone, or ‘popping off’. However, it’s much more likely that this was a reference to his origins as Popov is French slang for someone of Polish background.

1960’s Tour wasn’t immune from changes either, as it saw the introduction of stage transfers, with a train trip from Bordeaux to Mont de Marsan after stage nine. Previously, the organisers had tried to keep the stage finish and the next day’s stage start as close together as possible. The German team, in exile since 1938, were once again allowed to join the Tour, run on the national team format with major nations – France, Spain, Belgium and Italy – having teams of 14 cyclists plus smaller nations and regional teams with eight riders.

Tour de France 1974

Eddy Merckx (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Eddy Merckx (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

We can’t talk Tours without mention of Eddy Merckx who, in the 1974 Tour, was attempting to win his fifth Tour in as many races. He’d been absent in 1973 after winning four Tours in a row and had returned this year with wins in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de Suisse under his belt.

Despite the absence of a couple of leading lights, Merckx didn’t initially have it all his own way and the race leadership changed on an almost daily basis in the first week until Merckx, battering the others into submission, took control of the jersey after winning stage seven and hung onto it, equaling Anquetil’s record of five Tour wins. He won the final stage from Orleans to Paris, setting the record for most stage wins – 32. He subsequently increased this to 34. He was also awarded the combativity prize. Having won the Giro and Tour, Merckx completed cycling’s holy trinity by winning the 1974 world championships, a feat equalled in 1987 by Ireland’s Stephen Roche.

1974 Tour runner-up was the evergreen 38-year old Raymond Poulidor who’d held his own in the mountains and even won two stages. Winner of the intermediate sprints prize was Britain’s Barry Hoban – a taster of things to come.

There were a couple of notable incidents in the Tour. One rider forgot to go to doping control, was given a ten-minute penalty and lost his second place overall. The other cyclists threatened to strike and the penalty was removed: that’s peloton power for you. In the Pyrenees, Basque separatists placed bombs on press and team cars. Nobody was injured but the cyclists were scared, particularly Spanish national champion, Vicente Lopez – third overall – who wouldn’t wear his national jersey for fear of becoming a target.

The Tour also made its first, largely anonymous and unpopular – with the riders – incursion onto English soil with a circuit stage on the Plympton bypass, near Plymouth. The Daily Mirror proclaimed ‘Can 40 million Frenchmen be wrong?’ The answer back then was a resounding affirmative. Not now though!

Tour de France 1987

To cap off our trip down Paris’s memory lanes [shouldn’t that be boulevards? – Ed], let’s revisit Stephen Roche’s 1987 Tour victory in the year of its silver anniversary. The defending champion American Greg LeMond was absent, recovering from an earlier accidental shooting incident. The Tour started with a prologue in West Berlin – this side of that wall – and Poland’s Lech Piasecki became the first eastern-bloc rider to wear the yellow jersey after stage one. He was one of eight different riders to wear yellow in that year’s Tour, another new record.

Many reckon that key to Roche’s victory was stage 21 but the building blocks were put in place when he won stage ten’s 87km individual time trial from Saumur to Futurscope.  The winner of the next time trial, stage 18 – up the fabled Mont Ventoux –  blew up on the following day’s which was won by Pedro Delgado while Roche took the maillot jaune. Stage 20 finished atop the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez. It was won by Delgado who also retook the yellow jersey. No matter, Roche was a much better time-trialler than Delgado, so he only needed to maintain and not overhaul the latter.

Stage 21 to La Plagne was won by Laurent Fignon. Delgado had attacked early on but his team lost track of Roche’s progress in the fog surrounding the summit and, to everyone’s surprise, he almost caught Delgado on the line. Roche wrapped up victory on the penultimate time trial, while Delgado was runner-up. The final stage into Paris was won by American Jeff Pierce a victory, which was to be the only real jewel in his long cycling career.

More tinkering in 1987: the number of cyclists in each team was reduced from ten to nine to allow more teams to compete. One of those was the woefully underprepared and underfunded British team ANC Halfords which imploded during the race. In addition, race organisers changed the recently introduced (1983) young rider classification from being only open to Tour rookies under 26 years of age at the beginning of the year, to take account of all riders in that age group.

So you see, the Tour is never won on Paris’ hallowed streets but is does provide a fitting finale for its worthy winners. While only one man can wear the yellow jersey in Paris, everyone who succeeds in reaching the French capital is a winner in our books. Chapeau to you all!

Tour de France hosts:Liege, Pau

Friday Feature: The Brits are coming

Are we on the verge of a golden era of British road cycling? While Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins grab the headlines and the attention of casual fans, it is the strength in depth of British riders which is raising eyebrows among the cognoscenti. While Cavendish was winning a brace of stages at the Tour of Qatar last week, 21-year old Andrew Fenn (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) bagged a double at the Mallorca Challenge, while Endura’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke won two stages plus the overall classification at the Tour Mediterraneen. It was an unprecedented week of success for British cycling.
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