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Pioneering Brits at the Tour de France — from Sutton to Simpson, riders who took on the Tour long before big British success

We've been spoilt for British glory at the Tour for France in the 21st century, but it wasn't always that way. Even so, plenty of Brits took on the Tour in the early to mid-20th century, with some bagging stage wins and impressive places on the GC

With the United Kingdom seeing limited success at the Tour de France until the 1980s and having to wait until 2012 for an overall winner, it might seem like British riders have only played a major part in recent years. While that might be somewhat true, the story of British riders at Le Tour goes way back to the 1930s. Let's go back in time and look at the pioneering Brits who took on the world’s greatest bike race in the lengthy era before names like Paul Sherwen, Graham Jones, Sean Yates and Robert Millar entered the fray...

Tour de France 1960 (Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

There was a lot of hype and expectation around Mark Cavendish at this year's Tour de France, where the Manxman was aiming to add to his record-equalling 34 career stage wins to surpass the great Eddy Merckx. While it sadly wasn't to be (and won't ever be at the time of writing unless speculation is to be believed), stage wins and even general classification victories have become something of a regular occurrence for British riders in the past decade or so. This certainly wasn't the case in the decades before that, when English-speaking riders were a rarity in the pro peloton. British riders achieving any kind of success in the great race were few and far between. 

Even so, there were many Brits who did taken on the Tour in the steel frame and woolly shorts era. A handful of them achieved amazing success considering what they were up against, and very much laid the foundations for the current generation of British Grand Tour riders.

For several editions of the Tour de France, the roster was made up of national teams of some description. Some nations had more than one team in the race, although the first Brits to take part, Charles Holland and Bill Burl, were actually part of the first British Empire team who raced in 1937. The only other rider on the team was the Canadian Pierre Gachon.

After an on-off relationship with the national and mixed team method of selection, the Tour roster returned to trade teams in 1969.

1955: A breakthrough year for Brits

In 1955, some 18 years on from Holland and Burl, for the first time ever a full 10-man British national team was invited to take part in the Tour de France, which was largely based around the Hercules pro team. It was something of a baptism or fire for many of the Brits, but one which was to have its own two-wheeled phoenix, a Yorkshireman by the name of Brian Robinson.

Brian Robinson at the 1960 Tour de France (Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Robinson at the 1960 Tour de France (Wikimedia Commons)

Suffering through the race with countless punctures and mishaps, the riders on the team slowly started falling away by the harsh French roadside, with only Robinson and Hampshire rider Tony Hoar making it to the end of the race. Robinson raised a few French eyebrows with his ability, and finished a very credible 29th overall that year. Hoar struggled through with a gutsy performance and finished in 69th spot as the 'lanterne rouge' (the last-placed finisher), gaining a lot of respect and attention along the way.

After this, Robinson was a man in demand. The following year he rode on a mixed British-Swiss team and finished 14th overall, his best GC ride in the great race. In 1958 Robinson took his first stage win in Brest after the first rider over the line, Arigo Padovan, was relegated for questionable tactics in the sprint. A year later and Robinson took his second Tour stage on the road to Chalon-sur-Soane. 

Robinson spent several seasons racing on major continental teams, and had a long string to top draw results, including overall victory in the Critirium du Dauphine Libre in 1961, and although humble by nature he was a giant of British cycling during the 1950’s & 60’s, and our first true Tour de France star.

Michael Wright, 'the Belgian Brit'

Born in Hertfordshire in 1941, Michael Wright - whose father was killed during WWII - moved to Belgium when he was just three-years-old along with his mother and her new Belgian husband.

Wright was raised in Liege, spoke little English and was a native French speaker. He didn’t consider himself good enough for Belgian selection as a cyclist, and so followed his British heritage to a place on the GB Tour team during the 1960s. He finished eight Tours and took three career stage wins (1965, '67 & '73), as well as four Vuelta a Espana stage wins amongst others.

The Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban era

The legend of Tom Simpson is a huge and tragic one, which we will only touch on lightly in this article. The Durham-born rider was a star of road and track from the outset, winning his first junior title - the National Hill Climb Championship - in 1955. 

His Tour de France debut came as part of the national team in 1960, where he came alarmingly close to taking stage wins and the yellow jersey, eventually finishing in 28th place overall.

