Title: The Full Cycle
Author: Vin Denson
Publisher: Mousehold Press
Order: Mousehold Press
What it is: An autobiography from a 1960s domestique who rode in the service of Henri Anglade, Rik Van Looy and Jacques Anquetil and whose years in the pro peloton crossed with those of Tom Simpson and Shay Elliott.
Strengths: Most cycling biographies concentrate on the winners, so it's always refreshing to get some insight from one the of the peloton's spear carriers.
Weaknesses: It's a little bit light, with the real meat and two veg of the story - Denson's time on the continent - only a little more than half of the book.
Vin Denson's name crops up in a lot of cycling books. As a GB team-mate of Tom Simpson's he's forever associated with events on the Ventoux in 1967. As a domestique to Jacques Anquetil, his name sometimes crops up when it comes to telling the story of Anquetil's 1965 epic double of the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and Bordeaux-Paris. Having covered the latter tale when looking at Paul Howard's recent Anquetil biography there's no need to go into it here. And being bored beyond words by all the stories of Simpson and the bloody Ventoux I'm not going to mention that again here.
So what else is there to tell about Denson then? Well let's start with the biographical sketch. Born between the wars - 1935 - Denson grew up in that strange, sometimes dark, sometimes whimsical British era of rationing and national service. As a child, the bike was freedom, and opened up the world around Chester to him. It took him from one Youth Hostel to the next. A French teacher introduced him to the Tour de France, through back copies of Miroir du Cyclisme. These were the years of the schism in British cycling, between the roadsters and the time trialists, and, when eventually Denson realised he wanted to race, it was to the latter he swore his allegiance. It turned out he wasn't half bad at riding fast on those codenamed drag-strips British time trialists love so much, setting club records and beating the local competition.
Even back then, the Olympics were the pinnacle of British cycling. Denson missed out on selection for the 1956 Games in Melbourne and then reset his focus on Rome, four years later. By now he had been lured over to the other side of British cycling's civil war and had discovered the Tour of Britain and the spell it cast over British cycling. He also discovered the Peace Race, a two thousand-plus kilometre stage race for amateurs through the Communist bloc. There he learned some important tricks:
"It was really hard. You had sleety rain, almost like snow in Poland, and hot sunny days in the forests of Czechoslovakia. Around the Baltic it was ice cold winds - you're almost on the Soviet frontier - and wet cobbles and tramlines which everybody had to negotiate. All the Russians, East Germans, Poles and now and again some Belgians would be mixing it in the front echelon, and they were so tough. If you weren't good enough to go through, and show your weight, you got elbowed out and pushed down and you'd be in the next echelon. There'd be one echelon across the road and two hundred yards back the next echelon, then another one. And I just found I loved it."
Rome passed Denson by but the following year he was offered a chance to ride the Tour de France as part of the GB squad - the Tour in those days being raced by national and regional squads, not the trade teams riders rode the rest of the year with. The core of the GB team was the pioneering Briton Brian Robinson and the young Turk Tom Simpson, along with the honorary Brit Shay Elliott. For the Tour they were joined by nine others, including Denson and a Scot called Ken Laidlaw. There's no point in wasting space listing the names of the other seven as by the end of the first week of the race the GB team was reduced to Robinson, Elliott, Denson and Laidlaw.
Denson himself failed to make it to Paris but he secured an introduction which, by and by, saw him riding for a club in Troyes in 1962. From there, Denson earned a chance to ride in the Pelforth squad run by Maurice de Muer for the 1963 season, where he'd be expected to lay down his life for Henri Anglade and Joseph Groussard. De Muer, you may remember, would eventually go on to DS the Peugeot squad where, doping wise, he was the unluckiest directeur sportif in Christendom. As a directeur sportif, sometimes his tactics were spot on, other times they were miles off, as just two editions of Paris-Nice in the eighties demonstrated. Denson would soon enough discover for himself what De Muer was really like.
