Brian Robinson obituary

First British cyclist to complete the Tour de France, so paving the way for other Britons to succeed in the sport in mainland Europe

Brian Robinson, who has died aged 91, was the first Briton not only to complete the Tour de France but then to go on to win a Tour stage.

His landmark Tour completion came in 1955, when he battled on to the finish in 29th place overall. Three years later, after a number of trials and tribulations on and off the road, he achieved a Tour stage victory over a section from St Brieuc to Brest, followed by another in 1959, from Annecy to Chalon-sur-Saône.

In doing so he paved the way for other Britons to make their mark on the sport in mainland Europe in subsequent decades.

Born in Mirfield, west Yorkshire, Brian was the son of Emily (nee Backhouse), an ammunitions worker during the second world war, and Henry Robinson, a joiner and builder. It was a cycling family, and Henry encouraged the competitive road-racing instincts of Brian and his brother, Desmond, both members of the Huddersfield Road Club.

But Henry also insisted that Brian should be apprenticed as a joiner for six years. In addition, he had to undertake national service, and it was not until 1953 that he fully committed himself to professional cycling.

With Desmond, Brian had represented Great Britain as an amateur in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, but insularity and confused attitudes had kept Britain out of professional cycling in mainland Europe. However, Brian took the view of the rebellious British League of Racing Cyclists, whose members had wider horizons. Having come fourth in the Tour of Britain in 1952 and second in 1954, he set his sights on the Tour de France.

Hercules, the prosperous British cycle manufacturer, had by this time begun to assemble a team that could race abroad, and Robinson joined it. In the winter of 1954-55 he and his team-mates went to a training camp at Les Issambres in the south of France. The village was favoured by French cycling professionals, who the other British cyclists preferred to avoid. But Robinson felt he could make strides by getting to know his rivals; so he began to teach himself French, and fraternised with them.

In the 1955 Tour de France, the 10 British team members were outclassed. None of them had known such fierce competition, and they had no idea of the difficulties of the Alps and Pyrenees.

Only two even reached the final stage in Paris – Robinson and Hampshire-born Tony Hoar. Robinson had come near to abandoning the race at various points, but had been helped for days by Hoar’s good humour.

They both completed the event, with Hoar as the lanterne rouge in the 69th and final place. The two were given an especially warm welcome when they rode into the Parc des Princes in Paris. Eighteen years after Charles Holland and Bill Burl had become the first Britons to enter the race, it was a special moment in the entente cordiale and marked the beginning of a new era in British cycling.

Despite that achievement, the Hercules team swiftly disbanded amid recriminations. Robinson spent the winter of 1955-56 back in Mirfield, working in his father’s business and hoping for future campaigns in Europe.

In 1955 he married a fellow club cyclist, Shirley Fearnley, who came to know – living mostly in a caravan – the hardships of a racer’s life.

For the next two years Robinson travelled around trying to make money in minor French races, often forced to sleep in fields and barns when funds were low.

In the spring of 1956 he rode for a minor team in the Vuelta a España, a chaotic tour in Spain policed by Franco’s Guardia Civil. His valour in that competition brought him a ride for the international team in the 1956 Tour de France, in which he finished 14th, and the following year he shone in Italy’s Milan-San Remo event, finishing third when he might have won on a luckier day.

In 1957 and 1958 he had to abandon the Tour de France, a victim of crashes and exhaustion on both occasions. Nonetheless, before he withdrew in 1958 came his stage victory in the 170km seventh section across Brittany, in which he initially finished second but was placed first when the Italian rider Arigo Padovan, who had crossed the line in the lead, was penalised for having earlier forced Robinson into the barriers.

If this was something of a hollow victory, in 1959 Robinson proved it was no fluke when he won the 202km 20th stage that finished at Chalon-sur-Saône. Sensing at dawn that the day might belong to him, he fitted his lightest wheels and tyres and engineered a decisive solo breakaway, finishing 20 minutes ahead of the peloton.

It was a ride of commanding strength rather than brilliance, and Robinson said that he had prepared for it, years before, in British time-trialling.

In 1961 he rode to his most prestigious victory, in the seven-day Critérium de Dauphiné Libéré in the south-east of France.

By now almost eight years into an exhausting professional career, Robinson was beginning to feel the strains of his gruelling schedule, and his performances gradually began to decline. But as an established rider who was well known in France and respected by all the top professionals of the time, he had built up great knowledge of a sport that was both heroic and corrupt.

An honest competitor and a principled man, he was well placed to guide the inexperienced British riders who, from the late 1950s, attempted to follow in his wake. The most distinguished of his proteges was Tom Simpson, who became one of Britain’s most successful cyclists.

However, at the age of 33 and having made little money from his sport, Robinson decided to return to Mirfield and his first vocation as a joiner. Later on he stayed in touch with other former professionals on annual skiing reunions in Switzerland, and it was also his pleasure, until he was well into his 80s, to ride with Huddersfield clubmates in the hilly Yorkshire roads he had known since he was a boy.

Robinson was especially celebrated when the Tour de France visited Yorkshire in 2014, and received many tributes from young British riders such as Mark Cavendish and Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Brian and Shirley had three children, Michelle, Martin and Louise. They divorced in 1974; the following year Brian married Audrey Oldroyd, and gained three stepchildren, Elizabeth, Mark and Amanda.

Audrey, his children and stepchildren survive him, as do his grandchildren, Rebecca and Jake, who have cycled in events all round the world, and five step-grandchildren. Desmond died in 2015.

• Brian Robinson, cyclist, born 3 November 1930; died 25 October 2022


Tim Hilton

The GuardianTramp

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