(Image credit: James F. Perry
CC BY-SA 3.0)
Born in Stoke-on-Trent on this day in 1943, Les West got his first taste of cycling when, aged 15, he went on a ride with an uncle. He liked it, and within a year had joined the local club, the Tunstall Wheelers; a year after that, when he was still only 16, he won the North Staffordshire 25-mile Championship - it should be noted that Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire traditionally had and still has a healthy amateur cycling scene, its county championships are therefore among the most prestigious in the country and marked the youngster out as a rider to watch. He lived up to that early promise, winning the County Championships for 10, 25, 30 and 50 miles in 1961. Three years later, he was selected for a team going to the Olympia's Tour and, in common with the majority of British riders getting their first experience of European racing in that era, even at an amateur event, he was completely overwhelmed and did not finish.
He won the General Classification and the Points competition, at least partly (and by his own admission) because the race saw its first positive anti-doping tests that year, which took numerous older and more experienced riders out of contention. As prizes, he received a gold watch and a combination cocktail cabinet and radiogram*, and in the same year her set a new national records for 25-miles and the Hour.
Early in 1966, West won the Manx International and Mountain again. Gold watches and radiograms were desirable items, but any British cyclist who wanted to make a proper living from his sport needed to go to Europe, just like Brian Robinson, Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban had. West followed them in 1966**, but chose the Netherlands rather than France or Belgium, and found it to his liking. "Fantastic, that was, Very, very fast," he remembered years later when asked about the round-the-houses races that offered prizes much bigger than the British events and at which he could now keep up with the best. The only trouble was, he rapidly became so used to Dutch racing that when he returned to Britain for the Milk Race later that year, he couldn't cope with the hills and came sixth despite winning Stages 2 (beating Hugh Porter, who would later become World Pursuit Champion on track,) by 12") and 9 and finishing high up on Stages 1 and 6.
At the Amateur World Championships later in the year, he finished in second place after suffering cramp - it's race he doesn't like to discuss in detail, saying little more than "well, Dolman wasn't exactly clean." He might not like to say more, but others are less reticent and describe how the Dutch rider was often so high on drugs that he was unable to recognise people he'd known closely for many years. West, who doesn't seem susceptible to telling self-aggrandising lies, says that immediately after the race he was approached by an official from British Cycling. "Good ride. What's your name, son?" he asked. He told him, then listed a few of his other results; and the official said that he'd be having a word with a contact at the professional Bic team, then home to none other than Jacques Anquetil. He never heard anything back.
West learned his lesson from the 1966 Milk Race and spent some time training on hills; when he returned to the event in 1967 with the Dutch Willem II-Gazelle (home to fellow Brit Albert Kitchen and the Dutch superstars Peter Post and Rik van Looy) he won Stages 2b, 5 and 6a and finished consistently well on enough stages to win outright. He then took back the National Amateur title, too, and won the hilly Tour of the Cotswolds. The promise of a place with Bic hadn't come to anything, but he began receiving offers from other teams towards the end of the 1967 season; however, he turned them down in order to be able to compete at the 1968 Olympics - unfortunately dogged by bad luck and, following an early puncture and a long wait for the team mechanics, two further bike changes due to mechanical problems and a 50km chase, he abandoned. Soon afterwards, he signed a new professional contract with the British Holdsworth-Campagnolo team. The salary, he said, was little better than what he earned as an amateur, and he continued to work in his full-time job, but it seems to have been good enough because he remained with the team for the next ten years. His first victory in 1969 was the Tour of the Isle of Wight (Stage 1 and overall), which he said afterwards was probably going to be his only professional win - but later that year, he won Stages 1 and 3 and the General Classification at the Mackeson race as well as another couple of events in Britain.
In 1970, after winning a couple of one-dayers and Stages 1 and 2 at the Tour of the Isle of Wight, West entered the National Championships as an Elite rider for the first time and won. That qualified him for the World Championships, which were held in Britain that year; he managed to get into a strong break with eventual winner Jempi Monseré of Belgium and a couple of other riders and might well have got onto the podium had he not once again have suffered cramp, settling instead for fourth. Two more victories that season and one the next showed his gloomy predictions at the 1969 Tour of the Isle of Wight had been mistaken, and then in 1972 he won Stage 1 and overall at the Easter Two-Day and again at Marsden - and scored podium places at numerous other British races (those with budgets that stretched to a podium at any rate), including the National Championships. 1973 brought five victories and another silver medal at the Nationals, which made his complete lack of wins in 1974 seem mysterious - and made many wonder if, at 31, his career was over. In 1975 he proved them wrong with four victories including another National Championship, followed by three in 1976 and another, the Queen's Cup, in 1977.