In that first season Denson started with the Omloop Het Volk, followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. In Het Volk he was in the winning break, with his team-mate Jan Janssen. Denson was to lead Janssen out for the sprint, but the whole thing went pear-shaped coming round the final turn.
At KBK the next day Denson got away on his own and was struggling over the Kwaremount when De Muer told him to wait up for a team-mate bridging across to him. Denson did as he was told, but when the team-mate finally made it across he was blown and Denson had to drag him to the finish. They were caught twenty kilometres out.
At Paris-Nice everyone had to surrender to a rampant St-Raphaël squad as Anquetil's boys took the race by the scruff of the neck and guided their leader to the third of his five successes in la course au soleil. Denson still managed to finish tenth, a half dozen places behind his team leader, Anglade.
And then came Milan-Sanremo. Back in the sixties Milan-Sanremo was a savage race. Three hundred riders took the line alongside Denson. It took him half an hour just to get to the front of the race, and he got there just in time to see Franco Balmamion go for a long one. Which is exactly what Denson had been planning on doing himself. So he jumped onto Balmamion's wheel. In all, five riders got away, Balmamion, Denson, Simpson and two others. By the base of the Turchino they had a lead of five minutes over a chasing group of twenty. By the summit the lead was only two minutes. On the descent, even that evaporated and they were caught.
"But that wasn't so bad because my team-leader, Joseph Groussard was in the group, and right behind him in the Pelforth team car was Maurice de Muer. I knew what that would mean for me: more hard work. De Muer was a good manager, but he only knew one way to race and it always involved a bucket of sweat for me."
Denson's job was to let Groussard ride his wheel all the way to Sanremo, as well as covering any breaks that tried to get away. At the Capo Berta, forty klicks out from home, he was thirty-seconds up the road on Simpson's wheel, doing no work, leaving Simpson two choices: drag Denson all the way to Sanremo and see him, fresher, take the sprint; or slip back to the group behind and try again later. Napoleon said that when you leave an enemy with just two choices, he'll always take the third. And that's what Simpson did: he offered to buy Denson off. De Muer had already warned Denson off on this score, telling him he'd be out on his ear if he ever sold a win to a rival team. The two Britons slowly drifted back to the chasing group.
It was Rolf Wolfsohl who launched the final attack of the 1963 Milan-Sanremo. Denson was by now running on empty. He tried to chase but could only close to within twenty metres of Wolfsohl. Groussard was tight on Denson's wheel and he called him through. Then, before his team leader drew level, Denson grabbed his hand and hurled him up the road with a track sling. It was enough to put Groussard on Wolfshol's wheel. The Pelforth rider took the sprint. Denson was the tenth rider to cross the line.
Those four races, it's a helluva start to a pro career, even for a domestique. Naturally it didn't last. In the Tour du Var, defending Anglade's lead, Denson tore a muscle in his glutes. His doctor prescribed rest, three weeks of it. Denson wasn't willing to surrender the chance of a place in Pelforth's Tour de France squad, which his early season form had marked him out for. He doesn't say what was in the injections the doctor then gave him, but they were enough to get him through the Dauphiné Libéré. De Muer still dropped him from the Tour squad.
* * * * *
Today, looking at the pro peloton then, it's hard to imagine what it was like in the sixties, before the Foreign Legion came along, before the Wall came down and the former Soviet countries were free to send their riders to the Tours and the Classics. A peloton where all the riders came from cycling's traditional heartlands. Denson tries to explain some of the difficulties he encountered, especially the glass ceiling the Continentals had erected over their sport:
"Being an Englishman in a sport run by Continentals was not the best route to a restful life in those days. It was not sufficient simply to be as good as, or even better than a French or a Belgian rider; an Englishman had to be streets better and work twice as hard to get a place. Then, when you made the team, you had to work harder than anyone else to be among those picked for the big events. All this was made much worse by the international cycling rules, which insisted that professional teams be registered in a specific country and employ most of their riders from that country. In a squad of say thirty riders, they were restricted to eight foreigners."
