“I am the greatest!”
Seventy today (17), there are still few who would argue with Mohammed Ali’s claim to ring supremacy. Blessed with an unimaginable talent that rendered seemingly outlandish predictions mere statements of fact, the three-time world heavyweight champion is an easy pick for fight fans indulging in the deliciously futile exercise of compiling their top ten kings of the ring.
With cyclists, the challenge is even greater. Seemingly forbidden by a code of toughness from anything as extraneous to the business of winning as pre-race trash talk, cycling’s gladiators are content to make their statements on inhuman climbs, terrifying descents, in lung-bursting sprints, and on mile-after-mile of grueling wheel-to-wheel combat.
We start an occasional series by saluting the ten greatest British road and track cyclists. With home-grown talent now routinely among the world’s best, and at the start of a year in which the London Olympics offers the opportunity for career-defining success for the nation’s current two-wheeled elite, we thought it an opportune moment to reflect on Britain’s stars of the past. We’ve omitted riders still competing to create a list to spark debate, but is not intended as the final word on the matter – far from it. If we’ve missed your personal hero, get in touch, or have your say in the forum. Here, then, ladies and gentleman, in no particular order, your starter for ten…
Stage wins in all three Grand Tours, King of the Mountains in the 1984 Tour De France on his way to a still highest-ever finish for a British rider of fourth place (equaled only some 25 years later by Bradley Wiggins in 2009), National Road Race Champion – Millar is unquestionably Scottish road cycling’s greatest export. Second placed finishes in the Vuelta a Espana (twice), the Giro d’Italia, and the Tour De Suisse cemented Millar’s place among an impossibly select group of riders who could routinely contend for overall victory in Grand Tours. The outsider’s outsider, Millar’s refusal to suffer fools won him few friends, but those he respected, among them Triple Crown winner, Stephen Roche, were rewarded with the Scot’s unswerving support.
Finest moment: The combined efforts of the peloton’s Spanish teams were required to thwart Millar’s otherwise unstoppable bid for victory in the 1985 Vuelta a Espana. His second placed finish remains the highest in a Grand Tour of any British rider: a feat repeated in the following year’s Vuelta and the 1987 Giro d’Italia.
A man now better known among the non-cycling public for his death on the Mont Ventoux than for his incredible achievements, Tom Simpson was, until Mark Cavendish’s superb victory in Copenhagen last year, the only British cyclist to pull on the rainbow jersey of World Road Race Champion.
Far from being an isolated success, Simpson’s 1965 triumph seemed almost destined after a fourth placed finish at his first attempt at the rainbow jersey in his neo-pro season.The complete cyclist, Simpson’s palmares includes victories in three of cycling’s five ‘Monument’ classics.
Finest moment: Victory in the 1963 Bordeaux-Paris, a 563km epic dubbed ‘The Derby of the Road’ saw Simpson and 14 of the world’s fastest men race through the night under motorpace. Simpson attacked 90km from the finish, shedding his rivals to enter the Parc des Princes with only his motorpace pilot for company to seal an incredible victory.
Microscopic attention to detail and an indomitable will made Chris Boardman arguably the greatest exponent of his era of the solo effort. Between 1988 and 1993, Boardman won four consecutive national hill climb championships, five consecutive 25-mile championships, two consecutive 50-mile championships, and four 100-mile team time trial championships. Three bronze medals in two Commonwealth Games (1986 and 1990) were bettered by Boardman’s performance at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where he rode the iconic Lotus 108 to gold in the 4000m individual pursuit. Success as a professional soon followed. Victories during his neo-pro season in 1993 with Roger Legeay’s Gan team were followed by a prologue time trial victory and yellow jersey in the 1994 Tour de France. The same year, Boardman pulled on cycling’s other most coveted jersey, the rainbow stripes of world champion, with victory on the road in the UCI World Time Trial Championship in Salzburg and on the track in the individual pursuit in Palermo (Boardman would win a second pursuit world championship at the Manchester velodrome in 1996). Two further Tour De France prologue time trial victories and their accompanying yellow jerseys followed in 1997 and 1998. A career-defining rivalry with another British legend, Graeme Obree, saw the two swap the world hour record on increasingly esoteric machinery, until the UCI stepped in to regulate a ‘traditional’ bicycle. Boardman broke the record three times, in 1993, 1996, and 2000. Retirement has brought successful careers as a television commentator, bicycle designer, and technical advisor to the all-conquering Team GB track team.
