Thursday, 20 March 2008

#069 - 1961 - Tour De France

I seemed to be drifting away from any Cycling events I was not asked to go to the Peace Race in May, but out of the blue came an invite to go to the “Tour de France” as one of three mechanics to a newly formed English team which was to be managed by a Frenchman, Monsieur Mater. I had met him in 1959 when he was Director Sportif of the Equipe Francais in the Peace Race. The other 2 mechanics were Norman Roberts and a Frenchman named Andre Chenal. Three masseurs were also appointed Bill Shilibeer was one and a Dutchman and a Frenchman making the team of officials. There was also a friend of M. Mater who was to drive the team car. The team was made up of

1. Brian Robinson
2. Tommy Simpson
3. Vin Denson
4. Kenny Laidlaw
5. Seamus Elliot (Eire)
6. Stan Brittain
7. Albert Hitchen
8. Pete Ryalls
9. Ron Coe
10. Ian Moore
11. George O’Brian
12. Sean Ryan

We were very busy at the two shops and I was not as fit as I usual was before a race, nor could I get motivated for it. Then to top it all and two days before we were due to travel to the start at Rouen, Norman Roberts rang me to say he had pushed a screwdriver through his hand, the injury being so severe he would not be able to take part. (I heard much later that Norman had got “cold feet and did not want to come). Later that evening Bert Humphreys called in the shop and I told him about Norman, a thought came in to my head - why not ask Bert to come with me to France? Bert and I discussed this and he decided to come. What a success he turned out to be, but more of this later. Bert had been unhappy with his present job for some time and so was pleased to leave. The pay in the Tour de France was twice what he was currently getting, together with excitement and food and lodgings.

We left Long Eaton by train with all our gear i.e. tool box and three cases. The case that held our valuable spare parts had been bought at Mears shop in Long Eaton, Bert tested its strength by jumping on it from off the shop counter, proclaiming it would be OK! Nowadays we would buy an aluminium one. We had arranged to meet Bill Shilliber at Victoria Station, he was there waiting and we had a chat, he could not raise my enthusiasm for the race either. Also I had been working in to the small hours of the morning and I was really dead beat. No sleep was possible on the boat, we arrived in Le Havre shattered.

We then made the short trip to Rouen and met up with the rest of our team. Some were old racing rivals of mine, Stan Brittain presented me with a rear wheel which required a new rim, all I wanted to do was sleep but there was no chance. Next and right out the blue, six Rochet frames arrived, this was the afternoon before the next days start! Andre, Bert and I got stuck in to changing these frames over. When it came to fitting the handlebars and stems we found that the frames were made for French sizes the English being slightly larger. We endeavoured to obtain different sizes but we could not. We had to file down handlebars, stems and seat pillars, a crude job on the biggest cycle race in the world.

While we were engaged in this work, in trooped a party from ‘Cycling’ led by Johnny Dennis to see how the mechanics were doing. A nice gesture really but were we embarrassed. We finished the bikes late at night. AndrĂ© then decided to take us for a walk to sightsee the cathedral, taking us later to the spot were Joan of Arc had been burnt to death by the English. By now I was physically drained, wishing I had never set eyes on the “Tour de France”. In the morning Pete Ryalls, who had obviously been consulting his race bible, asked me if I had brought any chain wheels with me, he wanted a 42t inner to enable him to get up the mountains. Having checked his bike over I knew he had a Williams C1200 cotter Chain set and Williams had not produced any less than 44t. Some of the riders had equipment that was much worse than that of the amateur teams I had been with in the past. Worrying me also was the brakes that some of them were riding i.e. GB centre pull, no matter how these were adjusted you could pull the levers up to the handlebars. Brian Robinson heard about my worries, he assured me that the riders in question would only last three or four days.