Money was always a problem, for everyone in the sport. Prize money wasn't paid until the end of the season, in November. As for the wages paid by the team, well De Muer was slow to pay his debts. With a contract only running from the start of the season to the end, annoying your boss with petty little quibbles like wanting to be paid on time all the time is one way of ensuring you'll get short shrift come contract renewal time.
The money itself wasn't spectacular. Denson was actually quite well paid for the time, but even in 1963 £50 a week needed to be stretched if you wanted to lay something aside for your post-cycling years. The post Tour critérium circuit was lucrative - Denson reckoned he could command eighty quid a pop, and, if you were willing to ride yourself flat, you could squeeze in as many as forty races between the Tour and the Worlds. But, of course, if you didn't make the Tour team you weren't likely to make the critérium circuit.
Even before you take into account things like the language barrier and homesickness you can see how difficult it must have been for a foreigner to break on through and earn a seat at cycling's top table. Which makes Tom Simpson's achievement - becoming a team leader in his own right - all the more impressive. But, unlike Simpson, Denson was never looking to be anything other than a domestique.
This is one of the weaknesses of The Full Cycle - Denson never really bothers to explain why he was willing to work for others more than he worked for himself. In William Fotheringham's Roule Britannia, there is one line from Denson which more or less explains it though: "I loved the idea of being well-respected and trusted, and not having too much responsibility."
* * * * *
Respect was something Denson didn't find much of when he rode the 1964 season for Solo-Superia, as a member of the Red Guard that protected Rik van Looy, the Emperor of Herentals. There's pre-echoes of Bradley Wiggins in what happened here. Having fallen out with De Muer in Pelforth and decided to jump ship, Denson took an immediate dislike to Van Looy and his Red Guard. Not even halfway through the season he'd decided he was jumping ship again, this time to Anquetil's Ford France squad. It was Jean Stablinski - Anquetil's most loyal lieutenant - who lured Denson across to Maître Jacques' squad, where he'd also ride alongside Shay Elliott.
That year in Van Looy's Red Guard wasn't a total waste. For a start, Denson - who by now was part of Ghent's British enclave - felt be became almost Belgian himself, even coming to be bored by the smooth bits of road between cobbles. The harder the conditions became, the happier Denson was. Liking echelons, cobbles and foul conditions ... that's pretty much the definition of being Belgian, no?
As a part of Van Looy's Red Guard, Denson also became a lead-out man for Solo's sprinter, Edward Sels:
"I loved the force and push of trying to keep in the front line for the last five kilometres, trying to keep your sprinter where there was a gap for him to go through. You only needed to allow a pair of handlebars or an elbow to push you slightly off course and that was that - the gap would be shut for the team's sprinter. Often a rider would fail just through not having reacted fast enough, or not having the speed and strength on the bike to hold the gap that was opening in front of him."
There's an odd flipside to that - Denson doesn't particularly like sprinters:
"I have never really respected sprinters. I admire the way they can kick out such terrific speed, but sprinters are often lazy, conceited, temperamental and introverted, whereas the real rouleurs, climbers and plain common grafters are generally more friendly, outgoing and relaxed."
At the end of the 1964 season Denson joined Ford France, and there he stayed for three seasons (the third under the sponsorship of Bic). Maître Jacques was a good man to work for. All he asked of you was that, when he asked, you'd lay down your life for him. The rest of the time you were free to do as you pleased. Denson got to win the Tour of Luxembourg, along with stages in the five-day Quatre Jours de Dunkerque and a stage in the Giro d'Italia. And the perks of working for Anquetil certainly made the suffering worthwhile:
"Riding for Jacques also meant some amazing social occasions mixed in with the racing. I can remember one weekend when we were invited to a huge chateau owned by a famous wine grower. It started with a few drinks on Saturday morning, then we raced in a critérium [...] The next day we went on a shoot: pheasants in the morning and wild boar and deer in the afternoon, with a good lunch in between. In the evening there was this huge dinner in the chateau that went on until four in the morning, when we all ended up in the kitchen chopping up bread and making onion soup. They gave us all a brace of pheasants, a couple of rabbits and a piece of venison to take home."
