The second of our historical Re-Cycle series during this year's Tour de France doffs its hat to Brian Robinson on the sixtieth anniversary of his remarkable solo win in Stage 20 of the 1959 Tour. Britain's first ever Tour stage winner tells Felix Lowe how he managed to solo to glory by over 20 minutes in Chalon-sur-Saône, the same Burgundy town that hosts the finale of Stage 7 this year.
Long before British riders won three editions of the Tour de France in six years, before Mark Cavendish amassed 30 Tour stage wins (and counting), before Robert Millar won the polka dot jersey in Paris and Barry Hoban snared a trailblazing eight Tour stages, an unassuming Yorkshireman called Brian Robinson paved the way and made it all possible.
With a career that overlapped the eras of Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil, Robinson was Britain's pioneering pro, the first British cyclist to make a (meagre) living from the sport, the joint-first to complete the world's biggest bike race, and the first to win a stage – both by default, and by what was at the time the third-largest post-war margin of victory.
When seven British riders made up the first team from Great Britain to feature in the Tour in 1955, Robinson, just 25-years-old at the time, was one of two finishers: he came an impressive 29th while Tony Hoar was the lanterne rouge in 69th place.
A year later, Robinson was third in the opening stage and notched three more top 10 finishes for the international team, but in 1957 he crashed out in stage 5, having months earlier become the first Briton to finish on the podium of a Monument (third in Milan-Sanremo).
But his real breakthrough came in 1958 when he was awarded Stage 7 of the Tour after his Italian rival Arrigo Padovan was demoted for an irregular sprint.
If that made Britain's first stage win in the Tour something of an anti-climax, then Robinson ensured that the second win was anything but – riding clear with more than 100km remaining to beat the field by over 20 minutes.
With a little help from Robinson, now 88, Eurosport takes a look back at this landmark moment for British cycling as the world's biggest bike race returns to Chalon-sur-Saône.
Britain's first Tour stage winner in 1958
The opening week of the Tour had been frustrating for Robinson, who had failed to crack the top 10 ahead of Stage 7 from Saint-Brieuc to Brest. So, he tried another tactic and got himself into a move off the front.
"There were three of us in the sprint," Robinson recalls. "Jean Dotto, myself and Padovan. Padovan was a sprinter but I knew Jean was no danger."
Robinson and Dotto were teammates at Saint-Raphaël-R.Geminiani throughout the year except July, for the Tour still insisted on national teams. With the British team not reappearing after their floundering debut in 1955, Robinson was now part of the motley crew of "Internationals".
"I was feeling good and I thought that I've got this one. I went on one side of the road and Padovan on the other. But he came on over me and put me into the barriers, so I went back round him, if you like, and nearly caught up to him again, but didn't make it.
"Obviously there was no cameras then, no overhead helicopter, so Jock Wadley, who was a journalist following in the car, and some other guys put in a complaint and it was successful. I didn't have anything to do with it, it just came to me."
Which was the rather unceremonious way in which Britain's first Tour stage winner was crowned.
I knew morally I had won the race," Robinson adds. "It was just a shame that there was that type of event at the finish – it took the shine off it. Anyway, we confirmed it the year after. And there was no doubt about that one, was there?
No doubt, indeed. Although were it not for an obscure loophole, Robinson's defining win may never have happened...
Setting the scene: Robinson survives elimination
Robinson was no stranger to illness, his 1958 Tour having been curtained on Stage 20 because of stomach problems with Paris cruelly, tantalisingly in sight.
One year on, in Stage 14 from Aurillac to Clermont Ferrand, Robinson endured a day of absolute purgatory on the bike and needed to be nursed along by his Irish teammate Seamus Elliot.
"I was riding pretty well that year but I spent the night on the loo," Robinson admits. "I was so weak the day after that Shay – we were in the mixed team together – waited with me and we both got eliminated.
"Shay wasn't ill himself but he stuck with me. I told him to go ahead because I was finished, but he replied: 'To be honest, I'm not a great Tour rider and I'm not that bothered.' So, he stayed with me."
That was probably a modest statement by Elliot, who was the first Irishman to win a Tour stage, the first to wear the yellow jersey, and the first English speaker to win stages in all three Grand Tours; he also finished runner up to Jean Stablinski in the 1962 World Championships road race and became the first foreign winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in 1959.
In any case, the two Internationals finished the stage hors délai more than 47 minutes down and faced elimination from the race.
