“Connor got the job because he was the only sports writer at the Daily Star who didn’t smoke.” Paul Watson
And so a national daily newspaper sent one of its journalists to France for three weeks in July, and one of the finest books ever written on cycling emerged. Wide-Eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor’s boils-and-all coverage of the fateful 1987 Tour de France undertaken by the hopelessly under-prepared ANC-Halfords team, chronicles the misfortunes of the first British squad to tackle the grand boucle in 20 years.
Connor spent the entire Tour with them, initially as an observer, but before long as a helper, giving him unprecedented insight into the machinations of ANC’s adventure. Connor had unwittingly stumbled on a brilliant story, packed full of bickering, backbiting and cock-ups: a writer’s dream.
And team boss Tony Capper – a bear of a man who would, according to directeur sportif Phil Griffiths, squeeze behind the wheel of the team car surrounded by copious quantities of food for the day ahead – was a gift to a journalist looking for an angle.
Connor’s remit from the Star was to cover the Tour and the (hopefully) glorious debut of this British professional team. If he could ride a stage or two himself – hence the non-smoking requirement – that would be a bonus. Both the Star and Connor clearly had a few things to learn that July.
Capper was a man in a hurry. His ANC parcel delivery company was looking to expand into the Continent, so what better way to advertise than via the vehicle of the Tour de France, with a TV audience of millions? What often reads in Wide-Eyed as a rich man’s ego trip was based on sound business principles.
Another year and ANC might have been in a position to at least survive the Tour intact. As it transpired, the race finished the team off forever. ANC-Halfords crashed and burned as spectacularly as any dot-com startup at the turn of the 21st century.
Yet the squad had prepared for the main event that year with a series of European races starting in February and gained sufficiently impressive results to earn a Tour place on merit. How did events take such a calamitous turn for the worse in such a short time? Was the team’s performance actually as bad as Connor portrays in Wide-Eyed?
After all, Malcolm Elliott came within a whisker of a stage win in Bordeaux, and ANC was not alone in having only four finishers: Sean Kelly’s KAS squad and two other teams were in the same boat, while Supermercati and Ryalco only managed a pair apiece.
It was a brutally fast race, covering 800 kilometres more than the 2011 edition. It left grown men broken at the roadside – ANC’s Graham Jones and Adrian Timmis, for differing reasons, remain convinced that the 1987 Tour was effectively the end of their cycling careers.
The team selection for the Tour consisted of five foreign riders (Steve Swart, Shane Sutton, Kvetoslav Palov, Guy Gallopin and Bernard Chesneau) and four Britons (Graham Jones, Adrian Timmis, Paul Watson and Malcolm Elliott).
We gathered together the British contingent, plus directeur sportif Phil Griffiths, to revisit the ’87 Tour and discuss the effect of Wide-Eyed and Legless on the team.
Graham, what was the draw of signing for ANC-Halfords?
Jones: “Most of my career was based in France, but I came back at the end of ’84 after having a pretty crap year with illness, injury and lack of form. I also had a crash in April that did my knee in, and I still have problems with it now.
I rode the Tour that year with Système U and I had bad stomach problems and didn’t finish with five days to go. And I think it was down to the fact I had started the Tour not fit enough. The theory years ago was that you could ride yourself into the Tour, but you can’t do that now.
No matter how fit you are, you are always digging into your reserves. It’s not a normal sports event, is it? You have only got a few hours to recover each day, so you are always on a downward spiral.
It may look like you are gradually progressing in the first ten days, but it is usually the opposite. I ended up climbing off on the lower slopes of the Galibier. My head had gone completely.
At that time, the British scene was getting to a fairly healthy level of teams, with the city centre races starting, so I decided to come back and give it a try in England. Having done three years as an amateur in France, scraping a living before getting a pro contract, I thought perhaps it would be good to have a normal life back home but still carry on racing.
I signed for Ever Ready, which was OK, and the road scene was fairly healthy. I did quite well in the road races, but the teams were more interested in the city centre crits, which is not my scene at all.
So I signed for ANC the following year as they seemed to have a reasonable squad and some ambition. I won a few races here and there. There wasn’t any real monetary motivation or big ambition.”
