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Countdown to the Tour: Part IV

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

When the entourage of the Tour de France gathered Thursday in Leeds, England, for the magnificent team presentation of the Tour’s 101st edition, very few of the race followers noted the true significance of this Grand Départ in Yorkshire, the largest county in Great Britain. It’s a place that’s been at the heart of British cycling for some seven decades. Many of the towns and villages that the Tour peloton will pass through on the opening two stages this weekend featured large in the sport’s early development—both in the promotion of road races and the nurturing of British road racers.

Before World War II, organized road racing did not exist in the UK. In fact, for the first half of the 20th century, the sport’s governing body, the National Cycling Union, confined sanctioned racing to the track and closed circuits, while the only form of road competition was amateur time trialing. Then, while the country was fighting a war and German bombs were falling on English cities, a group of cyclists, displeased with the Victorian era establishment, formed a rebel organization: the British League of Racing Cyclists.

The BLRC held its very first national championship in Yorkshire on September 5, 1943. The start and finish were in Harrogate, the elegant spa town of 70,000 people where stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France will finish on Saturday. That title race 70 years ago had a field of 25 riders and a distance of 721/4 miles on a hilly course that took in several places appearing on this weekend’s Tour route, including Ripon, Threshfield and Otley (Saturday), and Bolton Bridge and Blubberhouses (Sunday).

The Mayor of Harrogate, in his chain of office, was the official starter, and three-and-a-bit hours later he was among the estimated 5,000 spectators who greeted the finishers, led home by No. 17, Ernie Clements of the Wrekin RCC, after a close two-man sprint with No. 1, Dick Boyden of the Southern Coureurs. Clements (who later managed the Falcon Cycles bike brand and pro cycling team) donned the first champion’s jersey—white with a small Union Flag on the chest—while the mayor later presented the day’s prizes over tea in the Lounge Hall. The presentations in Harrogate will be somewhat grander this Saturday!

The inaugural national championship was a big local success—but the British government wasn’t amused. A week after the race, a top government official, Secretary of State for the Home Department Herbert Morrison, issued a statement that read: “The Home Secretary, after consultation with the Minister of War Transport, has circularised Chief Officers of Police calling their attention to the growing practice of holding massed-start cycle races on the highway. The official view is that these races are likely, not only to cause obstruction to traffic, but to be a source of danger both to the public and the racers, particularly over roads containing dangerous hills or difficult bends….”

The BLRC wasn’t deterred by that directive and continued promoting races on the open road—and racing over the dangerous hills and around the difficult bends! The organization’s most ambitious promotion took place just as World War II ended, with the first running of the five-day Brighton-Glasgow stage race (a precursor to the full Tour of Britain) in August 1945. Dubbed the Victory Race, it was fraught with logistical problems. It had a bare-bones budget (the organizer had to ask everyone to chip in the night before the last stage to pay for meals and accommodations), and there was only one official vehicle (a bike shop’s large van used as a sag wagon), so race officials had to take the train to the next stage town in time to judge the finish sprints!

The only international element in that ambitious BLRC stage race was a team of French riders from the FSGT, also a rebel organization that had broken away from the official national federation. They helped make that first Brighton-Glasgow a massive success with a British public that had been starved of sports events for the previous six years. As it happened, Ernie Clements, the 1943 national champ, won the new event’s opening stage, taking an uphill sprint at Putney Heath in South London a bike length ahead of Frenchman Robert Batot—who went on to win the whole race, including the final stage, before a crowd estimated at 10,000 in Glasgow, Scotland.

The third of the event’s five stages went over Holme Moss, the Category 2 climb that is the high point, at 1,709 feet above sea level, of this Sunday’s stage 2 from York to Sheffield. In 1945, the field climbed the challenging hill one by one, with Scotsman Alex Hendry the first across the summit before going on to take a solo stage win in Bradford, near Leeds.

