Cycling: Survival ticket on tour of tears: Robin Nicholl on the British story in 55 years of cycling's premier event, the Tour de France

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN first entered the European cycling community through its main gate, the Tour de France, 55 years ago. It is apparent now that slipping in via the servants' entrance is a better route to success.

Our Tour triumphs have come from those willing to adapt to a different lifestyle, sacrifice all and serve patiently. Now the last of such British riders are approaching the twilight of their careers, and there appears to be no one on the horizon to replace them.

Graham Jones was 18 when he left home for a lonely start with a leading French amateur club that has a reputation for rearing men to fit the yellow jersey of Tour leader.

Jones declined Commonwealth Games selection to pursue the possibilities of a professional career. He followed a trail blazed by Brian Robinson, our first Tour stage-winner in 1958, Tom Simpson, the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey in 1962, and Barry Hoban who had eight stage wins.

Illness cost Jones a place in the top 10 in 1980 when he was 22, and the next year he achieved 20th after sacrificing his chances to aid struggling star team-mates.

Jones worked for, and with, Stephen Roche, the Tour's first Irish winner, Phil Anderson, Australia's best performer, and, more importantly, Scotland's Robert Millar.

Between Robinson's first success in 1958 and the last by Millar in 1989 is a thin list of triumphs. The highlight probably came in 1984 when Millar rose to a new peak as the first Briton to win Tour colours, the red polka dot jersey as No 1 in the mountains, and become the best finisher at fourth overall.

'This must be the only sport where a Briton cannot develop to the highest level in his own country,' Jones said. 'If we are going to continue to have Tour success, we must return to the system of riders starting young as amateurs with a French club. Not enough of our better riders do it now.

'For the last three years, riders have turned professional in Britain and impressed sufficiently at home on the Kellogg's Tour to get a Continental contract. When they are expected regularly to turn on the form that impressed, they find it hard. The professional racing scene in England is almost non-existent. A professional there is more of a part-time racer than an amateur in France or Belgium.'

Another of the Jones school is Paul Sherwen, who said: 'You have to cut your ties with home racing completely. You cannot have a foot in both camps.'

Matt Stephens is the latest recruit to the Paris club, A C Boulogne Billancourt, where Jones, Sherwen, and most Anglos learned their trade.

With Sherwen's help and guidance, Stephens moved to France. 'His career has progressed to a point, and stopped, because he keeps coming home,' Sherwen said.

In 1937 the Tour was virtually a day trip for pioneer Bill Burl. He retired on the first stage, but Charles Holland forged on until the 11th. If nothing else it was an experience to dine out on.

Robinson, whose Continental home was a caravan, was the first Briton to stay the Tour distance, finishing 29th in 1955. Of 49 British starters since, only 19 have made it to Paris.

Barry Hoban recorded eight of Britain's 15 stage wins, but for overall consistency Millar leads the way, not only in the French tour. He has been runner-up in both the other major tours, in Italy and Spain.

Britain's last Tour entry with a team was sponsored by overnight couriers ANC in 1987. It was a shop window of British talent, but only Malcolm Elliott kept his shelf life, and, up to now, his Spanish sponsor.

Millar and Sean Yates, another A C Boulogne Billancourt graduate and Tour stage winner, were Britain's representatives as the 79th Tour opened yesterday in San Sebastian.

At 34, Millar rides his 10th Tour under the cloud of a positive drug test during the Tour of Spain. A good Tour de France could redeem his future with insurance company TVM, his Dutch sponsors.