Commentary: After 65 years, Tour Britannia is here

The peloton chastised English speakers until late in the 20th century. Now, Great Britain owns the Tour de France

As the flag falls on the Champs-Élysées Sunday, this year’s Tour de France will have its first-ever British victor thanks to Bradley Wiggins. Not only that, it will also have another Brit, Chris Froome, stepping onto the podium in a race dominated by the double act from Sky.

The Brits haven’t always faired so well in France. Not so long ago you’d be derogated for even speaking English in the European peloton. But now English has become the prominent language amongst the riders, and Anglophile riders have all but dominated this great race for the past decade now.

Before today, no British rider had ever won the Tour de France — not even made it on to the top three podium steps,. Sure there have been some close calls, with Wiggins and Robert Millar having both been finished fourth (twice for Millar).

As of last week no Brit had ever won a grand tour, which is amazing when we consider the long-term strength and prominence of British riders in the pro peloton. The closest calls have all come in the Vuelta a España, thanks to two second-place finishes by Millar and last year’s second overall by Froome.

This year, Ryder Hesjedal took a Giro d’Italia title for Canada, while Cadel Evans landed Australia’s first Tour de France victory in 2011. Ireland has won each of the three grand tours, and of course the U.S. has been bagging the top slots for more than a quarter of a century now, but the Brits just haven’t cracked it yet.

It was way back in 1937 when the first British riders lined up for the Tour, Charles Holland and Bill Burl. Back then, individuals could enter the race (and possibly get accepted). The duo were each semi-pro independents and, at the request of the organizers, formed a British Empire team along with Canadian Pierre Gachon.

The Canadian was dropped and retired on the first stage, while Burl was floored by a photographer on the second day and retired with a broken collarbone. Holland rode strongly, and was just behind the leaders on stage 8 through the Pyrénées, but suffered an untimely series of punctures and ran out of tires, forcing a frustrated retirement.

It would be another 18 years (1955) before a British rider finally finished the Tour, with Brian Robinson finishing 29th and Tony Hoare taking home the lanterne rouge. The duo formed part of a British national team (as were all Tour teams during that era). Robinson became the first Brit to win a stage in the Tour in 1958 when the race jury awarded him victory on stage 7 after relegating the rider that beat him for a “hot” sprint.

The Yorkshire rider came back in 1959 to take a second stage victory on stage 20 of the Tour, winning by an astounding 20 minutes. He also won the Critérium du Dauphiné Libere and other major races during his career, and was largely responsible for Tom Simpson getting his first pro contract with the Rapha Geminiani team.

A string of solo Brits made their way to the great race through the late 1950s and 1960s and in 1962, Tom Simpson finished sixth overall in the race. Along the way he became the first Brit to don the leader’s yellow jersey, a feat which wasn’t matched by another Brit for more than 20 years.

Simpson was a great and respected champion and tragically collapsed and died in the 1967 Tour, just short of the summit of Mont Ventoux. The autopsy revealed alcohol and amphetamines in his system, a deadly cocktail when combined with the heat of the Ventoux. He was just 29 years old.

During that same Tour, in 1967, a great friend of Simpson also made his mark on the race. Barry Hoban, a fellow Yorkshire man, scored his maiden two stage wins that year and followed up with another six during the next eight years. That mark stood as Great Britain’s top tally until Mark Cavendish came along.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a small but prominent influx of Anglophiles to the Euro peloton, largely thanks to the French ACBB squad, which acted as a feeder team to Peugeot, one of the few teams to openly accept foreign riders, all be it as underdogs.

A young and scrawny Scotsman named Robert Millar rose to fame during the early 1980s, finishing fourth overall in both the 1983 and 1984 Tours. Millar took Britain’s first and only King of the Mountains title in 1984 and won three career mountain stages. For some time Millar was considered as an overall Tour contender, but he was lacking against the clock, and also never seriously considered himself capable of winning the race overall.

Although British composite and national teams had competed in the Tour, and the British sponsored (but Dutch based) TI Raleigh squad was a dominant force during the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t until 1987 that a full-fledged Great Britain-registered pro team started the race. It was the infamous ANC Halfords squad.

The squad’s selection was a highly surprising wildcard entry that led the ill-prepared band of Brits and a few “foreigners” to the start of the race. It was an era for change, and 7-11 had proven its worth the year before. So, why not the Brits?

It was to be a disastrous Tour for the team, whose best GC finisher was Adrian Timmis in 70th. The highlight of the race was a third-place stage finish by Malcolm Elliot. The lowlight was the mid-race disappearance of team owner Tony Capper, who left a pile of debt and little else behind.
Twenty years on (2007), the South Africa-sponsored, but Great Britain-registered Barloworld team earned a wild card entry to the Tour. The team took away the mountains classification (Mauricio Soler) and two stage wins (Soler and Robert Hunter). And finally, in 2010, Britain’s first true ProTour team, Sky, took the start, operating from a much higher base than its predecessors.

Three years into the project, the team has a Tour winner, three stage wins and second-place overall.

The Tour has visited British roads three times in all (1972, 1994 and 2007). During the 1994 Tour, debutant Chris Boardman took the opening prologue TT victory, becoming the first Briton since Tom Simpson to wear yellow. Unfortunately, he lost the lead before the race crossed into Britain.

Ironically, just after the race returned to France, veteran Brit Sean Yates, now Sky’s top director, also rode into the yellow jersey, making an amazing Tour for the country.

During his career, Boardman pretty well made the prologue and opening yellow jersey of the Tour his own, a mantle that he passed in some degree to David Millar in later years.

Before the Tour rolled into action this year, a total of 44 individual Britons had started the race, with 29 of them making it to the finish. In all, there had been four British wearers of the yellow jersey, an overall polka dot winner (Robert Millar), an overall points winner (Cavendish in 2011), and a tally of 44 stage wins. A staggering 20 of those 44 pre-2012 victories had fallen to Mark Cavendish, a tally that he added to this year, along with David Millar, Froome and Wiggins.

With six wins, the British lead all nations in stage wins at this Tour and can pad that lead on Sunday. France sits second, with five.

Finally, the Brits’ Tour curse is broken, and in fine style.

Steve Thomas is a Welshman living in Thailand. He’s been racing bikes on and off for over 30 years, at every level, on- and off-road. He’s been a freelance writer and photographer for 18 years. He’s been an occasional contributor to VeloNews for 16 years.