But an ancient rule dictated that riders in the top ten were exempt from the daily time limit, giving an unexpected reprieve to Robinson, who had been ninth in the standings before falling ill.
So I stayed in and Shay went home. As he went and caught the train, I told him, 'We'll resurrect something out of this Tour – we've got to win a stage or something'. And that's how we left it. I then looked through the handbook and chose a stage where I would have recovered and could have a really good go.
Stage 20, Tour de France 1959
The day Robinson chose was deep into the race, the 202km Stage 20 from Annecy to Chalon-sur-Saône, the day before the final time trial when many of the GC riders would have been preoccupied about the task in hand.
"I said to my mechanics, 'Get my time trial bike ready a day early'." They fitted light time trial wheels to his pale blue Geminiani frame and Robinson was good to go. He knew the roads well because he'd ridden a criterium in the area and decided to make his move in the town of Bellegarde near the Jura mountains. He was joined by Dotto, his teammates from Saint-Raphaël.
"Unbelievably, Jean came along on the quiet and said, 'Look, I'm second in the king of the mountains, would you lead me out on the last climb and if you do, I might win it?'.
"So that's what we arranged to do – but I said on one condition: 'When we get to the top and I let you through for the points, you let me go on my own after that.' And that's what happened."
It may have been the last climb, but there was still well over half the stage left to ride. That didn't deter Robinson, who put in some risks on the hairy descent to distance Dotto and solo clear.
"Poor old Jean. He was a good climber by the couldn't go downhill, which in my mind is terrible. We were good friends – really, I was good friends with most people – and he shouted, 'Wait for me!'. But I eventually got away and the rest of the peloton thought, 'Oh, we'll let him die out there,' but I didn't die even if there was still about 130 or 140km left."
The gap was around one minute at the bottom of the climb. "But the road was gravely, and I thought, 'Oh Christ, if you get a puncture now it'll all be over!'. Anyway, I avoided a puncture and they never saw me again, really."
"But like I said, I had loads of friends in the peloton and they would have been wanting a quiet ride because it was the time trial the day after. There was only one more day after that, I had already almost been eliminated once and I was no threat to anyone on the general classification. So, I was crafty if you like."
The gap grew to four minutes over the next 40km and despite a strong headwind, Robinson's advantage continued to grow. And all the while, he reminded himself that he was doing it for Shay. It was undeniably a lonely day in the saddle, mind. So the lone leader sang to himself…
"There were no spectators through the countryside, only when you passed through a town. I think I was elated – well, I should have been, really – and I remember I had some kind of repetitive French song in my head. It was like 'twenty-one, twenty-one…' – something like that."
Entering the final hour of racing, Robinson's lead was 19 minutes and he knew victory was his. The finish was on the riverside promenade at Chalon (which was once a busy port and distribution point for local wines) and he was able to soak up the atmosphere in a way his de facto win the previous year didn't allow.
"The worst thing about it was waiting for the bunch to come in," Robinson recalls. "I was twiddling my thumbs because everyone wanted to speak to me."
When the peloton came home, 20 minutes and six seconds later, the sprint for second place was won by that man Padovan, whose elimination had gifted Robinson his maiden victory one year before.
"Yes, we had a good laugh about that. I must have been his bête-noir."
What happened next
A day later, Robinson suffered in the 69km time trial, coming home 15 minutes behind the winner, Roger Rivière. After the final stage to Paris, he was 19th in the final general classification more than an hour down on the maillot jaune, Federico Bahamontes. He raced the next two Tours, entering his final Grande Boucle in 1961 as Britain's first Dauphiné champion.
"I don't know how I'd get along with how cycling's done today with Strava and stuff, with it all being regimented," Robinson says.
"We were free to race. There was no interference, really, once you got off and the gun had gone. The team was on its own and the team made up its mind what it was going to do.
"If one of your guys got away then you protected him, of course. That's what happened with me and the Dauphine. On the second day, two riders got away and I chased them, being the policeman for the team. We [the Saint-Raphaël team] had Raymond Mastrotto in the jersey and they got eight minutes.
"Our director let me go and I got the jersey. It was much better that I got eight minutes and the jersey stayed in the team – and I kept it to the end. I was riding well."
Robinson and Mastrotto pulled off a one-two for the team, with two other Saint-Raphaël riders making the top five.