I was in the lead car for the first few days, the Tour provides two cars and a van for the luggage, this was in the days of National Teams, races are a lot more professional now, no comparison with the amateur days. With the first two days passing reasonably quietly, mostly bunch finishes, Shay Elliot held the Yellow jersey for one day. Still absolutely tired out I was asked to drive the number two car, a Renault Dauphine with no doors on the front. We shared driving the lead car, so as to enable each of us the excitement of driving the team car. The position of the car in the vehicle peliton is decided by the general class position of your Team.

On the fourth stage we were on the Paris-Roubaix rough roads and there was a huge crash, I rushed up to the scene with a pair of wheels, whereupon I came across Brian Robinson sitting with his back to a tree, he remarked to me quite casually that the wheels would not be any good - bring him a bike, I ran back to the car and gave him the bike and pushed him off. How to be relaxed, what a lesson for me. About five miles after this crash I was driving fast through a village to catch up with the main group, when there at the side of the road stood Tommy Simpson with a rear wheel in his hand indicating he had punctured, I quickly had a wheel out of the car, then noticing his chain was like a figure eight all twisted, I thought Christ! I will have to give him a bike. But I gave the chain a good shake and to my relief it fell in to the right position, “F…….. hell how did you do that?” said Tom. I pushed him off and he regained the main group. Unfortunately during winter training Tom had injured his knee and no matter what treatment the race doctor administered, during the stage as well, Tom had to retire. By the time we reached Grenoble we were down to five riders, this naturally made the mechanics job much easier.

At the beginning of this race we had twelve bikes and six pair of wheels, we would clean and check the bikes and then Andre would disappear to the French team to find out what gears they were riding for the mountain stage, as we were to have the same. When we got to the mountains we (Bert and I) had finished the bikes then we had to wait for Andre to come back with gear ratios, this could take some time as Andre was amongst friends and in no hurry to get back! We got fed up of changing sprockets - a much harder job than the cassette hubs supplied to day. We went over the ‘Col Mont Cenis’ and in to Italy finishing at Turin. At Turin the ‘Tour de l'Avenir’ would cross our path, this was a new race for amateurs and there was an English team in it. Bert and I waited for the England team to finish because we had decided to help this mechanic who had six bikes to do. The mechanic came along and all he could moan about was that we had three mechanics to do four bikes, we could not get a word in to offer our help, so we left him to it.

After the Turin stage to Nice our team dropped to four, Vin Denson being out of the time limit, the organisers decided that to cut down expenses a mechanic and a masseur must return home. As Bert was doing an excellent job with the luggage van and doing the washing and all sorts of things, I volunteered to go home and I have never been so relieved to leave a race before or since, it had beena real nightmare to me - I lost my race nerve completely.

On reaching home my mind was still on the race, avidly reading the cycle reports daily. The pay for mechanics in the Tour de France was very good and this enabled me to fly to Paris to see the finish on the Parc de Prinz track. The show put on before the finish to keep the crowd amused was really first class, the gendarme on BSA motor cycles bringing the house down. Then camethe massed sprint to the line, the prize presentation followed with Jacques Anquetil winning. After the final celebrations were over, Kenny Laidlaw returned home to Glasgow, the rest of us stayed with the manager M. Mater at his hotel.

Following the Tour, riders are contracted to ride in Town Centre races or as they are known in France - Criteriums. Brian and Shay were offered contracts and the next day – with Bert and I accompanying them, we drove to Evreux near Caen for a 50 lap Criterium. The whole town is roped off just like a carnival, road side seats were at a premium. This event was pure show business and a real joy to watch but what a terrible hard way to make a living, this being the day following the final stage of the Tour. The riders were booked for many days ahead for these prestigious events, but the down side was that they could be several hundred miles apart, and after a hard slog the riders wanted nothing more than to relax in their hotel instead of facing a long drive. After the first criterium Bert and I returned home elated. Bert, who had thrown caution to the winds and resigned his job to go on the Tour de France, soon found a new joinery post at the pre-fabricate building firm of Vic Hallam Ltd of Langley Mill. He was sent all over the British Isles with this work.

No comments: