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Cycle Yorkshire, by Jonathan Brown

The Tour de Yorkshire 2016, Sutton Bank
The Tour de Yorkshire 2016, Sutton Bank
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Title: Cycle Yorkshire – From Road Racing Pioneers to the Ultimate Grand Départ and Beyond
Author: Jonathan Brown (with a foreword by Gary Verity)
Publisher: Great Northern Books
Year: 2017
Pages: 191
Order: Great Northern
What it is: A history of British cycling, with a focus on the contribution made by Yorkshire
Strengths: Brown has done the leg work and a lot of ‘Cycle Yorkshire’ is built on new, original interviews
Weaknesses: A little bit of critical distance would be nice

Brian Robinson signs an autograph during his first Tour de France in 1955
Yorkshire Post News

I put it down to the Yorkshire grit, we’ve always produced good riders. Yorkshire folk are dead down to earth; they just do their best, they are great people.
~ Sid Barras

No matter how many times the story of British cycling’s transition from rags to riches is told, there will always be room for another telling. So long as the author brings to the story a fresh angle. The angle Yorkshire-based ITV journalist Jonathan Brown brings to the story is the role played by the White Rose county.

The Tour de France’s 2014 Grand Départ was a launching pad for Yorkshire’s ambitions to become the capital of the UK’s growing passion for bike racing. It was followed by the launch of the Tour de Yorkshire and, in 2019, the county will host the World Championships. But the 2014 Grand Départ was also a kind of homecoming: many of the names that tell the history of British cycling had Yorkshire roots. Brian Robinson is from Ravensthorpe. Beryl Burton came from Leeds. Barry Hoban grew up in West Yorkshire. Yvonne McGregor is from Bradford. Malcolm Elliott came from Sheffield. Ben Swift is from Troapham. Lisa Brambini is from Hartshead. Ed Clancy is from Barnsley. Lizzie Deignan is from Otley. Tom Pidcock is from Roundhay. Here’s Brown on cycling and God’s own country:

From being an exotic minority sport treasured by White Rose explorers, it had become an activity that the country had taken to its heart and the county took great pride in. And while London was the flagship city in terms of cycle paths, and Manchester remained the nation’s track cycling hub, Yorkshire had evolved from heritage and underground passion to become the home of the road racing dream.

The spark of the Tour de France had clearly lit the touch paper on a latent pride that was deep-rooted in the region. Cycling’s boom in popularity made it something that the county’s people could embrace as the sport of their fathers and forefathers. Yorkshire’s new-found pedigree as a road racing destination also helped to create something local people could take ownership of.

Brown tells the story of British cycling’s rise, from the days of Brian Robinson to the present era. Here’s Robinson, telling his own story:

“I wanted to race abroad more than anything else; everything else was secondary. I had no problems with the food, the language was a problem to start with but we got over that. For me, to think you could come from the backstreets of Yorkshire and be on the top starts in France was unusual but I never had any reservations about being away from home. I used to come back twice a year. I wasn’t like one of the lads who used to say ‘I’m dying for my mother’s Yorkshire pudding’. I just lived the life of a biker.”

Back then, the world was only becoming McLuhan’s global village and the differences between home and ‘over there’ were enormous. Here’s Barry Hoban:

“In those days the Channel might as well have been 3,000-miles wide because of the difference it meant between British cyclists and continental cyclists. It could have been the Atlantic Ocean.”

Like Robinson before him, and so many after, Hoban had to adapt to survive:

“I couldn’t speak a word of French but if nobody can speak English to you it’s sink or swim. I can only remember a couple of weeks when I couldn’t get understood. You’ve got to cotton on pretty quick. It wasn’t easy; don’t think I didn’t think at times in my small hotel, ‘what the bloody hell am I doing here with no family or home life?’”

Hoban fell back on his roots to help him through:

“The working area produces a character of people and Yorkshire has always been a big working class area; the steelworks, mills and factories. There was a lot of hard work and people knuckled down and did it; they weren’t afraid to work and go on and do it. The working environment creates the people completely. I left an industrial coal mining area of West Yorkshire and went to Northern France, which was an industrial coal mining, working class area and the mentality was exactly the same; the only difference was they spoke a different language. They were the salt of the earth.”

Yorkshire didn’t just provide mental strength: physically the landscape pushed people. Here’s Denise Burton-Cole on her mother, Beryl Burton:

“She liked to go into the Yorkshire Dales, up Kettlewell and over the tops. If she had a day she would do massive loops right through them; over any Dale I suppose. For a woman to go up to the Dales and over Buttertubs; that’s pretty tough stuff. And in those days the women’s races wouldn’t have been as hard as that, so she’s getting her strength, stamina and core strength from that hard training. She would just go out and do it. It certainly helped her.”

