Top British Riders?

Note: This article was first written in late 1997, since which time Boardman has retired, David Millar has won a stage of the Tour de France, new pros like Wegelius and Burrow have appeared etc. However, I still largely stand by it, except that I am inclined to be more generous to Boardman. Additionally, I don't mention Sciandri who, though half British, owes more to the Italian than the British tradition.

Picture of Barry Hoban
Barry Hoban at speed in the 1974 Paris - Nice. Painting by Jeremy Mallard, used with permission. See www.penandthink.co.uk

British involvement in Continental Professional Cycle Racing can really be divided into three distinct eras. Firstly, in the very early days of the sport, a small number of British cyclists ventured across the channel to take part in some of the large races which were appearing at that time; most notably G.P. Mills and Arthur Linton, both winners of Bordeaux - Paris before the turn of the century. However, a road traffic regulation of 1896 designed to stop fast moving vehicles frightening horses effectively killed road racing in this country, with racing cyclists being confined to tracks or the furtive pursuit of early-morning time trials. The repercussions of this act are still being felt in the sport to this day.

A second attempt to cross the channel occurred in 1937, when a "British" Team entered the Tour de France (it actually included a French - Canadian, Pierre Gachon, as well). Gachon dropped out on the first stage, and Bill Burl on the second, but Charlie Holland, rode with distinction before being forced to retire in the Pyrenees. However, a spiritual link had at least been forged, showing that British riders could survive in continental races.

And so the third era, which really started with the exploits of Brian Robinson (and the Irishman Shay Elliott) in the mid fifties, and has continued via Simpson, Hoban, Edwards, Sherwen, Jones, Millar, Yates, Boardman et. al right up to today and the hoped for stars of tomorrow, David Millar and Jeremy Hunt.

So who are the top British riders of all time? If Linton and Mills and Holland are ignored as belonging to a different era, then at least some of the problems inherent in assessing an all time list (see my top twelve overall list for details) begin to dissolve away; all the riders who are really in contention were active since the war, in the modern era of the sport; none lost any time due to the war; the problems of transport within Europe (and of assimilation into a foreign culture) are the same for all of them. So a more direct comparison can be made.

Two riders, then, stand out, and to judge between Tommy Simpson and Robert Millar is to make the judgement of Paris. In his day Simpson was considered to be second only to Rik Van Looy as a rider of classics, but he had a number of notable stage race results as well; not only Paris - Nice, but also sixth overall in the 1962 Tour de France, when he became the first Briton to wear the Yellow Jersey. Millar on the other hand was a rider of near misses; twice second in the Vuelta; second (behind Roche) in the Giro and fourth in the Tour de France, as well as high finishes in such classics as Liège - Bastogne - Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. For a period - perhaps between about 1984 and 1989 - Millar very definitely was a contender for victory in the Tour de France, and he was the first Briton to win one of the jersies outright in a major Tour; to date only Malcolm Elliott has repeated this feat. Millar or Simpson, then? Classics or Tours? In some ways it is the eternal question in cycling; my inclination is to place Simpson first because of the races he won, rather than Millar for the bigger races he was a contender in, but it is a close call.

Barry Hoban stands alone behind them; where Millar was the consumate climber, and Simpson a rouleur par excellence, Hoban was the great sprinter, but with the power to be in contention in the classics as well. His record of eight stage victories in the Tour de France (including two in the sprinters' capital of Bordeaux) has never been even approached; but he can also list victories in Ghent - Wevelgem, the Rund um dem Henniger Turm and a third place finish in Paris - Roubaix amongst his palmarès.

Brian Robinson was the pioneer of the modern era; the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France (including one incredible solo break at Chalons-sur-Saône which resulted in victory by over twenty minutes) but also a victory in the Dauphiné Libéré and a podium finish in Milan - San Remo; I place him above Boardman because I think he was more of an all round rider. Today's era is the era of the specialist; better to be the greatest time triallist than the second best all rounder, but although it gathers more publicity, it is not really to my liking.

Picture of Chris Boardman
Boardman on his way to victory in the 1994 Tour de France Prologue. Painting by Jeremy Mallard, used with permission. See www.penandthink.co.uk

Next I think comes Chris Boardman. Since his victory in the pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics (when he became "that man on a funny bike with a pointy hat"; such is the average level of awareness of cycling in Britain) he has been the golden boy of British Cycling; even more so since his arrival on the scene co-incided more or less with the retirement of Yates and Millar, and was a rather lean time for the Brits. Apart from his prowess on the track, Boardman's major successes have come against the watch; the GP des Nations, the GP Eddy Merckx, a World Title and the prologue of the Tour de France on three occasions. He has had results on the road, however; most notably a win in the Criterium International and second place finishes at the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour of Romandie. Something, however, appears to be missing yet it is not quite clear what; that strong performance in the Dauphiné excepted, whenever the road goes uphill, Boardman appears to be blocked. Perhaps Boardman never will be the great Tour rider he desires; his problem is that, without any other British riders raising a blip on the British Media's radar screens, and with the Tour de France seemingly the only race seriously covered, every failure receives disproportionate scrutiny. If Boardman retired now, his place in the pantheon would be secure; equally I feel that he probably wouldn't be quite happy within himself.

Below this level, it starts to become difficult to judge. Honourable mentions should certainly be accorded to Michael Wright, three times a stage winner at the Tour de France and fifth overall in the Vuelta; to Sean Yates, long the unsung hero of the peloton, the domestiques' domestique, but also a Tour and Vuelta stage winner and a regular high finisher in the northern classics; to Vin Denson, winner of the Tour of Luxembourg and a stage of the Giro and to Malcolm Elliott, points winner of the Vuelta in 1988. Individual good performances abound, from Graham Jones and Phil Edwards amongst others, but not too many other riders have really become fixtures of the continental scene. Let's hope that the new generation, David Millar and Jeremy Hunt, can continue in the best traditions of Simpson, Hoban and the other Millar.

The notable performances by British riders in the major events can be found by following the links on the races page.

For the record, the following British riders have won at least one of the sport's great races, as covered in these pages: