At 5:54 p.m. on Sunday, as Brad Wiggins swapped the Tour de France’s priceless Sèvres bone-china trophy for a microphone and gave a thank-you speech full of quirky British humor, I couldn’t but think of all the people no longer living who would have appreciated this moment. I first thought of Britain’s Tour pioneer Charlie Holland, who started the race in 1937. Next to come to mind was my first bike-racing magazine editor, J.B. “Jock” Wadley, who first saw the Tour in 1934 when he was a club cyclist and went on to excite British readers about racing on the Continent. My other thought turned to Neville Chanin, not a bike racer or a journalist, but a mile-eating cycle tourist and clubman who followed the Tour by bike 49 times.
I know that Wadley in particular would have loved Wiggo’s speech. As a writer and raconteur, he effortlessly used puns and plays on words to describe what he’d seen, whether it was a cyclosportif ride, an English 24-hour time trial or the Tour de France. I can hear him guffawing from the grave imagining the quandary of the Tour translator trying to put Wiggo’s words into French, particularly the first sentence that came out of his mouth on the Tour podium: “We’re just gonna draw the raffle numbers now.”
That’s not what a Tour champion is “supposed” to say to a live TV audience or the quarter-million spectators lining the Champs-Élysées. The French were mystified, but the significance of those words were immediately recognized by all the British club cyclists standing in the crowd, watching television sets at pubs around Britain, or listening to BBC’s “Five Live” radio commentary during a tea break on a Sunday club ride. Some of them, like Wiggins, probably didn’t get to pick up a mike until they won a prize or had to make a speech at their cycling club’s annual dinner—which is usually paid for by holding a raffle.
Wiggins, whose two decades as a racing cyclist began with West London’s Archer Road Club, has won all the awards you could possible think of. And, as such, he has often been guest of honor at other club’s dinners and been the one to draw the raffle numbers. And now that he’s the first Tour de France champion to have previously won Olympic gold medals and world titles in track racing he’ll be asked to draw the raffle numbers at many more cycling functions. And, being a dyed-in-wool cycling aficionado, Wiggo won’t turn down those invitations.
Wiggins never knew Holland or Wadley, but he would have loved their self-deprecating sense of humor. He would also have loved Holland’s dogged ride at the 1937 Tour when, despite being the only rider left on the three-man “British Empire” team after two days, he raced with honor, often with the best riders, through northern France, across the Alps and into the Pyrénées. That’s where his luck finally evaded him. Without a team manger or teammate, he was stranded when he flatted, broke his pump and ran out of spare tires on the fourteenth stage to Luchon. Holland had to abandon. And he never got the chance of starting another Tour.
Holland’s racing career ended with the start of the war in 1939, but not before he had broken a couple of Britain’s long-distance, solo place-to-place records, some of which Wadley reported for a new cycling magazine called The Bicycle. After being conscripted into the military in wartime, Wadley didn’t return to fulltime journalism until 1951 when his former employer hired him as its foreign correspondent. That job as The Bicycle’s “Man on the spot” took him to Europe on his bike to report all types of races, sometimes filing as many as 3,000 words a week for the magazine, which educated and enthused British cyclists about what the continental scene offered.
It was unfortunate that in early 1955, The Bicycle was merged with the UK’s only other bike magazine, Cycling, and Wadley was without a job. He decided to create his own journal, eventually named Sporting Cyclist, and to assemble the word and photos for the first issue he returned to Europe and followed the Tour from start to finish for the first time. It was fortunate for Wadley that the 1955 Tour, for the first time, included a full, 10-man Great Britain team, and he could write vivid stories, including that of the remarkable 29th-place finish of Brian Robinson (who, at 81, was in Paris to see Wiggins win the Tour on Sunday!) and lanterne rouge Tony Hoar.
Wadley’s words inspired many Brits to go and watch the Tour, including Chanin, who first saw the race in 1957 and over the years became one of Wadley’s best friends. “He would always spare time to answer my shouts, jump from his press car and chat with us clubmen, take photos, before hailing a lift with other press colleagues,” Chanin said. A rugged cyclist, Chanin would stack up almost 700,000 miles of bike riding in his life. When Wadley died from cancer at 67 in 1981, his widow Mary Wadley asked Chanin and friends to scatter the ashes on the western slopes of the Col du Glandon—not far from where Wiggins, in the yellow jersey, rode with the lead group on stage 11 of this year’s Tour. Chanin himself died at 74 from a heart attack, in 2010, on his way back from yet another European touring trip.
It’s a great shame that Holland, Wadley and Chanin didn’t get to witness a British clubman winning the Tour de France. They would have concurred with Wiggins, who said after the finish Sunday, “Every lap, it was goose-pimples stuff.” They would have joined in singing the British national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” but they would have been unlikely to heed the advice given by Wiggins at the end of his short speech: “Don’t get too drunk.”
They savored good wine, and all three would have joined us in raising a glass of Champagne to our first Tour champ, probably with the toast: “Good on yer, Wiggo. Great ride!”