Others echo this point, such as Lizzie Deignan:

“The terrain is relentless and unforgiving. In the first rides with my father I had no idea that the suffering would give me an advantage against riders from other parts of the country but, because of them, I’ve never had the shock of racing on climbs that I saw other riders experience; and the bad weather in races doesn’t faze me. There are no easy rides and it teaches you to be tough.”

And here’s Chris Walker saying something similar:

“We live right on the edge of Nottinghamshire but personally when I was younger I never used to head out that way – that’s where all the soft people used to go. As soon as I started cycling I just enjoyed it, I would head out to the hills on my own. And the fact that you were up and down the climbs meant you were getting your heart rate up all the time without even knowing it. In South Yorkshire it’s a lot easier to do six hours and you get a lot more out of it. Growing up here brings you on.”

Another thing to come though in Brown’s telling on the story is how each generation has spurred the next one on. Here’s Russ Downing, talking about how Chris Walker helped push him forward:

“Chris had taken me under his wing. I was still working but he said ‘you’re going well; your results are good’. He talked me into going fulltime and that helped me. I learned pretty quickly at Team Brite and it made it a lot easier. If it wasn’t for Chris, I’d still be working in steelworks and thinking I wasn’t good enough. I looked up to Chris – he knew what it took.”

The Tour has given fresh life to Yorkshire’s cycling history – Brian Robinson has joked about how Gary Verity dug him up out of a grave he was half fogotten in to promote the Grand Départ, and how much he’s still loving it – and now the heritage and the new fans are driving a new generation on. Here’s Ben Swift, on riding the Tour de Yorkshire:

“As a kid growing up, I never expected to see the Tour de France on my home roads let alone a race that’s really big and becoming a big thing. I had a bad experience that first year but the level of support we got in the middle of nowhere was just amazing. I remember turning around to my teammates at one point and asking ‘what did you say?’ – thinking the people shouting me were riders. It was unbelievable.”

Next up on the agenda for Yorkshire is the World Championships, where Verity is promising a punchy course:

“We need to do a big stage before the circuits. We had a quarter of a million people in Harrogate for the Tour de France and two million came out to watch the 2016 Tour de Yorkshire, so we need to plan for that. It will be a hilly course so it will be something akin to the Tour de France but I’m not sure it will be exactly straight up for a sprint. It’s tailored for somebody like Sagan as it’s lumpy. We’re more for a punchy rider.”

Stephen Roche and Dave Rayner, ahead of the 1993 Leeds International Classic
Yorkshire Post News

As well as telling the story of British cycling, Brown has peppered around the text occasional guide book-like sidebars, such as this:


“I would go from Wakefield, to Bullerthorpe, Denby Dale, Holme Moss, over Woodhead Pass and into Penistone and back to Wakefield. It’s about 45 miles; that was one of my great training rides. I also used to ride from Leeds up to Howgill, Greenhow, Blubberhouses, and Skipton, and the Leeds Chain Gang always used to go from Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds through Otley, Skipton, Addingham, Ilkley and Yeadon, and then back to Lawnswood.”

Barry Hoban

As with a lot of cycling books, there is sometimes an excess of excess, such as here, from Gary Verity’s intro:

In 2016 the Tour de Yorkshire was broadcast in 178 countries and attracted a global audience of 11.4 million viewers – that’s an awful lot of people welcoming Yorkshire into their homes.

When it comes to TV audience figures, I sometimes feel like Ted explaining perspective to Dougal...

That said Cycle Yorkshire is so unashamedly proud of Yorkshire’s contribution to cycling history that you forgive the lack of critical distance: Yorkshire’s story is special, not just for its contribution since the days of Brian Robinson but also for the way Gary Verity made the Tour’s Grand Départ into an event with a lasting legacy, something a lot of other people who have hosted mega sporting events have singularly failed to achieve.

And the legacy doesn’t stop with the Tour de Yorkshire and the Worlds, with Verity already plotting how to bring the Tour back. But perhaps the Grand Départ’s greatest legacy has been a greater awareness of Yorkshire’s cycling heritage and its generations old love affair with cycling. The final word here goes to Verity:

“That relationship has not always been an easy one – as the accounts of Sid Barras and Chris Walker attest to in the wider context of the sport – but right now that connection has never been stronger and this, to me, is an enthralling and comprehensive account of how we got here today.”

Cycle Yorkshire - From Road Racing Pioneers to the Ultimate Grand Départ and Beyond, by Jonathan Brown, with a foreword by Gary Verity, published by Great Northern Books