Denson's tales of those days - particularly the drinks raids, when a handful of domestiques would break out of the peloton in search of beer or wine for their masters - are worth reading. Of the doping culture of the time he has little or nothing to say, he having chosen to ride à l'eau. In those days a domestique could, it wasn't until the eighties that the FICP rankings forced even domestiques to dope heavily. The most telling tale he offers of the doping culture of the time concerns the stage he won in the 1966 Giro.
The Corsa Rosa that year started in Monaco. Ford France's Julio Jiménez won the second stage and the squad found themselves defending the maglia rosa far sooner than they'd expected. With Jiménez in pink, Denson also got to experience the ugly side of cycling fandom, with the tifosi pelting them with leftover spaghetti, tomato juice and banana skins.
The night before Denson's stage win, the team dined on cappelletti, a kind of ravioli or tortellini with pieces of meat and herbs and a little cap on it. At the end of one plate Denson turned to the team's directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani, and told him that he'd win the next day's stage if he could have another serving. Gém, somewhat unusually, obliged. Directeurs sportifs are supposed to be Dickensian in their refusal when their charges ask for more food but here was Gém being generous.
The next day, Denson slipped away with two others for one of those mid-stage sprint primes. They decided to stay away. The finish was in Apennine town of Campobasso. Twenty-five klicks out Denson slipped back on the last tough climb, making out he was taking a drink. He dropped the bottle. His rivals momentarily distracted by the unexpected noise, he launched his attack. And that was it. He dug in and made it over the summit about a hundred metres clear. Tearing down the descent (he had no need of a crap dialogue writer telling him to ride like he'd stole something) he had a twenty second lead by the time he began the last drag up to the finish. He won the stage by forty-odd seconds, the first Briton to win a stage in the Corsa Rosa, and the last Briton to do so until Robert Millar came along in 1987.
Gém, master publicist that he was, must have told a Gazzetta dello Sport reporter the story of the plate of ravioli the night before, for the next morning's Gazzetta celebrated Denson's victory with this headline: "La droga de Denson è un piatto di ravioli." (Denson's drug is a plate of ravioli.) The way the headline can make a joke of doping just demonstrates how normal it was in those days.
The rest of that Giro ... well that's the one Ford France are alleged to have sold to Gianni Motta's Molteni squad, simply because their sponsor saw no point in helping his transalpine counterpart in Ford Italy. On such decisions are bike races won and lost.
Mostly then the tales Denson tells are of good times. But the good times always have to end, and Denson's ended on a windswept mountain in Provence in July 1967. After that day, Denson seemed to lose interest in the sport. He quit the Tour and then quit his contract with Bic. Over the winter he changed his mind, secured a ride with an Italian squad, and rode one more Giro and one more Tour. And then it all ended for real. He upped sticks and moved back to Blighty. And back to riding up and down those codenamed drag-strips British time trialists love so much.
* * * * *
It's fifty years this Summer since Vin Denson rode his first Tour de France. Nothing that old matters at this stage, surely? Probably not. Maybe Denson's tales are just for cycling's nostalgists. All of that back then, it's history now. Low wages and the critérium circuit are things of the past. You can turn to the UCI when your team forgets to pay you (though perhaps you shouldn't turn too quick or too loudly). The peloton is now a cosmopolitan place. Denson's time and our time, they just don't compare.
But despite all the ways in which cycling has changed in the past half century, even today you will still find more riders like Denson in the peloton than you will riders like Cav, Spartacus, Cuddles or the Schecklet. And as Cervélo demonstrated last year when they unexpectedly pulled the plug late into the season, domestiques still have a precarious existence in this sport.
That, for me, I guess, is what makes Denson's a timeless tale.