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ANC-Halfords: When Cycling Ate Itself

7435_wide-eyed-and-legless_mediumThe eighties was a defining decade in the history of cycling. Where previously drilling out components à la Merck was the cutting-edge of technological innovation the eighties saw bicycles undergo a massive evolutionary leap. Clipless pedals, disc wheels, recessed cables, indexed gearing, tri-bars, ever lighter frames ... the rate of change caught many by surprise.

Cycling itself was changing. European cycling became home for the Foreign Legion - a generation of English-speaking cyclists, hailing from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the US - who weren't content to be just the bottle carriers their forefathers had been. Between Phil Anderson and Greg LeMond, cycling's salary structure - which was already undergoing change influenced by Italian teams - was remade. Coca-Cola showered the Tour de France with their black gold.

The English speakers weren't alone. The Iron Curtain was collapsing and new riders from countries which, heretofore, were buried in the big blob of orange that made up the USSR on most maps, emerged. As well as the North Americans from the US and Canada, South America took on the Tour, with Mexican and Colombian riders taking on the Europeans. New, international audiences discovered cycling and Jacques Goddet's dream of mondialisation became a reality.

Jeff Connor's Wide-Eyed and Legless tells the story of how one British entrepreneur, Tony Capper, made his play for a slice of cycling's new wealth and prestige. We'll turn to the book itself - and an interview with its author - another time, but right now, some history on the team what Tony built.

Capper was a former squaddie who, after being dumped out of the police with two months pay and a kick up the arse, had some misadventures in the taxi business (in one version of the story his business partner committed suicide, in another he sold the company and it was only later realised by the new owners that it wasn't his to sell). Chequered is the word that is most often used to describe this portion of Capper's career.

In the early eighties, with Thatcher's Britain championing entrepreneurial acumen, Capper set up an overnight delivery company, Associated Nationwide Couriers (ANC) - think DHL, Excel or the like. ANC was, essentially, run on the same principal as Interflora, a franchise operation where local franchisees paid to use the name and access the central network. It's also the way taxi companies are often organised, and Capper knew the taxi trade.

ANC's growth was rapid. Within five years, the company had become big enough to be taken over by British and Commonwealth Shipping, leaving Capper a wealthy man. How wealthy is always a question, but it was wealthy enough for him to live in exile in the tax shelter in the Irish Sea that is the Isle of Man.

In growing ANC, Capper had involved the company with various sports sponsorship opportunities - darts, athletics and football. In 1984 he was approached by a British racer, Mick Morrison, looking for sponsorship. The following year, ANC was sponsoring a team of British pros riding on the domestic circuit. Capper - a brash and arrogant forty-something, chain-smoking, pie-eating, Coke-swilling giant of a man (wider than he was tall is the kind way of describing his girth) - quickly set about taking a Thatcherite approach to the sport. History and tradition were bunkum - 'Whatever you've done in the past, it's wrong,' he would tell people. Cycling was a business, he was a businessman and he knew best.

British cycling at the time was still over-shadowed by Tom Simpson's death, was very insular and parochial. To give you an idea of how hidebound British cycling was: though continental racing was just a ferry-ride away, domestic teams were limited to no more than six riders, a rule which effectively forced them to narrow their horizons and race only in the UK. A lot of people involved in the sport in the UK took a holier-than-thou approach to the continental scene, writing it off as drug-fuelled and corrupt, unlike the saintly pure local scene they championed. They wanted nothing to do with it.

Capper took a practical approach to the restrictions imposed upon him - he set up three different teams: ANC-Freight Rover, Lycra-Halfords and Interrent-Dawes. They co-operated in domestic races - down to splitting winnings across the squads - and gave Capper a larger pool of riders to draw from when he ventured forth and took on the European peloton, where the combined squads raced as ANC-Halfords.