As the experienced European pro on the team, were you able to offer advice on ANC’s race programme?
Jones: “I think I had an input before the Tour with little bits and pieces, but probably the thing for me was I knew a lot of the organising people and how things worked.
I like to think some of it was passed on and heeded. Having been there and done it, I wanted to be part of a British team, helping to put us on the map.”
What races did the team do in preparation for the Tour?
Elliott: “That year we did Paris-Nice, De Panne, Four Days of Dunkirk, Midi Libre, Etoile de Bessèges…”
Griffiths: “Adrian was up there at Bessèges until the last day. He was ahead of Laurent Fignon and the like.”
Timmis: “I got cramp on the last day.”
Griffiths: “At Midi Libre he went past Luc Leblanc with a kilometre to go like he was standing still [Timmis won the fourth stage]. We had these flashes of brilliance from everybody: Joey, Malc, Adrian, Watto, to name just four.”
Joey McLoughlin was a classy rider. How come he missed the Tour selection?
Jones: “He was injured.”
And where is he now?
Griffiths: “He disappeared. There was a positive sighting at an antique shop in Nantwich… I go there once in a while and look round the antique shops, expecting to see him, but I haven’t tracked him down yet.”
Elliott: “I think it’s on a par with sightings of Elvis.”
Timmis: “Or Lord Lucan.”
The team landed some decent results in the run-up to the Tour, especially Malcolm’s third place at Amstel Gold.
Griffiths: “I curse the fact I wasn’t in the team car that day. They reckon Joop Zoetemelk paid the other guys in the break £500 each – anything to stop the Englishman winning.”
And Paul’s third place at Bessèges on the opening stage showed the team was moving in the right direction…
Watson: “It was a complete shambles! To give you an example, I was told to meet at Newport Pagnell service station – I am waiting around and no one turns up.
When I finally phone, they say I wasn’t there. I know for a fact I was. It was lucky that Shane couldn’t get over to France because of visa problems and came back to pick me up.
We drove through France and got to Bessèges at 3am and I was getting it in the ear from Griffo, saying I wasn’t at the meeting point.
I was so wound up. I only had my old training bike with me – a Motobecane I had taken the mudguards off that the mechanic refused to touch because he said it was only the grease that was holding it together – and the new bikes hadn’t arrived.
The next day, I was so furious, I went flying up the road, got in a break and finished third. Thank God I did that because it shut everything up and settled it.”
Jeff Connor portrays you in the book as being more interested in chasing women than riding your bike. Is that fair comment?
Watson: “Well, you’ve got to do something to keep yourself occupied during a three-week race…”
Griffiths: “It was constant frustration how talented Paul was. He obviously trained hard and had talent but didn’t seem to capitalise on it. Anybody else would give a lot to have that.”
Elliott: “He didn’t focus long enough on one thing to get the most from it, whether it was work or women or whatever.”
Was it clear at the start of 1987 that the Tour de France was the main aim for the year?
Jones: “Yes, we had talked about it before as an ambition of Tony Capper’s.”
Did you think it was over-ambitious?
Jones: “Definitely, yes. But sometimes you have to be ambitious. We had to do big races to stand a chance at the Tour, but we didn’t do the right races. Obviously, budget was a part of it, and we had to support the British scene with the Milk Race.”
Timmis: “I don’t remember racing or training over big mountains. I mean, the Midi Libre is just the foothills of the Pyrenees, isn’t it? We didn’t ride the Dauphine. Now they go to the Tour de Suisse, or Tour of Romandie, or recce the mountains beforehand.
We took what races we could. It was only a couple of years ago that I rode the Alps for the first time. It dawned on me then how unprepared we were.”
I find it extraordinary that you hadn’t ridden the mountains in all that time.
Timmis: “The third day I was there we rode over the Lautaret and Galibier. It was pretty emotional. As a team we should have been riding those climbs to get used to them.”
Elliott: “We were just riding our programme, weren’t we? There wasn’t time to go on mountain camps.”
