The most enjoyable job interview I ever had took place over cake and coffee in a small café in Kingston-upon-Thames, an always bustling town in London’s southwest suburbs. The man interviewing me, then in his mid-50s, was the legendary British cycling journalist J. B. (“Jock”) Wadley, or JBW as he was often called. He’d been writing about all aspects of cycling, especially European pro racing, since the mid-1930s, first for an anti-establishment weekly called The Bicycle, and then for his own monthly, Sporting Cyclist.
JBW rode his bike to the café from his home in nearby Richmond; I strolled there from my office in County Hall — a 15-mile bike commute from my home in Dorking, Surrey. JBW knew I wanted to be journalist as I’d written a few freelance pieces for his magazine and asked him four years earlier whether he had any openings. He had said no, but be patient. So when I wasn’t working as a civil engineer or racing bikes I wrote a weekly cycling column for my local newspaper, the Surrey Mirror (for free!).
Now, here was JBW sitting in the Kingston café telling me that the owners of Sporting Cyclist were merging it with their other cycling title, a weekly called Cycling. He’d told them he didn’t want the offered position as editor of the combined publication, and then let me know he was planning to start a yet-to-be named monthly that would continue his legacy of covering the sport, especially continental racing, in a personal, fresh-from-the-saddle format.
I was just biting into my coffee cake when JBW asked me if I would be his assistant to write, edit and lay out the new magazine. “We can’t pay much,” he said. “It would only be 30 pounds a week.” That was less than half of what I was earning, but within seconds, I accepted his offer … and minutes later he gave me my first assignment: “Go to the Continent on your bike, take a notebook and camera, and bring back some stories.”
Cycling was already in my blood. I’d toured by bike all over the British Isles, staying at youth hostels or camping. I’d ventured to Europe to see the Tour de France, following it by bike four times. And I’d taken up road racing, winning a handful of events before racing on a French amateur team for two summers. So accepting a job to write about cycling fulltime, and learning from the most respected journalist in the sport, was more than a dream come true. It was a life-changing decision.
“Go to the Continent on your bike,” my new boss had said, “and bring back some stories.”
My first day on the job was spent riding my bike, with a stuffed saddlebag, to the English Channel coast, boarding a ferry and reaching Paris the following evening to take an overnight train down to Perpignan in the south of France. The weather was dull that late-March morning as I headed south over the Col du Perthus on the eastern flank of the Pyrénées. The sun was shining on the Spanish side of the border and a strong, cold wind helped me along the wide, straight roads through Salvador Dali’s Figueres into Girona.
I rode the last few miles though green, hilly terrain with an older Spanish cyclo-tourist, who insisted riding single file — that was the law in Franco’s Spain, and you didn’t want to risk getting caught by the Guardia Civil. We arrived in Girona well ahead of the finish of the opening stage in the six-day Semana Catalan race, which had started in Barcelona that morning. The first part of my first assignment was underway….
As fate would have it, an eight-man breakaway had developed on the hilly roads of the Costa Brava, and it was being led by Eddy Merckx wearing the rainbow jersey! The young Merckx, then 22 years old, had two Faema teammates with him, fellow Belgian Martin Van Den Bossche and Italian Guido De Rosso, and they were accompanied by four Spanish riders (three from the Fagor team) and Dutch star Arie Den Hartog.
A ripple of excitement swept though the crowds lining the cobblestoned finishing straight in Girona, where Van Den Bossche easily took the stage ahead of team leader Merckx. The sweat-soaked riders in the breakaway, along with the peloton that came in seven minutes later, quickly rode off to their hotels, while I continued on south, past fields of emerald wheat, groves of silver ash and orchards dabbed by white and pink blossom.