Sprinter_mediumCapper was a man on a mission, a man with a dream, a dream which had come to him when he visited the Alpe d'Huez stage of the 1985 Tour de France: his dream was to put a British team into the Tour de France and bring them home safely. And to achieve that dream Capper knew that winning domestic trophies like the Milk Race wouldn't cut the mustard. His riders would have to show themselves at races like Paris-Nice and the Classics. Malcolm Elliott, who Capper signed to ride for ANC in 1986, had this to say of Capper's ambition, when he recalled this part of his career in his 1990 autobiography, Sprinter (ghosted by Jeff Connor):

"Not that many riders were bothered about [the Tour de France] anyway. I used to think: What do we want to go into that for anyway? None of us realised it at the time but this was the only way ahead. We'd started riding a few races abroad but a ride in the Tour seemed outlandish and we just humoured him. Capper was a trail-blazer, I'll give him that. ANC were the first fully-fledged British team to compete abroad consistently."

The trail Capper blazed was meteoric. In June 1987 the Société du Tour de France gave him the nod he'd been waiting for: they were part of the 1987 Tour de France. From one rider in 1984 to five in 1985 and three teams in 1986, Capper was about to set foot on cycling's biggest stage.

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Let's hit the pause button a moment and turn our attention to North America. In 1985, an American team, 7-Eleven, ventured forth from the peace and serenity of their domestic calendar and took on the Giro d'Italia. Davis Phinney finished in the top ten on eight stages. Andy Hampsten and Ron Kiefel won stages in the mountains. Eric Heiden won the overall 'catch sprints' category.

The following year, 7-Eleven were riding the Tour de France, where Alex Steida bagged the maillot jaune on the first day proper of the race - albeit losing it that same afternoon in the second part of the day's split stage - and Davis Phinney bagged a stage win.

When Tony Capper had that epiphanic dream on the Alpe in 1985, how much of it was influenced by the successes of 7-Eleven? How much of him wanted ANC-Halfords to emulate 7-Eleven?

But maybe thinking that 7-Eleven is the team ANC-Halfords should have become is a tad unrealistic. For a start 7-Eleven weren't quite the trail blazers most cycling histories paint them out to be. That distinction goes to Robin Morton's 1984 Giro d'Italia squad, Gianni Motta-Linea MD, which she then took to the 1985 Vuelta a España as Pepsi-Fanini.

Morton's riders survived both of their Grand Tours without embarrassing themselves or their sponsors. For sure, survive is the operative word, they never set the world on fire, which probably partly explains the way they've been air-brushed from cycling history. But in her own way, Morton laid the foundations that 7-Eleven were able to build upon.

If you're British and reading this, think what cycling in the UK could have been like if Tony Capper had achieved even that. If, instead of leaving British cycling scarred and retreating back into its shell, Capper had left behind the foundations for future forays onto the continent. You mightn't have had to wait until the Olympic gold diggers came along for everyone to discover that bike racing is worth taking an interest in.

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So where then did it all go wrong for ANC-Halfords? The first thing to point out is that the fault was not entirely with the riders. Some of it, yes. But not all. They might at times have been amateurish but they were not amateurs.

It's true that, in the first half of the race, ANC-Halfords held the lanterne rouge for ten days running, but they weren't the worst team in the 1987 Tour. They may have only finished with four riders (Adrian Timmis @ + 2 hrs, 19 mins, 21 sec, Malcolm Elliott another half hour back,  Kvetoslav Palov plus another ten minutes and Guy Gallopin, 4hrs, 3 mins, 13 secs behind Stephen Roche) but so did several other teams. Kas, Reynolds, Del Tongo and RMO. And Postobón and Supermacati were down to two riders each in Paris.

But look at what happened to some of Capper's boys post ANC-Halfords. Adrian Timmis got a ride with Z-Peugeot, along with an ANC-Halfords rider who missed out on Tour-selection, Joey McLoughlin. Paul Watson got a gig with Hitachi. Steve Swart ultimately ended up with Motorola. Malcolm Elliott signed for Fagor. On top of that, Graham Jones was a veteran of the continental scene, a graduate of ACBB who had been a Peugeot team-mate of Stephen Roche's in 1981 when the Dubliner won Paris-Nice. Similarly, Guy Gallopin was a veteran of five Tours. With the right support, the team could have been contenders, even if only for a stage win.