In the book, your DS for the opening week, Ward Wouters, dismisses the abilities of practically every member of the team. But his assessment that the Milk Race – “an amateur event” – was no way to prepare for the rigours of the Tour seems pretty accurate.
Elliott: “Can’t argue with that, no.”
Jones: “I wasn’t prepared properly: untrained, hadn’t looked after myself as well as when I was abroad. I was getting severe cramps on the second and third days, and it is impossible to repair that properly.”
Timmis: “We hadn’t done any mountains that take 45 minutes or an hour to climb. Being light and fit doesn’t make you a great climber. It gave me an advantage being 60kg, but you have still got to be strong to get over those things.”
Jones: “I probably hadn’t seen the Pyrenees properly the first time I rode the Tour, but that’s how it was then. The days of training camps came later: ten days in the mountains wasn’t done, certainly not by the likes of Zoetemelk.”
Griffiths: “Nowadays, a couple of weeks before the Tour, David Millar will be booking into the hotel in Bagnères-de-Luchon, the Schlecks will be coming down the street, Alberto Contador will be in the same hotel. And they are all spending four or five days, then doing the same again in the Alps. I am sure there were riders doing that in our day too.”
Any decent preparation for the Tour must have been impossible when you didn’t really know if you were going or not, so when did you know the team had actually secured a spot?
Elliott: “It wasn’t until after the Milk Race that we knew we were in the Tour. We were waiting and waiting, so it was impossible to have a plan to go to training in the Alps.”
Watson: “I think at one point we were lying sixth in the team rankings. We were certainly there on merit. By the time we reached the Tour, we had done the equivalent of other team’s whole years.
We were all dead on our feet. I remember sitting in the car travelling to one race and realising I had been staring out of the window for an hour, absolutely nothing going through my head. I wasn’t there.”
Jones: “You did a lot of the travelling by car in those days. And the back up and support wasn’t quite there. We were probably knackered before we started.”
Timmis: “It might have been my stage win at the Midi Libre that swung it, just before the nationals. I think we got confirmation during the Midi Libre.”
Elliott: “I have got in my head that we heard when we were in the Blue Peter studios. Remember that day?”
Timmis: “Yeah, yeah, I’ve still got the photo. It wasn’t until we hit Berlin and saw all the team cars that it really hit home. I was just 23.”
The fact that Wouters was only around for the opening week, then replaced by Phil, seems like a strange arrangement.
Watson: “Muddy Wouters, we called him. I liked him. He was alright.”
Jones: “I never understood that decision. He looked about 90 when we were there, so god knows how old he is. I had never heard of him.”
Griffiths: “Don’t ask me why but that was all prearranged. I arrived in Strasbourg on my due date. Wouters worked for the Belgian water board. I actually came straight from Switzerland with all the clothing for the Tour.”
Watson: “That’ll be why I only had one jersey for the first week!”
So you’re in Berlin, all ready to race – including Paul with his one jersey – and a journalist appears and announces he will be spending the next three weeks with you. Did you find that unsettling?
Watson: “He wasn’t even introduced to us. He was just lost amidst all the other chaos. People would be turning up for a day or two and then be gone again.”
Jones: “We just thought he was a journalist. But I don’t remember much of him being around. All you worry about as a Tour rider is riding, eating and sleeping. You’re in your own little world. At dinner, it wasn’t like he talked too much. He just listened.”
Shane Sutton is the very first man off in the prologue, which is a bit of a coup, yet you have no time trial bikes. What happened there?
Elliott: “Not many teams had them. It was no big deal. A time trial bike then generally had a sloping top tube, smaller front wheel, upside-down bars. There were some stories that we did have TT bikes somewhere, but they never made it to the Tour for some reason. Hadn’t Capper sidelined them somewhere?”
Once the race proper got underway, the impression from Wide-Eyed is that the team were struggling from the off, before you had even reached the mountains.
Griffiths: “Everybody in the system knows what a big step up the Tour is from riding Etoile or Paris-Nice. You get there and the other guys have gone up five cogs, like motorbikes. We were fine in those smaller races but it was still a shock. Everybody else knew what was going to happen; we didn’t. There are various explanations for that…”
Elliott: “Even at the time, there was a general consensus that the opening week was unbelievably fast.”