Finest moment: Where to start? Boardman’s gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics catapulted him to the front page of every national newspaper, while his victory in the 1994 UCI World Time Trial Championship cemented his transformation from track specialist to the pro peloton’s supreme performer against the clock.
It is testament to Graeme Obree’s extraordinary personal fortitude that his indelible achievements on a bicycle are only a precursor to a greater triumph over severe depression that twice led him to try to take his own life. The story of Obree’s two successful attempts on the world hour record, and of his two world pursuit championships, is inextricably intertwined with that of Chris Boardman, his chalk-and-cheese nemesis. Boardman, ‘The Professor’, professionally backed and equipped with truly ground breaking equipment, could not have provided a greater contrast to Obree, the most glorious of amateurs, who, competing on home made machinery, sought in the hour record the ultimate prize of refuge from personal crisis. Obree lost his first hour record to Boardman after less than a week, before regaining it 10 months later from Franceso Moser, who beaten Boardman’s record by riding a bike similar to Obree’s in the high altitude of Mexico City. Obree regained the record three months later in April 1994, this time holding it for five months until September and Miguel Indurain’s successful attempt. Two individual pursuit world championships in 1993 and 1995 intensified his rivalry with Boardman, and won him a brief but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at joining the pro peloton.
Finest moment: Obree’s first world hour record came courtesy of a second attempt made just 24 hours after the first. Having ridden himself to exhaustion and defeat by nearly a kilometre the previous day, he returned to the track the following morning “a lion” to break Moser’s record by 445 metres.
If Mark Cavendish is the heir to the legacy of any other great British cyclist, it is Barry Hoban. A formidable sprinter with a penchant for hitting peak form in the Tour De France, Hoban held the record for British stage wins in La Grande Boucle before the emergence of the Manx Missile as the world’s fastest finisher, taking eight stage wins in eight years between 1967 and 1975. A Yorkshireman, Hoban was inspired by Tom Simpson to try his luck on the Continent and symbolically led the peloton across the finish line at Sete the day after Simpson’s death on the Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour. Seven further stage victories in cycling’s greatest stage race followed, with Hoban becoming the first Brit to record back-to-back stage victories during the 1969 Tour. A long and distinguished career saw Hoban compete against many of the sport’s greats, including Poulidor, Zoetemelk, and Merckx, beating the Cannibal by a wheel to win the 1974 Ghent-Wevelgem. A stage victory in the Vuelta and third placed finishes in Liege-Baston-Liege and Paris-Roubaix revealed Hoban as a rider for all cycling seasons.
Finest moment: Back-to-back stage victories in the Tour de France remain a rare occurrence, but Hoban delivered consecutive triumphs on stages 18 and 19 of the 1969 edition.
Dominance is a state to which only the truly great attain. Hugh Porter’s four world pursuit titles came in a seven year period from 1967 to 1973 in which he didn’t fail to make the podium.
A magnificent haul of four gold, two silver, and one bronze medal resulted from the Midlander’s mastery of the 5,000m individual pursuit in the late sixties and early seventies, the superior distance the difference between professional and amateur riders, who then competed over 4,000m.
Porter’s success at the shorter distance is also impressive. A national pursuit title in 1963 was followed by a bronze medal in his first world track championships. Three years later, Porter claimed gold in the 1966 Commonwealth Games. Retirement from the sport in 1973 made way for a second career as a commentator, calling races for the BBC and over the PA at live events.
Finest moment: In 1968, Porter won his second world pursuit title by the crushing margin of eight seconds, dispatching current and future world hour record holders on his way to victory.
Few athletes in any sport can claim the degree of dominance exhibited by Beryl Burton over three decades. Twice a world road race champion, and a five-time winner of the world individual pursuit title, Burton’s rule over women’s cycling refused to acknowledge geographical or competitive boundaries.
At home, against the clock, she was considered unbeatable. Seventy-two national time trial titles tell their own story. Time trial specialist? Add to those 72 national triumphs in the race of truth a further 24 road and pursuit titles: 12 each on the road and the track.