But the riders were let down, not just by Tony Capper but also by the Tour de France itself. By 1987, the Société du Tour de France was losing its way. Jacques Goddet's dream of mondialisation had turned into the nightmare of gigantisme which reached its peak the following year. Everything about the Tour was becoming too big.

Look at the race itself. Two hundred and seven riders, which is actually three down on the peak of the 1986 Tour, but in 1987 they were in nine-man teams, not ten, which allowed the Société du Tour de France to demand an entrance fee (which varies from report to report: £25,000 according to Connor, £37,000 according to Phil Griffiths) from two more teams. Jeff Connor had this to say about the race:

"If the Tour de France is about mind-numbing courage, it is also a monument to greed, ambition and crass commercialism, which spawn in their turn dubious ethics and questionable tactics. It's a contest designed not for the competitor but for the acquisitive commodity brokers who hawk it around Europe to produce the highest available profit."

From the get go the Tour has been a commercial exercise, designed to boost newspaper sales. The Tour's commercialism increased as the years went by. Back then, in 1987, the Tour was thought to be making an annual profit of about seventeen million Francs. Much of that money made it's way back to the Amaury family and other shareholders. Critical and all as you can be about this level of commercialism though, it is also true that the Tour helped keep cycling going. The profits made by the Société du Tour de France also kept other bike races on the road. But, by the fag end of the 1980s, the Société du Tour de France were losing sight of the thing that really kept it going: the teams and the riders.

Where the Société du Tour de France most failed the ANC-Halfords riders was in the way they handed out their wild-card entries to the Tour. It was not until June, a month before the race started, that the team was informed it could ride the race. In order to get that nod from the Société du Tour de France, ANC-Halfords had bust a gut from the beginning of the season, throwing themselves into races in the hope of grabbing the attention of the Tour's organisers. (That may have changed today, the wild-cards announced earlier, but it is still a problem within individual teams, who leave the last of their selection until as late as possible, with the consequence that some riders knacker themselves getting selected and then have nothing left for the race itself.)

The ANC-Halfords guys, in their quest to catch the eye of the Société du Tour, showed themselves in races like the GP d'Ouverture, the Ruta del Sol, the Tour of the Mediterranean, Paris-Nice, Het Volk, Bordeaux-Paris, the Tour of Limburg. At the Flèche Wallonne Paul Watson finished sixth. At the Amstel Gold Malcolm Elliott finished third. At the Midi Libre in May Adrian Timmis won a stage. You can call that a clear progression if you want. But it also left the team exhausted even before the Tour de France had reached the grand départ in West Berlin.

Capper's failures, for such an apparently successful businessman, were surprisingly simple: the team was shoddily organised. From riders' contracts through support staff down to finances, Capper hardly got a thing right. That he even made it as far as 1987 and the Tour de France was an amazing achievement. Or testimony to how cycling had still got a long way to go before it could call itself a professional sport.

Let's take the contracts problem. Having built ANC Capper sold it to British and Commonwealth Shipping in 1986, but he chose to retain control of the company's cycling interests himself, through a management company he set up called Action Sports. This created a confusion which only became apparent when the team collapsed, with some of the riders contracted to Action Sports and some contracted directly to ANC. When the team collapsed, those contracted to Action Sports were left penniless. Those contracted to ANC only eventually recovered some of the monies owed to them.

Another problem Capper created was in not recruiting soigneurs, mechanics and other support staff, preferring instead to hire them in on an ad hoc basis. Apart from Griffiths as directeur sportif, the team doesn't appear to have had any other permanent non-cycling staff beyond three people who manned its Stoke-on-Trent office. What this meant during the Tour de France was that there was considerable disorganisation - and strife - behind the scenes. Among the soigneurs, the mechanics and the directeur sportif, no one seemed to know where they were supposed to stand in the pecking order.