Timmis: “There was no patron, was there? So it was every man for himself. It was full gas from the start. There would be a hot-spot sprint after 10km and after that it never stopped.
And it was really hot as well. Plus it was about 800km longer than it is today – 4,200 in three weeks. There were six stages that were 230km or more.”
Jones: “It was getting mental around that time. It’s no secret now, but EPO was widespread. A British team going out there and coming up against that sort of stuff made it even harder.”Also, I think it was the first year where you had a 200-rider field. Previous years had been around 160. It was eyeballs-out from the start every day, and it was hot, which turned out to be one of my weaknesses.”
Griffiths: “It doesn’t matter which way you look at it, we were riding on water. ANC would do a lot better in today’s cleaner peloton.”
There’s a funny end to one chapter where the team is billeted in an ancient college dormitory in Millau that culminates in Malcolm saying: “I’m not coming on this fucking little Tour again.”
Griffiths: “Malc was moaning and groaning as usual. When you start off racing and ride some little race in the West Country, and then you ride the Milk Race, then you go to Morocco and sleep in a tent in the middle of the desert, then you ride the Peace Race, it’s all dormitories. What’s wrong with a dormitory in the middle of the Tour? Was it a shock to you?”
Timmis: “Um… it was a surprise.”
Elliott: “It was the worst. Obviously, you get highs and lows in the quality of your accommodation when you are traveling to far-flung places. That was certainly the lowest.”
Griffiths: “It must have been a shock to Jeff Connor what was going on.”
But the book reads like everything was a shock to Jeff Connor.
Jones: “Most of the staff, let alone the riders, hadn’t been to the Tour before, so it was no surprise that Connor was so taken aback by it all. It was new to nearly all of us.”
Griffiths: “The thing I don’t like is that we let him come over at close quarters, which is almost unheard-of, and then the book criticises the fact that he became a worker as though we wouldn’t have coped without him. Of course he was an extra passenger. Of course we let him drive the van.
Elliott: “If you’ve got those extra resources, you use them.”
My feeling is that he was a sports reporter used to writing about bigger, better-funded sports. In cycling, everybody mucks in.
I was in a team car for Paris-Roubaix recently. We stopped on a sector of cobbles and the driver, who also happened to be the team doctor, just handed me a pair of wheels and told me to make myself useful. That is what you do in cycling.
Griffiths: “The brakes failed on the van one day, but Jeff probably cooked them by not knowing how to use them properly – like inexperienced bike riders in sportives. You see loads of them blow their tyres off on descents because they have their brakes full on and overheat. You don’t go down mountains with the brakes full on.
We were all in Tour-supplied Peugeots, so you don’t see any difference in wealth. You had the same back-up trucks – there were no coaches in those days. Our hotels were exactly the same as Carrera or whoever.”
Was money tight while you were on the Tour?
Griffiths: “It got a bit tight the last week! But no, everything was paid for.”
Watson: “The team was run on a shoestring then. It’s a shame it wasn’t budgeted properly, and there was no proper plan year-to-year. It was more like: ‘Let’s see how far we can go as quickly as possible and see if we blow up along the way.’”
Griffiths: “You paid £25,000 entry fee and they cashed the cheque, but then you are given it back as the Tour goes on depending on how many abandons you have. They cancel your hotels ahead. We went to the bank every day and got cash back!
But the joke was Capper was ringing ahead to family and friends in Paris and inviting them down. The guy Donald Fisher, who arrived with his wife – whose dog died in the car in the heat in Avignon – had just done a feasibility study on forming a European transport network with a hub in Luxembourg.
Obviously, Malcolm and Paul didn’t know about things like that, but for the sponsor, doing these foreign races with the little ANC trucks on the jersey was putting the company on the map. It made sense for Capper to go into Europe.
In the first years of the team, 1985/86, we had unlimited budgets, because ANC wrote all the cheques. In ’87, it was Action Sports, Capper’s new company, that financed the team.
Had the budget been bigger, the team would have been bigger. Hence meetings with Phil Anderson, with Sean Kelly, with 71, trying to get these guys on the team and working out what it would cost.”