In 1962 Simpson did take the race lead, before finishing sixth overall for his best ever GC performance at the Tour de France. It was also the first time a British rider had worn the yellow jersey, however Simpson never actually won a stage of the race. It was also a race he would ultimately lose his life to, on the heat-stricken slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967.

Following that fateful day in the 1967 Tour, Simpson’s teammate Barry Hoban of Wakefield was allowed to take a victory as a mark of respect for Simpson on the next stage (his first Tour de France stage win), one which he would back up with seven more Tour stage wins during his long and illustrious career.

Barry Hoban circa 1966 (Wikimedia Commons)

Barry Hoban circa 1966 (Wikimedia Commons)

Hoban started 12 Tours and finished 11, taking many other victories across Europe before easing out of professional cycling and ending his career by riding for domestic pro teams in the UK. He also worked closely with his bike sponsors. 

The legacy

With all of this taking place long before the internet was a thing, it can be hard to appreciate just what it took for these guys to do what they did, and to appreciate how different the world was for a young British cyclist back then; not to mention just how damn good these guys were.

As an example, if you delve deeper into the career of Alan Ramsbottom from Clayton-le-Moors, who sadly passed away in April 2023, it’s a name many of us older cycling fans would know; but, given what little media coverage was available when he was at the top of his game, it’s hard to appreciate what he achieved. Not only did he finish 16th overall in the Tour, but he could also count the likes of Merckx and Simpson as teammates at Peugeot. Ramsbottom was a true force to be reckoned with, as were each and every one of the riders listed here.

Here's a comprehensive list of all those early British Tour de France pioneers from 1937-1977 - including the years they participated, finishing places and stage wins - long before Mr Wiggins rode into Paris donning the famous yellow jersey...

Charles Holland: 1937 (DNF)
Bill Burl: 1937 (DNF)
Dave Bedwell: 1955 (DNF)

Tony Hoar in 1955 (Wikimedia Commons)

Tony Hoar in 1955 (Wikimedia Commons)

Tony Hoar: 1955 (69th)
Stan Jones: 1955 (DNF)
Fred Kerbs: 1955 (DNF)
Bob Maitland: 1955 (DNF)
Ken Mitchel: 1955 (DNF)
Bernard Pusey: 1955 (DNF)
Ian Steel: 1955 (DNF)
Brian Robinson: 1955-1961 (two stage wins)

Stan Brittain: 1958 (66th), 1960 (DNF), 1961 (DNF)
Ron Coe: 1958 (DNF), 1961 (DNF)
John Andrews: 1959 (DNF), 1960 (DNF)
Tony Hewson: 1959 (DNF)
Victor Sutton: 1959 (37th), 1960 (DNF)  
John Kennedy :1960 (DNF)
Harry Reynolds: 1960 (DNF)
Norman Sheil: 1960 (DNF)

Tom Simpson (Photo: Fanfarigoule)

Tom Simpson, who tragically died on Mont Ventoux in 1967 (Photo: Fanfarigoule)

Tom Simpson: 1960-62, 1964-67 (wore the yellow jersey, 6th overall in 1962)
Vin Denson: 1961, 1964-68 (three finishes)
Albert Hitchen: 1960 (DNF), 1967 (DNF)
Ken Laidlaw: 1961 (DNF)
Peter Ryalls: 1961 (DNF)
Sean Ryan: 1961 (DNF)
George O’Brien: 1961 (DNF)
Alan Ramsbottom: 1962 (16th), 1963 (45th)

Barry Hoban: 1964, 1967-75, 1977-78 (8 stage wins)
Michael Wright: 1964-65, 1967-69, 1972-74 (3 stage wins)
Peter Chisman: 1967 (DNF)
Peter Hill: 1967 (DNF)
Colin Lewis: 1967 (84th), 1968 (DNF) 
Arthur Metcalfe: 1967 (69th), 1968 (DNF)
Bob Addy: 1968 (DNF)
John Clarey: 1968 (63rd)
Derek Green: 1968 (DNF)
Derek Harrison: 1968 (DNF), 1969 (32nd)
Hugh Porter: 1968 (DNF)
Bill Nickson: 1977 (DNF)

The number of abandons gives you an idea of just how hard the Tour was in those days. Longer stages, heavier, less practical bikes and far less knowledge of sports science and nutrition to help the riders physically prepare for their mammoth task meant that just finishing the race was a monumental achievement. 

Who are your favourite British riders from the early days of the Tour de France? Are you 'mature' enough to remember them racing? Let us know in the comments as always...

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