If it hadn’t have been for those BLRC pioneers, it’s unlikely that a new generation of British road cyclists would have raced the Tour de France in the 1950s and ’60s. The best of these, and the first Brit to win a Tour stage, was Brian Robinson—who’s 83 now and an enthusiastic ambassador for the Tour in Yorkshire. Robinson was born in Ravensthorpe, a few miles southeast of Leeds and he lives in Mirfield, close to where stage 2 of this Tour passes through Huddersfield. He raced on these same roads 60 years ago when he first came to national prominence in the BLRC-sanctioned Tour of Britain—he was first over the top of Holme Moss on stage 3 into Leeds, placing fourth overall, and he moved up to second overall in 1954 behind Frenchman Eugène Tamburlini.

Robinson’s natural successor, Tom Simpson, seven years younger, was the first Englishman to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey (and the world champion’s rainbow jersey). Often referred to as a Yorkshireman, Simpson was born in Durham, a county to the north, and he grew up in Nottinghamshire, a county to the south; but he first came to fame racing for the Scala Wheelers, a cycling club based in Rotherham, Yorkshire, an industrial town just northeast of Sheffield (where stage 2 will finish on Sunday).

Besides achieving the highest honors in professional cycling, Simpson also paid the ultimate price for the pro peloton’s indiscriminate use of stimulants in that postwar era. His death at age 29 on Mont Ventoux on stage 13 of the 1967 Tour was mourned by all, but especially by his three northern England teammates in that Tour: Vin Denson, Barry Hoban and Arthur Metcalfe.

Denson wasn’t born in Yorkshire, but he moved to York (where stage 2 starts on Sunday) before moving to live in Belgium close to Simpson’s home in Ghent. He twice placed top 10 at the Tour of Britain, and he was the first Englishman to win a stage at the Giro d’Italia. Denson was devastated when Simpson died. He wanted to quit the Tour immediately, but continued with the Great Britain team. The peloton wanted Denson to win the next stage, but it was Hoban, another good friend, who ended up honoring Simpson with the stage win.

Hoban was born in Wakefield, just south of Leeds, and he sometimes raced in BLRC races that Simpson won. He also followed in Simpson’s footmarks to the Continent and to the Tour—where he would win eight stages in 12 career Tours, the most by an Englishman until Mark Cavendish came along. Hoban fell in love with Simpson’s widow, Helen, and they married a few years after her husband’s death.

As for Metcalfe, he was born in Leeds in 1938 and died of cancer in Harrogate in 2002. He spent of his cycling career on domestic teams, winning the 1964 Tour of Britain, taking the national championship, and even pulling off victory in time trialing’s British Best All-Rounder (BBAR) competition based on best performances over 50-mile, 100-mile and 12-hour time trials.

Metcalfe spent his last years living in Harrogate, not far from Britain’s most titled racing cyclist, Beryl Burton, who won seven world championships (two on the road, five in track pursuit) and 96 national championships (72 in time trialing, 12 in road racing and 12 on the track), along with 25 consecutive editions of the women’s BBAR (averaged over 25-, 50- and 100-mile time trials). Her most famous feat came in 1967 when she set a national 12-hour record of 277.25 miles (a record that still stands), which was better than the men’s record set the same day by Yorkshireman Mike McNamara, after they’d dueled all through the day until Burton overtook him and pulled away on the finishing circuit.

Burton was a few days short of her 59th birthday in May 1996 when she died of heart failure while riding her bike around Harrogate to deliver invitations to her birthday party. A stage play about her life, “Beryl,” written by famed English actress Maxine Peake, had its premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds this week as part of the Yorkshire Festival that’s marking the Tour’s Grand Départ.

Burton was one of the most down-to-earth people you could ever meet. Dubbed “the Yorkshire Housewife” by the press, she raced as a pure amateur cyclist for 40 years, working in the rhubarb fields for fellow cyclist Nim Carline when they weren’t training together. Born in the eastern suburbs of Leeds, Burton lived most of her life in the nearby town of Morley before moving to Harrogate, where there’s a cycleway named for her. This week, a display showcasing her multiple accomplishments, including bikes, trophies and medals, titled “Beryl Burton: Best All-Round Champion” opened at Harrogate’s Royal Pump Museum.

And this weekend, besides honoring Burton and Yorkshire’s other accomplished bike racers, the 2014 Tour de France followers should also be remembering those brave pioneers of the British League of Racing Cyclists who held their inaugural national championship in Harrogate all those years ago…