Malc, you got fined 80 francs for taking a piss in public.
Elliott: “I’m still paying that back…”
Griffiths: “Who sorted out all the prize money at the end, Guy [Gallopin]?”
Timmis: “I can’t remember.”
Jones: “A lot of us hadn’t been paid for a couple of months before the Tour. And I never got any pay from that race. I think Halfords came in with a little bit of money to keep us going until the end of the season, but I never even got my prize money from the Tour, plus I was due about £2,000 in bonuses and prize money from the Milk Race that year which I never got. It went into the pot and never came out again…”
Malc, you may be 80 francs down but you came mighty close to a moment of glory with your third place in Bordeaux.
Elliott: “Davis Phinney won the stage, Jean-Paul Van Poppel was second and I was third. But Van Poppel, I think it was, went into a bit of an elbowing match with Teun van Vliet, and this body came flying across me just as I was in full flight coming up on them, so I backed off that little bit and lost my momentum.
But it was the only stage on the whole Tour where you went through the finish line and did a lap, and that was a big help for someone like me, getting a recce before the end. You might have got a hand-drawn map of the run-in, but it was very basic, so you were tearing into city centres blind.”
Griffiths: “Every race we rode, we didn’t know where the wind was going to hit you, or where the cobbles were. Everything was new to us.”
Adrian, there is a telling comment from Gallopin in Wide-Eyed, echoed by others I have talked to, where he compares your potential to the likes of Roche and Kelly, yet your career effectively ended after the Tour. Do you think the race was responsible?
Timmis: “That may have been part of it. I think Midi Libre was as good as it got. I had a few health problems over the years that I didn’t know about then. I am anaemic, so I’ve always had a low iron count.
It is only recently I discovered I have an auto-immune problem that the doctors said was underlying all this time. My haematocrit is only 37. There is nothing wrong with my iron levels, but my body doesn’t use it properly.
I was probably too quiet for my own good and didn’t confide in anyone. There was no one to plan my future out, just me, on my own. But that’s the way I am.”
And Graham: surely you had a few good years left in you?
Jones: “We saw out the season with the team at the Kellogg’s Tour and the Nissan Classic. I was riding really to decide whether to continue racing or not. I rode for a small team called Emmelle-MBK the next year, but my head had gone by then.
I think my career ended virtually the day I climbed off at the Tour. That finished me completely. I wasn’t old by any means – I’d have been 30.”
Griffiths: “I think it was hard for Graham to step down and it was hard for him to help us more than he did. But he certainly helped us.
I would say he was probably suffering with the knowledge that he was making a big step down – from riding with Peugeot: from riding with experienced guys, and working with experienced soigneurs and mechanics… and management.”
How do you view Tony Capper in retrospect?
Jones: “He was mad keen and interested. I don’t know where it came from, but it was genuine.”
Griffiths: “We met his son, Graham, in Frome last year on the Tour of Britain.”
Elliott: “I must have asked the question: ‘What’s your father doing nowadays?’ But I can’t remember the answer.”
Timmis: “I know he’s been seen in Benidorm. Chris Walker was training out there but it was a few years back.”
Griffiths: “No, he’s down in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. That was his second home. That’s where he is now.”
And Wide-Eyed and Legless? Did you read it back then, or have you read it since its reissue?
Griffiths: “I’ve never read a book. My concentration span is too short. I’ll look at pictures in a magazine. I couldn’t study at school and I still can’t.”
Jones: “I have never read it. That is probably my own thing of blanking it out, because it was a bad period for me.
I have picked it up and scanned through it, a paragraph here and there, but that’s all. I’ve heard things about it.”
Watson: “I have never read it completely. At the time, on top of everything else, it was the last thing I needed. He didn’t understand, but now he freely admits that he was thrown in at the deep end.
But when you hear his story – he got the job because he was the only one in the office who didn’t smoke. He thought he might be able to do a couple of stages with us – he was that naïve. And he thought we knew he was coming, but we didn’t. That was what the team was like – a complete shambles.”
Wide-Eyed and Legless is published by Mainstream
This feature appeared in 1 issue 25 in 2011