Burton’s 12-hour record (an astonishing 277.25 miles) set in 1967 remains the standard to this day, while her 100-mile record stood for 28 years. Burton won a bronze medal at the world pursuit championships in 1975 at the age of 38 riding with her daughter, Denise.
Finest moment: While setting the women’s 12-hour record in 1975, Burton caught and passed Mike McNamara, who at the time was engaged in the not inconsiderable task of setting a new men’s record in the same event. Burton’s 277.25 miles bested McNamara’s effort by nearly three-quarters of a mile.
Brian Robinson proved to a generation of young British cyclists (Tom Simpson among them) that it was possible to go the Continent and win, becoming, in 1955, the first Brit to finish the Tour De France, and in 1958 the first to win a stage. Close observers of Robinson’s form would not have been surprised. Aged just 22, in 1952 he finished in the top 30 in the Olympic road race at Helsinki (a place behind his brother, Des) and one month later tied with the legendary Jacques Anquetil for eighth place in the World Road Race Championship. Top five finishes in the 1953 and 1954 editions of the Tour of Britain paved the way for a move to the Continent, recording highly creditable eighth and fourth placed finishes in Paris-Nice and La Fleche Wallone as a neo-pro while preparing for his debut Tour. Robinson returned to le Grande Boucle the following year to finish 14th, a Grand Tour finish bettered by his eighth-placed finish in the same season’s Vuelta a Espana. Robinson’s impressive Classics form of the preceding year continued in 1958 with third in Milan San Remo. The following year, he won the second of his two Tour stage victories, before notching yet another top 30 finish in 1960. Overall victory in the 1961 Criterium de Dauphine Libere came after two stage wins, making Robinson the first British cyclist to win the Dauphine and still one of only three to do so. It would be 29 years before Robert Millar repeated Robinson’s feat, and 50 years before it would be equaled by Bradley Wiggins.
Finest moment: In winning stage 20 of the 1959 Tour De France, Robinson arrived in Chalon-sur-Saône some 20 minutes before his rivals.
A double world champion in the individual pursuit, and Britain’s most successful six day rider, Tony Doyle’s effortless pedaling style placed him among the world’s elite track riders for a decade and a half from 1980. Finding that being national pursuit champion wasn’t enough to merit selection for the event at the 1980 Moscow Games (he rode instead as part of the Team Pursuit squad that finished fifth), Doyle produced the ultimate riposte, turning professional the same year and promptly winning the rainbow jersey of UCI world pursuit champion. A second national title the following year cemented his reputation, while consecutive silver medals at the world championships of 1984 and 1985 proved his consistency on the world stage. A year later, Doyle would enjoy his most successful season, returning from the UCI World Track Championships in Colorado with a second world individual pursuit title, and partnering with Danny Clarke to win four of the calendar’s most prestigious six day races, including the Six Days of Ghent. The partnership would prove incredibly fruitful, netting the pair a further 13 six day victories over the next three years. Doyle’s incredible fitness saw him return to the track just six months after a life-threatening crash during the Munich Six Day race of 1988 placed him in intensive care for six weeks. Doyle returned immediately to winning ways and remained at the top of his discipline for a further six years, before a broken back at the Zurich Six Day race brought down the curtain on a magnificent career.
Finest moment: Winning a world title in a neo-pro season is a rare achievement indeed. A measure of Doyle’s achievement can be seen in the award of the Bidlake Memorial Prize the same year.
The mania surrounding Great Britain’s current crop of world beating track riders is predated by the nation’s outpouring of support for Reg Harris, a man who garnered four professional world sprint titles, one amateur world sprint championship, two Olympic silver medals, and four national titles in a glittering career. Harris transcended the sport in Britain in a way that would take more than half a century to replicate with the public affection afforded Hoy, Pendleton, Wiggins et al. In 1950, the year in which he won a second consecutive professional world sprint title, Harris topped the Sports Journalists’ Association’s Sportsman of the Year poll, and rewarded the faith of the nation’s sports hacks with a third world title the following year. A fourth would follow in 1954. Remarkably, Harris returned to the sport’s elite level at the age of 51, winning the British sprint title three years later at the age of 54.
Finest moment: Winning the national title is rarely a greater achievement than winning the world championship, except when the domestic triumph is achieved at the age of 54.