Now 88, Robinson claims he has not been back to Chalon since his win – but that's not strictly true. When Stage 7 of the 1961 Tour finished in Chalon, Robinson finished deep in the peloton in 75th position some 6'33" down on winner Jean Stablinski.
In any case, Robinson's margin of victory in Stage 20 of the 1959 Tour remained the third largest until it, and the two leading margins, were superseded by the Spaniard José-Luis Viejo, who won Stage 11 in 1976 by 22 minutes and 50 seconds. Robinson's margin of 20'06" is the fourth largest to date.
Britain's first Tour de France stage winner, Brian Robinson, on the Col du Galibier during the 1955 Tour - three years before his landmark win
Image credit: Getty Images
He did not give his mucker Elliot a call on the evening of his win – "It was not as easy in those days" – but he was sure the Irishman would have been following the race from home. And he certainly received his cut for that day of selfless nursing Robinson through his illness.
"We were still sharing prize money even though he'd gone home. Not that we made a right packet. But he was in on the deal, if you like."
One direct upshot of Robinson's record ride was that, days after he came within an archaic ruling from being eliminated, he brought about the elimination of a Tour great. Twelve years after his victory of the 1947 Tour, France's Jean Robic finished well outside the time limit just two days from Paris.
"I knew Robic had been dropped and was struggling at about the half distance," Robinson says. "Journalists relayed the message from Jean: 'Doucement, je suis kaput!' ('Gently, I've blown up!') I'm not proud of it but I'm afraid I slung a deaf one and just kept up the rhythm to the finish. C'est la vie, n'est-ce pas?"
Robic, who never rode the Tour again, later said, "I was eliminated by a rider who had already been eliminated."
In 2014, Robinson was given an MBE in the Queen's New Year's Eve honours list.
Stage 7, Tour de France 2019
Sixty years after Robinson's exploits, the Tour returns to Chalon-sur-Saône at the end of the first week. The longest stage of the 2019 Tour de France is a 230km ride that takes in three lower-category climbs before a fast run into the Burgundy town. With the intermediate sprint coming less than 35km from the finish, it's fairly certain the stage will be decided by a bunch sprint and not a solo break in the vein of Robinson.
"It's unfortunate that nowadays it doesn't happen often," Robinson laments. "They let a break go but always catch it just before the finish. With the radio and stuff like that, it's not like it used to be."
Since Robinson's victory and Stablinski's win three years later, Chalon has hosted two more stage finishes, with victories going to the Dutchman Rik van Linden (1975) and France's Thierry Marie (1988).
Robinson says he was invited to be a guest at Stage 7 this year by the mayor of Chalon but had to turn it down because his days of long-distance travelling are past. Instead he'll watch on television ahead of appearing in an event for one of his local cycling clubs.
"I don't mind who wins," he says. "It should be a good stage, it's long enough. I suppose it will come down to how the guys in the cars handle it because it seems to be that way nowadays. It would be nice to see a British rider win."
Nowadays, Robinson prefers watching mountainous stages and admits he is in awe of the current successes for British riders at Team Sky (now Ineos).
It's very different to my days – sixty years ago there weren't many of us [Brits]. I was a lone ranger, to be honest. But nowadays we have guys who have won the Tour several times and British guys who can ride the Tour without any problems. We've come on a long way. We couldn't put a team together back then.
He admits that his victory helped him sign a new deal with his Saint-Raphaël team. He was also invited on a week-long in Spain with the Tour winner Bahamontes and French stars Anquetil and André Darrigade.
"I needed a contract so the win helped," he says. "Not that winning got much publicity back over here. I was divorced from England – living in France, riding in France. England didn't have much input if you like. It was reported in the papers, though. The best one was half a page in the Daily Express, who had a guy on the Tour itself."
At the time of speaking, British sprinter Mark Cavendish was still in line to race the Tour – and Robinson would have been happy to see the Manxman notch a 31st Tour stage win sixty years after his own triumph. "I'd be very happy for him. Cav needs it like I needed it."
As for the overall victory in Paris, Robinson hopes that Welshman Geraint Thomas can double up – provided he can stay upright.
"I have no idea who will win. [Vincenzo] Nibali is in a good place for the podium but I don't think he'll win. I don't know how bad his injuries are [from the Tour de Suisse], but Geraint has a good chance. I just hope he doesn't fall off again because he does seem to be a bit prone to crashing."