Much of this wasn't helped by Capper imposing himself above his own directeur sportif and insisting on driving the lead car in the race convoy, even though he wouldn't be able to help the team's riders. For Capper, the thrill of driving a car at rally speeds in the Tour's convoy seemed to be a reward he felt was due to him for sponsoring a team in the first place.

But the real problem Capper created was in budgetary restraint, or the lack thereof. Here's how Phil Griffiths, who Capper recruited in 1985 to act as his directeur sportif, described Capper's approach to budgeting:

"Tony Capper was always a gambler. The guy spent the ANC-Halfords budget by the Milk Race [in May] every year. That was his strategy. Spend it, win the Milk Race and then go back to the board to get enough to cover the rest of the season."

That tactic worked when Capper was in charge of ANC himself and could treat the company as his own personal fiefdom. But in 1987, he having cashed his chips in, there were new hands at the helm. And when the 'please sir, can we have some more' request came in, they ignored it. The first the riders knew of any problem was during the Tour when some of them discovered that their salaries had not landed in their bank accounts. The phone calls from home for Capper were also increasing in their frequency and it was clear that all was not well.

And then, as the Tour enjoyed it's last day in the mountains, the La Plagne to Morzine stage, with the race within four days of Paris, Capper climbed into the team's Citroën and, promising he would rejoin them for their post-race celebratory dinner in Paris, drove off and was never seen again.

That never seen again bit is actually only a slight exaggeration. Phil Griffiths, the directeur sportif, met him once, six months after, at a creditors' meeting during the winding up of Action Sports (Capper himself was appearing as a creditor, claiming the company owed him £50,000). Shane Sutton, one of the riders, once bumped into him in Spain, after the Tour of Murcia.

Beyond that, Capper seems to have simply disappeared. What became of him is shrouded in a haze of rumour and speculation. In the twenty-four years since the ANC-Halfords débâcle, no one in Britain's sports media seems to have been bothered enough to track Capper down and get his side of the story. Even Jeff Connor - who was bothered enough - couldn't trace the man. Tony Capper, wider than he was tall, became the invisible man.

Which is a pity, because to my mind Capper himself is probably the most intriguing aspect of the whole ANC-Halfords story. Maybe it's just the bean-counter in me, but it's a side of the sport that intrigues me, the management and mis-management of the allegedly vast sums of money that are supposed to be swirling around this sport. Cycling has always been part business and part sport. I know bits of the sport story. I want to know more of the business story.

There are other parts of the ANC-Halfords story I'd like to now more about too. Such as the team's Scottish soigneur, Angus Fraser, who went on to star in several doping stories. A few other ANC-Halfords graduates have also featured in doping stories. Paul Watson rode for Hitachi in 1988 and, over Christmas that year, got bladdered with a Guardian journalist, Geoffrey Beattie (fans of Big Brother may recognise his name, as the show's psychologist). Watson told Beattie some stories and Beattie ran with them in the press. Watson ended up without a licence in 1989. And then there was Steve Swart, who eventually became a team-mate of Lance Armstrong's at Motorola and told Pierre Ballester and David Walsh some stories about what happened there when Ballester and Walsh came to writing LA Confidentiel.

Of course, the real ANC-Halfords story is the one about what happened on the roads of the Tour de France in the Summer of 1987. And that's the story told in Jeff Connor's Wide-Eyed And Legless. Which we'll come to next.

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Sources: Wide-Eyed And Legless (Mainstream Publishing), by Jeff Connor; Sprinter, by Malcolm Elliott (ghosted by Jeff Connor); Roule Britannia (Yellow Jersey Press), by William Fotheringham. Also, a series of features Lionel Birnie wrote for Cycle Sport in 2007, all of which are still online and worth reading.