Brian Robinson obituary | Bike
Brian Robinson, who died aged 91, was the first Briton to not only complete the Tour de France but then to win a stage of the Tour.
His historic Tour completion came in 1955, when he fought for the finish in 29th place overall. Three years later, after numerous trials on and off the road, he won a Tour stage victory on a section from St Brieuc to Brest, followed by another in 1959, from Annecy to Chalon-sur-Saône.
In doing so, he paved the way for other Britons to leave their mark on the sport in continental Europe over the following decades.
Born in Mirfield, West yorkshire, Brian was the son of Emily (née Backhouse), a World War II munitions worker, and Henry Robinson, a carpenter and builder. They were a family of cyclists and Henry fostered the road racing instincts of Brian and his brother Desmond, both members of the Huddersfield Road Club.
But Henry also insisted that Brian be apprenticed as a carpenter for six years. In addition, he had to undertake national service, and it was not until 1953 that he fully committed himself to professional cycling.
Along with Desmond, Brian had represented Britain as an amateur at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, but insularity and confused attitudes had kept Britain out of professional cycling in continental Europe. However, Brian took the standpoint of the rebellious British League of Racing Cyclists, whose members had broader horizons. Fourth in the Tour de Bretagne in 1952 and second in 1954, he set his sights on the Tour de France.
Hercules, the successful British cycle manufacturer, had by then begun to build a team capable of racing overseas, and Robinson joined. During the winter of 1954-55, he and his teammates went to a training camp at Les Issambres in southern France. The village was favored by French cycling professionals, which other British cyclists preferred to avoid. But Robinson felt he could make progress by getting to know his rivals; so he began to learn French himself and fraternized with them.
During the 1955 Tour de France, the 10 members of the British team were upgraded. None of them had known such fierce competition, and they had no idea of the difficulties of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Only two have even reached the finals in Paris – Robinson and born in Hampshire Tony Hoar. Robinson had come close to dropping out of the race at various times, but had been helped for days by Hoar’s good humor.
They both completed the event, with Hoar as red lantern in 69th and last place. The two received a particularly warm welcome when they entered the Parc des Princes in Paris. Eighteen years after Charles Holland and Bill Burl became the first Britons to enter racing, it was a special moment in the Entente Cordiale and marked the start of a new era in British cycling.
Despite this achievement, the Hercules team quickly disbanded amid recriminations. Robinson spent the winter of 1955–56 in Mirfield, working in his father’s business and hoping for future campaigns in Europe.
In 1955 he married fellow club cyclist, Sheila Fearnley, who experienced – living mostly in a caravan – the hardships of a racer’s life.
For the next two years Robinson traveled to try and earn money in minor French racing, often forced to sleep in fields and barns when funds were low.
In the spring of 1956, he raced for a minor team in the Vuelta a España, a chaotic tour of Spain controlled by Franco’s Guardia Civil. His bravery in this competition earned him a race for the international team in the 1956 Tour de France, in which he finished 14th, and the following year he shone in the Italian Milan-San Remo event, finishing third then that he could have won on a luckier day.
In 1957 and 1958, he had to abandon the Tour de France, victim of falls and exhaustion each time. Nevertheless, before his retirement in 1958 came his stage victory in the 170km seventh section through Brittany, in which he initially finished second but moved into first when Italian rider Arigo Padovan, who had crossed the line in the lead , was penalized for earlier forcing Robinson into the barriers.
If it was a hollow victory, in 1959 Robinson proved that it was no accident by winning the 20th stage of 202 km which ended in Chalon-sur-Saône. Feeling at dawn that the day could be his, he fitted his lightest wheels and tires and engineered a decisive solo breakaway, finishing 20 minutes ahead of the peloton.
It was a race of commanding strength rather than brilliance, and Robinson said he had prepared for it years before in the British time trial.
In 1961, he won his most prestigious victory, during the seven-day Critérium de Dauphiné Libéré in the south-east of France.
After almost eight years of a grueling professional career, Robinson was beginning to feel the strains of his grueling schedule and his performance was gradually beginning to decline. But as a confirmed rider, well known in France and respected by all the great professionals of the time, he had acquired a great knowledge of a sport that was both heroic and corrupt.
An honest competitor and a man of principle, he was well placed to guide the inexperienced British riders who, from the late 1950s, tried to follow in his wake. The most distinguished of his proteges was Tom Simpson, who went on to become one of Britain’s most successful cyclists.
However, at the age of 33 and having earned little money from his sport, Robinson decided to return to Mirfield and his first vocation as a carpenter. Later, he kept in touch with other former professionals at the annual ski meetings in Switzerland, and it was also his pleasure, until his 80s, to ride with his teammates from Huddersfield on the hilly roads of the Yorkshire that he had known since he was a boy. .
Robinson was particularly celebrated when the Tour de France visited Yorkshire in 2014 and received many tributes from young British riders such as Mark Cavendish and Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Brian and Shirley had three children, Michelle, Martin and Louise. They divorced in 1974; the following year Brian married Audrey Oldroyd and had three stepchildren, Elizabeth, Mark and Amanda.
Audrey is survived by her children and stepchildren, as are her grandchildren, Rebecca and Jake, who have cycled in events all over the world, and five step-grandchildren. Desmond died in 2015.