It soon got dark on that quiet, lonely road, and there was no welcoming inn. So I hunkered down on a grassy ridge, sheltered by a stone wall on the edge of a forest. Woken at dawn by trucks trundling down the highway, I completed the ride into Barcelona past lines of smoky factories to the right and a grey Mediterranean to the left. My first task was to find a place to stay for the next several nights in the city where I’d ride out and back each day to watch the remaining stages of the Catalan race.
I knew that JBW wanted me to keep expenses low, so once I reached the Ramblas I began asking around. A young teenage boy spoke some English and told me his mother had a room to rent. He led me through some backstreets to a modern apartment block and took me up in the elevator (with my bike!) to about the 10th floor. My small, clean room had wide views toward Tibidabo, the low mountain in the northwest part of Barcelona, and my new madre said it would be 175 pesetas a day (the equivalent of $2.60) — including breakfast, a packed lunch and dinner!
The next day, I rode the very hilly, twisting 35km course of the time trial stage (won that morning by Merckx in 52:13 by two minutes over the runner-up, a young Spanish neo-pro named Luis Ocaña) and that afternoon watched the race going over the mountain climb at Montserrat. That stage finished in Lerida, where Merckx’s sprinter teammate Guido Reybroeck took the honors, while Merckx pulled on the red race leader’s jersey.
The race organizers knew that Merckx and Reybroeck were going to quit the race at that point, but having the world champion competing for just half their race was a nice trade-off. And the two Belgians, having found good form on Spanish roads, took a plane to Brussels ahead of that weekend’s Tour of Flanders. I stayed to see the Semana Catalan victory go to Fagor rider Mariano Diaz, and later heard that Merckx worked for his teammate in the Flanders classic, with Reybroeck taking second place to their big national rival Walter Godefroot.
The week’s good weather turned to rain as I pedaled out of Barcelona on the challenging road along the Costa Brava, where Merckx and company had made their big breakaway to Girona. Despite the downpour and a strong head wind I enjoyed the battle with my rampant yellow cape as I remained on the coast all the way back to France, into Perpignan, and back to Paris by train.
I stayed on the Continent for another two weeks during that first assignment. From Paris, I rode east to Troyes, where I visited with two top English amateur racers, Peter Buckley and Phil Cheetham. They were hoping to get selected for the Mexico Olympics with a season of racing with the UV Aube amateur team. I stayed with them, rode with them in the Champagne hills and watched them compete in two French classics. (The talented Buckley would die tragically in a training accident the following year.)
That second French classic ended in Dijon, from where I rode 500km in four days across the hills of Burgundy and into the Massif Central to report two criteriums over the Easter weekend. The first was won by local hero Raymond Poulidor, the second by his eternal rival Jacques Anquetil. Riding between the two venues, while looking for a place to eat, I spotted a sign pointing to an “auberge” — which turned out to be a vast old château where a bow-tied waiter told me “Monsieur Anquetil and monsieur Poulidor are expected for a lunch appointment at noon.” I couldn’t believe my luck — another story in the bag.
Also riding the two Easter criteriums was the current world amateur champion, Britain’s Graham Webb, who had just begun his first pro season with Poulidor’s Mercier-BP team. I hitched a ride with Graham to his home in Ghent, Belgium, where I went riding with him and Vin Denson (the first Brit to win a stage of the Giro d’Italia). I wrote a piece about Webb’s unlucky start to his pro career, and ended the trip by following the Ghent-Wevelgem classic — where before the start I was fortunate to get a great color shot of Merckx posing with Anquetil in front of Ghent’s St. Baafs Cathedral. JBW used it full page in the magazine.
We ended up calling the monthly International Cycle Sport. During one of our editing sessions in the tiny basement office we sublet in Kingston, JBW related a story from when he was starting his first editorial job at The Bicycle before World War II. He asked the editor, W. W. Mills, “Should I write the word peloton as nobody will know what we’re talking about?” The forthright Mills, a former racer in Europe, replied right away: “Yes, use it. What The Bicycle writes today, the cycling world will be talking about tomorrow.”
I guess I’ve come full circle.