Barry Hoban had to go it alone as he flew the flag for Britain on the Tour. He returns to his native Yorkshire this week with some sage advice for the competitors. Peter Smith reports.
BEFORE Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish, there was Hoban.
A genuine trail-blazer, Wakefield-born Barry Hoban was an Englishman abroad at a time when top-level road racing – and the Tour de France in particular – was very much a Continental occupation.
Yet the Yorkshireman took on the French, Italians and Belgians at their own game and beat them, a record number of times. Until Mark Cavendish came on the scene, Hoban held the record for most Tour de France stage wins by a British rider with eight, from 1967 to 1975.
Tragically, the first of those was a gift from the peloton, when he was allowed to win into Sete following the death the previous day of his fellow Tyke, Tom Simpson.
But Hoban won a mountain stage the following year, a feat made all the more remarkable due to the fact he was known as a specialist sprinter and in 1969 he became the first Briton to win successive stages, including the classic sprinter’s leg into Bordeaux.
That is a feat equalled only by Cavendish and Hoban still holds the record for most Tours completed by a British rider, with 11 out of the 12 he started between 1966 and 1975.
On the Continent, Hoban was a household name, but – as he jokes now – his coverage in the national press was measured in millimetres. That was before Lottery funding transformed the sport in the UK, allowed riders to train and work full-time and led to ground-breaking technological advances.
A genuine Tour legend, Hoban will be in Yorkshire for this week’s Grand Départ and he admits to one serious regret. “Unfortunately, it is 40 years too late,” Hoban – now 74 and living in Wales – says of the world’s greatest cycle race’s first foray into the Broad Acres. “I was in my real prime then and it was the best year I ever had.
“It would have been great to ride around Yorkshire – Leeds, Harrogate, York and Sheffield. I have rode those roads on club runs and I know them like the back of my hand.”
That knowledge makes Hoban well placed to assess what sort of action the riders – and millions of fans on the roadside – can expect over two days in Yorkshire this weekend.
“I think they will be in for a surprise,” he predicted of the world’s top cyclists.
“It is not straightforward. On the hills here, you hit the bottom and go straight up, they are called ‘walls’ on the Continent.
“They are short climbs, but steep. They are narrow roads and on narrow roads you can’t get 200 riders near the front. You can’t get past anyone on these narrow roads and you can get splits. Consequently, you have to be very aware of where you are if you are a contender for the general classification, or the stage win.”
That, Hoban says, adds up to two days of “super, all-action stages” and he does not buy into theory the opening leg – from Leeds to Harrogate – is tailor-made for a Cavendish win.
Victory by the ‘Manx Missile’ would earn him the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career, but Hoban warned: “I don’t think it is set up for him. It is tricky for him. I hope he wins because it is nice to see a British rider in yellow and it is good for the sport. But it won’t be straightforward.”
While Cavendish – and the other contenders for either stages or overall victory – will have dedicated team-mates providing support, Hoban had to go it alone, as the sole Brit on Continental teams.
There were no lead-out trains in his day and he says that makes it difficult to compare a rider like Cavendish with the ones Hoban raced against four decades ago.
“Cavendish has a team devoted to him,” he points out. “I could be riding in the wind for Raymond Poulidor (the great Frenchman who was second in the Tour three times and third on five occasions), then come the finish I would try and win the stage.”