TOUR DE FRANCE PIONEER
Born in Mirfield in West Yorkshire, he was the son of Emily Backhouse (known as Millie) and Henry Robinson. During the war both his parents worked in a munitions factory which made Halifax bombers. Millie worked the day shift, Henry the night shift.
His first bike was a tin tricycle, bought for him when he was 2. There is a family photograph of him riding it with his elder brother on the back.
After the war, Henry started his own building and joinery business.
The family were very keen on cycling. One day Henry brought home three old and broken bikes, from a large house he was working on. All 3 had cost him 5 ‘bob’. Henry fixed them up and gave one to each of his boys and kept the third for himself.
Henry became a member of the Huddersfield Road Club and his oldest son Desmond (known as Des) also joined. Brian rode with them at 13, was allowed to join at 14 but his father refused to let him race until he was 18. After that he entered many road races locally. Time-trialling was his speciality although he enjoyed hill climbs.
Racing wasn’t easy in England. Stage racing was banned until 1942. It was regarded as a ‘foreign sport’.
Brian was so entranced by cycling that he used to get hold of French bike magazines (there were no British ones). He couldn’t read a word of French so he could only look at the pictures.
And in later years he was ashamed to say as a teenager he used to visit the houses of war widows, asking for parts from their dead husband’s bikes.
In 1948 he cycled from Yorkshire to Windsor to watch the Olympic road race. He was so impressed he vowed to try and achieve the same level.
When Brian left school he was apprenticed as a joiner and also did two years National Service in the King’s Own Light Infantry. He also rode for the British Army Cycling team and rode the ‘Route de France’, an amateur version of the Tour de France.
Each rider was given just two shirts and two pairs of shorts. Each evening was spent washing out that day’s kit.
Alongside his brother, Brian represented Great Britain at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, as an amateur. He came 27th in the road race, one place behind Des.
Brian raced the Tour of Britain in 1952 and for a while wore the leader’s yellow jersey, ultimately coming fourth.
He also entered the 1952 World Cycling Championships which were held in Italy. He tied for 8th place with Jacques Anquetil, who would go on to be one of the sport’s greatest champions.
When he came out of the army in 1953 he decided to give professional cycling a go.
However, due to British insularity at the time, British cyclists were encouraged NOT to race in Europe.
His brother Des said, “If you can imagine a Frenchman scoring a century at Lords, then you can imagine an Englishman winning a stage of the Tour de France.”
Brian allied himself to a group of riders who styled themselves as the ‘British League of Racing Cyclists’, who were openly rebellious towards the sport’s establishment.
Brian came second in the 1954 Tour of Britain and decided he wanted a go at the Tour De France.
Hercules, the British bike manufacturer had decided to set up a professional cycling team operating in Europe. They signed Brian up.
In the winter of 1954-55, he joined the team for a winter training camp at Les Issambres in the South of France. It was where many of the successful French teams did their training as well.
Brian noted that his team mates avoided all contact with their French counterparts, but he wanted to learn from them – to become a better cyclist. So, he started to learn French and began to ‘hang out’ with his rivals.
Brian was entered into the 1955 Tour de France. His team were not the first Britons to enter the Tour. In 1937 Charles Holland and Bill Burl had entered, although neither managed to complete the race.
Bill crashed and broke his collarbone on Stage 2. Charles continued, riding 3,200km before a broken pump and repeated punctures forced him to abandon. A passing priest felt so sorry for him that he gave him a bottle of beer.
Neither man attempted the Tour again.
Hercules were overwhelmed in the 1955 Tour. They underestimated the opposition and hadn’t prepared properly. They had no idea how tough the Alps and the Pyrenees were.
But Brian battled on. He was one of only two of the team to make it to the final stage of the Tour in Paris. The other one was Tony Hoar.
Brian had almost abandoned the Tour on a couple of occasions but Hoar had encouraged him on.
Brian and Tony Hoar rode into Paris together. The French crowd gave them a massive ovation. Tony was 69th and last in the race, officially the ‘Lantern Rouge’. Brian was 29th. Officially he was the first Briton to ever complete the Tour de France.
The Hercules team promptly fell apart, with bitter recriminations about the Tour. Brian returned home to Mirfield to work with his father, whilst he searched for a new team. However, with the money he had earned in his first professional year, Brian bought himself a small car.
He had been earning £20 a week in the Tour, compared to £12 a week as a joiner.
And he married Shirley Fearnley, a fellow member of the Huddersfield Road Club. They were to have 3 children, Michelle, Martin and Louise.
He struggled to find another team though. He travelled around Europe competing in minor races and often sleeping in barns or fields.
He sold his car and bought a caravan on the Cote D’Azur, so that Shirley could stay with him sometimes.
In the spring of 1956 he got a ride with a minor team for the Vuelta a Espana. One of his teammates was Luxembourg rider Charly Gaul (who would go on to win the Tour de France in 1958). It was a chaotic race, heavily policed by General Franco’s Guardia Civil. On the 10th stage he punctured when he was 11th and had to fix the problem himself. He came 8th in the stage.
Brian did well enough to earn a place in the British team for the Tour De France that same year.
