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Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson

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Photographs: Geoff Waugh & Offside - LeEquipe

Dauphiné Libéré 1961. Stage 3 Romans – Villefranche-sur-Saône 233km
Forty kilometres from the start, along the valley of the Rhône, the French rider Claude Valdois attacked. Robinson and three others followed out of the bunch, Robinson to police the chase on Valdois. Fifty kilometres on, they caught him and drove on the escape. During the pursuit, the directeur Raymond Louviot came up alongside Robinson and told him, “You can work, you know’ and he needed no further encouragement. He knew this was his day and, naturally, having been allowed to join the escape he was obliged, by team loyalty, to win.
Some eight kilometres from the finish, a sudden sharp hill offered Robinson an early chance to go for the win: it was just the sort of ground he favoured and a fierce attack on the steep slope would surely have catapulted him out of contact. However, he held fire and waited as the rest fell away leaving only him and Stéphane Lach.
He made his run for the line from a long way out, took the time bonus of ten seconds and, far more important, over ten minutes on the peloton. He was now race leader with 2min 50sec on Wolfshohl, (second), 6min 22sec on Thiélin (third) and a hefty ten minutes on Mastrotto, way down in the order. The team, too, was fully in charge of the order, well clear in that competition.
Geminiani, overflowing with pleasure, ever flamboyant and ready to lollygag, settling nicely into his new, self-elected role as puppet-master, strolled up to the journalists, a race cap pulled down over his aquiline nose, a cigarette drooping from his lips, hands in pockets. “Things are going well, so well that soon my riders won’t need me at all. Tomorrow I’m going to stop for lunch in a good restaurant. If you happen to know of one…?” The journalists clustered round whenever he held forth because he was raffish, ostentatious and plied a smooth line in banter.
Robinson attended the press conference as new leader of the race. The press once again praised his command of correct French, answering even the subtlest of questions with aplomb. Correct embraces accuracy, precision and an indefinable quality of politeness. “As for Robinson and Wolfshohl, they form a picturesque tandem, talking to each other in French, because the language of diplomacy had become the language of the peloton.” One of their exchanges led directly to Robinson’s stage win and the foundation of his overall victory.
When Valdois attacked, Robinson, who thought the young German the strongest of their team, rode up next to him and asked what he thought. Wolfshohl said Robinson should go, try his luck, maybe it would work. Indeed, when I asked what relations were like within the team Robinson stressed that there was no ill-feeling or variance. Everyone knew their job and got on with it. That was partly Louviot’s great skill as directeur: firm but even-handed. Team tactics were his affair, and that brooked no argument.
Robinson added that it was always a mistake to get caught by the manager at the tail of the field. If he thought they were slacking, Louviot would come up behind and blow his klaxon, lean out of the window and tell them to get back up to the front or, if a rider had punctured, he’d pick the nearest member of the team and tell him to wait to relay the man back up the road. Always better to be up at the front with the first twenty riders, that way you could see what was going on and stay out of trouble. And not to have to do any extra work.
Graeme: Was there a lot of chatter, banter?
Brian: On a long stage, around 250km, the first 100km or so would be what you might call leisurely, unless someone was stirring things up, otherwise you’d natter away. When the hammer went down you’d all get down to business. It sometimes blew to bits right from the off, of course. [Roger] Hassenforder was a devil. He’d often go to the front right at the start and announce: “I win today” and like as not he would. If he’d taken the dope, that is. It was a standing joke, you know, at the start of a stage, someone would call out: “Who’s fired up today?”
Robinson told the reporters: “I don’t know if I can win the race overall but I’m sure our team will take it. I didn’t intend to attack, because Wolfshohl held the jersey. It was the shape of the race which decided it and our position is now even stronger but I’m still not in great form.”
One of the journalists at the press conference pointed out that this is not what Valdois and Lach (third and fourth on the stage) had said. Robinson smiled. ‘I don’t know. I’m behind where I was in previous years, not close to the usual output of training.’
The starts tended to be at 9am, sometimes at 10am. Reveille at 6am, wash, get dressed, down for breakfast, beefsteak and pasta, back to the room to rest. They didn’t always get a massage before the race but if rain threatened, they’d apply olive oil to their legs and arms. ‘Olive oil mixed with a bit of cheap eau de cologne.’
Did you do that French thing of 
rubbing down with eau de cologne?
At the end of a one-day race, if there wasn’t anywhere to wash, you’d certainly rub down with eau de cologne – cheap bought from the supermarket, or even just plain alcohol.
What did you do after the stage finish?
Back to the hotel for tea and biscottes, around 4pm, usually, because it was a long time till supper, then a shower and lie down to wait for your massage.
You didn’t read?
No. Just rest, really, settle your body down into a normal quiet state. Sometimes you felt red hot – from the heat and the exertion – and you had to cool down. I always told the guys at training camp, it was my maxim, I suppose: if you can sit down, sit, if you can lie down, lie down.
You might get half an hour or so free time before the evening meal, when you’d maybe have a gentle stroll into town or sit in the hotel garden if there was one, to have a chat with the other guys. That was when Jock Wadley [editor of the pioneering magazine Coureur] would pitch up to take notes for his Diary, or other journalists, of course. They wouldn’t come in when we were eating – whether or not because the restaurant steered them away, on the manager’s orders, perhaps, I don’t know.
But access to the riders was pretty open?
Oh, yes, not just to journalists, either. Members of the public would come up, any time, when you were out and about, at the stage start, rarely at the finish because you got off back to the hotel as quick as you could. There was none of what goes on today – the team buses and such which have made all the difference, no bodyguards, not even Jacques [Anquetil]. If you didn’t want to be pestered, you fended them off yourself.
This is an edited extract from Brian Robinson – Pioneer by 20, jointly published by Mousehold Press and Sport & Publicity.

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