For close to a decade, British men’s cycling has been on top of the world—Grand Tour GC victories and stage wins galore, Olympic medals, a World Championship—and nowhere has this domination been more evident than at cycling’s premiere event, the Tour de France. Six of the last seven Tours de France have been won by Britons (Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, and Geraint Thomas); meanwhile, Mark Cavendish almost matched Eddy Merckx’s record number of stage wins. And Team Sky, the British road-racing juggernaut launched in 2010, has come to dominate the Tour to an almost unprecedented extent.
With all this success, it may be hard to remember or believe that it hasn’t always been thus with British cycling. In fact, prior to 2012, no Briton had ever won the Tour, and before Cavendish started racking up sprint stage wins in 2008, the sum total of British cycling’s accomplishments in the most famous grand tour had been a grand total of about 20 stage wins and a few days in yellow, with the best overall finish by a British cyclist being Robert Millar’s fourth place finish in 1984.
In fact, the full story of Britain’s participation at the Tour has been, until this recent success, one of modest achievements. And it’s this story of small, and, in some cases, largely forgotten triumphs that William Fotheringham’s Roule Britiannia: Great Britain and the Tour de France tells, tracing the history of British involvement with the race, from the earliest forays across the channel in the 1930s up until Wiggins’ victory in 2012.
Fotheringham is one of the best cycling journalists we have. His biographies Put Me Back on the Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson (2002) and Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi (2009) are classics. But this book, first published in 2005 and then again with additional chapters in 2012, is the book he was born to write. Fotheringham followed and wrote about the Tour for The Guardian between 1990 and 2017, establishing professional and personal relationships with many of the figures he profiles, but that’s only part of what makes him so well qualified for the task. He was also, beginning in the 1980s, a racing cyclist himself who, like so many of the British pro riders he writes about in the book, felt in a visceral way the lure of French cycling and the magic of the Tour.
Fotheringham deftly conveys the powerful attraction of France in the post-World War 2 years, and how its siren call lured a handful of British dreamers across the channel. These men, beginning with the 1955 Hercules team, were tremendous underdogs, coming from a predominantly time-trial culture, dropped into a foreign world of road racing, lacking language skills and cultural knowledge. But they made up for it with quiet, very British, determination. Only two of the ten British starters finished that race, but it was a beginning.
The best of that first generation of British Tour de France competitors, Brian Robinson, quickly established a reputation as a gutsy, clever competitor who earned the respect of the French riders and press. In 1956, he finished a respectable 14th overall, and in 1957 he won Britain’s first stage in the Tour.
One of the pleasures of this book is learning more about some of the lesser known names in British road cycling history. I had heard the names Vin Denson and Barry Hoban, and of course know Paul Sherwen from his broadcasting, but Fotheringham gives us rich profiles of these riders who fashioned solid, successful careers in the peloton. He’s done his legwork, interviewing these men, gathering some wonderful anecdotes from their racing days in France, such as Sherwen’s account of the infamous riders’ strike in 1978, led by a young Bernard Hinault. I’ve heard that story many times, but Sherwen provides fresh details for Fotheringham’s telling.
On Tom Simpson, the most celebrated British rider until Cavendish and Wiggins, Fotheringham is especially insightful, which isn’t surprising given that Fotheringham wrote a book about him and his mythical place in British cycling history. Simpson, as cocky and impulsive as Robinson was reserved and calculating, was especially beloved by the French for his un-British panache. But his tragic death on Mount Ventoux in the 1967 tour, from a combination of drugs and exhaustion, had a devastating effect on British cycling, leaving it “decapitated” for a decade, as Fotheringham aptly puts it. This chapter provides the best concise assessment of Simpson’s complicated legacy you’re likely to find.
Other chapters focus on the big names in the last four decades of British cycling: Robert Millar, Sean Yates, Chris Boardman, David Millar, Mark Cavendish, and Bradley Wiggins. Their stories are better known to fans of my generation, but Fotheringham offers deft profiles, full of race details, excerpts from interviews, and his own first-person reminiscences.
The chapter on Boardman, whom Fotheringham calls “perhaps the most important cyclist [Britain] has produced,” in terms of influence on British cycling and sport over the longer term, is especially good. Boardman’s unconventional story, as a time-trialist turned reluctant Grant Tour rider, and a clean rider during the Festina era, stands out.
My favorite parts of this book, however, are the more obscure stories, and one I didn’t know at all is the tale of the ANC-Halford team fiasco of the 1987 tour. The story of this British team, founded in 1985 with a mission to build a British cycling powerhouse, reads now like a parodic precursor of Team Sky. While everyone remembers how Stephen Roche outdueled Pedro Delgado in ‘87, almost no one recalls the failed experiment of ANC-Halford, whose squad was disorganized, unprepared, and ultimately ran out of money part way through the Tour.
My only complaint with the book, and it’s a small one, is that Fotheringham says scarcely a critical word about any of the cyclists he profiles here. His mission clearly is to celebrate British cycling, to puff up its under-appreciated heroes, rather than knock them down. I get that. But a couple of the characters he writes about are notoriously difficult (Cavendish) or just weird (Wiggo), and Fotheringham tends to gloss over any negative elements.
I suspect part of this comes from him wanting to protect his personal relationships with these riders, having spent a lot of time with them over the years, cultivating relationships that helped his journalistic mission. But the downside is that we rarely get Fotheringham’s frank assessments. Interestingly, the rider he’s most critical of is Tom Simpson, who died long before Fotheringham was born and, therefore, couldn’t have known personally.
If he’d wanted to, Fotheringham could have updated this book several more times since 2012, adding chapters on the Froome era, the continued success and controversy around Team Sky, and now Geraint Thomas’s victory. But that would tip the focus of the book significantly. Fotheringham seems much more comfortable writing about the quiet, unsung achievements of British cycling than the embarrassment of riches of these last seven years. How very British.