This was the only time the Tour was ever ridden with national teams. Brian finished a respectable 14th.
In 1957 he came third in the Milan – San Remo event in Italy and was unlucky not to have won. Nevertheless, he was delighted to have beaten Louison Bobot, the Tour de France champion from 1953-1955.
In the 1957 Tour he abandoned after a crash. He fell after slipping on wet cobbles.
It was the 1958 Tour when he finally won a stage. It was Stage 7 in Brittany, finishing in Brest and was 170km long. He actually finished second but the winner, Italian Arigo Padovan was disqualified for barging Brian into the barriers. He became the first ever Briton to win a stage in the Tour de France – but he felt it was a hollow victory. Shortly afterwards he abandoned the 1958 race after another crash.
In the 1959 Tour he won another stage (20), from Annecy to Calon-sur-Saone. Feeling very confident, he had put light wheels and tyres on his bike and then went on a breakaway with climber Gerard Saint who wanted King of the Mountains points. Once they reached the top of the climb, Saint pulled back and said to Brian, “Now bugger off.” Brian did – and managed to maintain his lead. He was 20 minutes ahead of his closest rival. He put it down to the years of time-trialling in Yorkshire.
However it took its toll. The following day, Brian and teammate Seamus Elliott finished last, well behind the allowed time limit and were about to be eliminated. But then his team manager brought up an obscure rule which said any rider in the top 10 of the Tour couldn’t be disqualified. Brian was 9th. Brian stayed but the unfortunate Elliott was sent home.
Brian said it was the latter stage win that mattered the most to him. “I like the second one best because it was clean.”
Brian had decent rides in the 1960 and 1961 Tours.
His greatest victory came in 1961when he won the 7-day Criterium de Dauphine Libere in the southeast of France.
But a cyclist’s life was hard and he soon realised he was past his best. He had made very little money from the sport, so he retired at just 33 and returned to Mirfield. There he became a joiner again.
The great British rider of the 1960s, Tom Simpson, gave lots of credit to Brian, calling him a pioneer and the man who opened opportunities for British riders on the continent.
He had many friends from the cycling world and was regarded as an honest, hard-working rider. He kept contact with most people and always went on an annual skiing reunion in Switzerland with other former professionals.
Shirley and Brian divorced in 1974 and the following year he married Audrey Oldroyd, gaining several stepchildren.
He continued cycling, re-joining the Huddersfield Road Club and was climbing the Yorkshire hills well into his 80s.
His daughter Louise became a cyclo-cross rider and won a silver medal at the 2000 World Championships.
In 2005, Brian organised a celebratory dinner for any British rider who had competed in the Tour de France since 1955 (the two earlier riders were now dead). All living British cyclists who had ridden in the Tour attended, nearly 70 of them.
In 2013 Brian was commemorated on a set of Tour de France stamps.
When the Tour de France came to Yorkshire in 2014, he was guest of honour, with British riders such as Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins crediting him with being a major influence on their careers.
He was interviewed about his experiences on the Tour. He compared how different his life was from the modern, professional cyclist. He would have steak and potatoes for breakfast. Then the cyclists collected their food for the day from an official. “Back then there would be a wooden table laid out in the village, with riders, mechanics and the public milling around or sitting on the town hall steps and you’d just grab some food.”
Apricot tartlettes were common but they had to be eaten quickly or the pastry would crumble in the rider’s musette. Chicken legs were the other staple of the Tour. Brian would pinch bananas and jam sandwiches from his hotel. He also remembered riders used to steal turnips from fields and grapes growing on the vine to augment their food supply (except in the 1956 Vuelta when armed policemen threatened to shoot any rider who pinched food).
Each rider was only allowed 2 water bottles. If they ran out the rider would have to go into a bar – or use a tap in a village square for a refill. He mused that so many riders were queuing for a tap that fights would often break out.
Ten days after the Tour came to Yorkshire, Brian was knocked off his bike by a car and suffered a broken collar bone, 6 broken ribs and a punctured lung.
Once he recovered, he bought an electric bike. “Marvellous for getting up those Yorkshire hills. The bike does all the work.”
His brother Des died in 2015.
By now Brian was a patron of the charity ‘Yorkshire Bank Bike Libraries’, which refurbished old bikes and gave them to people who couldn’t afford them. He said, “I always rode bits and pieces bikes, so I think it’s a wonderful idea. I didn’t get a new bike until I was 18 and working.”
In 2017, Brian was awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to cycling and to charity.
He was immensely proud that two of his grandchildren, Rebecca (Becky) and Jake Womersley, became talented riders and competed in races all around the world.
Ned Boulting, ITV’s cycling commentator said, “He was a pathfinder. The Brits had no place at the table until Brian came along. Without him, there’s no Bradley Wiggins and there’s no Mark Cavendish.”
Ned added, “He was a great man, a fierce competitor, a trailblazer, a generous soul, funny as hell and kinder than you can imagine. Yorkshire and England have lost a Great.”
The last word is from Brian himself. “I enjoyed every minute of my career. You get some bad moments – when you fall off, but you soon get back on again.”
RIP – Riding In (front of) Peleton