Earlier this week, I finished writing a feature story for the upcoming “Britain and Ireland” issue of peloton magazine. It’s a personal story about growing up in postwar England when cycling barely got a mention in the press, and, half a century later, seeing British cyclists celebrated in the national media. And that lofty status has been raised even higher this week, with Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome occupying the top two places in the Tour de France, and, on Friday, David Millar scoring a 48th Tour stage win by a British rider.
Back in the 1950s, British cycling’s only “known” racer was track sprinter Reg Harris, thanks to his winning an Olympic bronze medal and subsequent world titles. There were no pro road racers, and almost no mass-start races. Amateur time trailing was the only form of competition on British roads for most of the 20th century, and professionalism was looked down upon by the sport’s national governing body.
It took the formation of a rebel organization, the British League of Racing Cyclists, before races were held on the open roads of Britain. The initial burst of interest from that development encouraged an English bicycle company, Hercules, to sponsor a low-budget pro team that raced in Europe in 1955. Seven of its riders formed the basis of Great Britain’s 10-man national team at that’s year’s Tour, and two of them finished the race: Brian Robinson in 29th and Tony Hoar, last in the standings, in 69th. Despite that modest success, the Hercules team disbanded at the end of the year, and Robinson signed for a French team before becoming the first Brit to win stages of the Tour in 1958 and ’59.
Robinson and the Tour were well known to true cycling enthusiasts but the sport was still far from the mainstream and, until the 1960s, very little was written about it. The sport’s major cycling magazine didn’t even send anyone across the English Channel to report the race. To get their Tour fix, enthusiasts acquired copies of French cycling magazines, which were sold at a Soho store in central London. In the sepia-colored pages of titles such as But-et-Club and Miroir-Sprint, the fans could drool over photos of Coppi and Koblet, Gaul and Anquetil, climbing the Tour’s mythic cols.
The first time the Tour had any impact in Britain was in 1962 when Tom Simpson wore the yellow jersey for a day. And when Mr. Tom won the world pro road championship three years later, he was voted Britain’s Sportsman of the Year. That was huge for cycling. He would again make front-page news at the ’67 Tour, but it was when his drug-scarred death on Mont Ventoux stunned a nation. Simpson’s passing greatly slowed the momentum of British cycling’s development, and another decade passed before the country produced another potential Tour contender.
The three Tour stage wins and one polka-dot jersey of Scottish climber Robert Millar in the 1980s gained marginal coverage in the British press, while an annual six-day track race in London, the Skol Six, added to the sport’s growing popularity. But cycling didn’t really start to show growth until the 1990s, when several different factors led to a true breakthrough. These included Chris Boardman winning an Olympic gold medal in the pursuit using a revolutionary Lotus carbon-fiber bike at Barcelona in 1992; the opening of the country’s first indoor velodrome at Manchester in 1994; Boardman’s subsequent Tour prologue victories (and yellow jerseys) in 1995, ’97 and ’98; the start of funding from the National Lottery for the British Cycling Federation’s elite athlete program; and the appointment of Dave Brailsford as performance director of the national track and road teams.
The result was almost constant improvements as talented athletes were fed into the national system, which soon became sponsored by Sky, allowing the riders to train and race full time, and produce gold medals at track worlds, and Olympic and Commonwealth Games. All this resulted in more Lottery millions coming to the program. Brad Wiggins was the team’s prize product, thanks to his multiple world pursuit titles and 2000, ’04 and ’08 Olympic successes, which included three gold medals. And the three golds scored by Scottish sprinter Chris Hoy at Beijing four years ago earned cycling its first Sportsman of the Year status since Simpson, and a knighthood from the Queen.
Building on the track team’s unprecedented medal haul at Beijing, two independent developments pointed British cycling toward what we see today at the Tour. Wiggins decided to redirect his career, dropping the track and focusing on road. He joined Garmin-Slipstream, which had a no-drugs policy that best reflected his outspoken views on dopers, and in the 10 months between the Olympics and the 2009 Tour he dropped 15 to 20 pounds in bodyweight. The result was fourth place in the Tour behind Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong.
That breakthrough gave Wiggins the entrée into any team he wanted, even though he was still contracted to Jonathan Vaughters’s Garmin squad. Through 2009, British Cycling’s Brailsford was building Britain’s first-ever major pro road team, which is also sponsored by Sky. Negotiations took a while, but no one was surprised when Wiggins signed as Sky’s team leader. The news made ripples in Britain, where Wiggins was a national hero for his Olympic titles and was immediately named as the rider most likely to fulfill Brailsford’s stated aim of having a first British winner of the Tour within five years.
We’re now in Year 3 of that grandiose goal for a team that has the largest budget in pro cycling and the most research-and-development resources. It’s been surprising how quickly Team Sky has sped to the top of pro cycling, with Wiggins on the point of achieving what even a decade ago would have been an impossible dream.
How times have changed!