Riders who know that they're coming to the end of their days in professional cycling often start trying to break records - many of those who have held Hour Records set them only a short while before retirement. West broke the records for London to Bath and London to Portsmouth in 1978, and then announced the end of his career. In those days, British Cycling worried that if riders who had been competing at professional level were permitted to enter amateur races immediately after retiring, they'd sweep the boards and discourage other amateurs, including young developing riders, from bothering to race. Like many ex-pros, West saw this as unfair, a punishment - and quite rightly complained that any retired professional who didn't race for the required two years would lose so much form that by the time he was able to compete in amateur competition again he wouldn't be in a position to really compete at all. Fortunately, just over a year after he retired, the rules were changed - he was able to enter the Tour of the Isle of Wight in 1979, and he won it again.
Cycling in Britain suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s, going through a period in which the sport was so badly funded that an entire generation of potentially world-class riders never got the opportunity to prove themselves and were lost, so that when West returned to amateur competition racing as a veteran in the early years of the 21st Century nobody other than those riders who'd been around to race against him in his best years had any idea who he was. He soon showed them, though - that year, he was unbeatable at the National Masters' Championship, and in 2006 he became National Veteran Champion
*For the benefit of readers born since the late 1960s, the radiogram was the precursor to the modern home hi-fi music system, only much, much bigger. Resembling a large wooden cupboard, they were enormously heavy and featured a valve radio, a record player, storage space for records and, in the case of the possibly unique model owned by my grandmother (I've never seen another one like it), a fish tank.
**It was roundabout 1966 that West picked up the peculiar nickname that stayed with him throughout his career, Grisby Welch. He had finished unexpectedly well in a Belgian race and local reporters wanted to know who he was. One of the race officials, also not knowing his identity, shuffled through the start list and found his race number but misread his name, and that's how it appeared in the newspapers the following day.
William Spencer, American professional cyclist, was born on this day in 1895. Having emigrated to the USA from England, he became a professional in 1916 before being drafted into the Army. He continued cycling after completing his mandatory six months of service, setting a new quarter mile (0.4km) record in 1920 with a time of 25 seconds. He died on the 2nd of October 1963.
Born in Zürich on this day in 1978, Franco Marvulli is a track cyclist who was National Pursuit Champion in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011; National 1km Champion in 1999 and 2001; National Points Champion in 1999, 2005 and 2010; National Team Pursuit Champion in 2003, 2008 and 2009; National Omnium Champion in 2012; National Scratch Champion in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010; National Madison Champion in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010; European Pursuit Champion in ; European Omnium Champion in 2001, 2002, 2003; European Madison Champion in 2004 and 2006; World Scratch Champion in 2002 and 2003 and World Madison Champion in 2003 and 2007. He also won silver in the Madison at the 2004 Olympics and enjoyed victories at 34 six day races.
Anatoly Yarkin, born in the USSR on this day in 1958, rode with the winning Team Time Trial squad at the National Amateur Championships on 1979 and at the 1980 Olympics. In 1979, he also won two stages at the Vuelta a Cuba and one, Stage 6, at the Olympia's Tour in the Netherlands, in 1980 he was third on Stage 7 at the Milk Race in Britain, and in 1981 he won another two stages at the Vuelta a Cuba. Four years after his Olympic success, Anatoly became National Amateur Individual Time Trial Champion, then retired - however, he reappeared competing for a Chilean team towards the end of the decade.
General Director of the Tour de France Christian Prudhomme was born on this day in 1960 and continues the long tradition of the position being filled by a journalist. Having graduated from the Lille ESJ journalism school in 1985, Prudhomme was encouraged to seek employment with the Luxembourgian broadcaster RTL by his tutor who was himself an RTL correspondent. He was accepted on a trial basis and provided reports on sports in which he had an interest, namely rugby, athletics, skiing and - his favourite - cycling.
|It's not difficult to spot Prudhomme at the Tour - he's the|
man who waves the flag to signal the start of competition
as the riders leave the neutral zone each day
(image credit: LeTour)
|Christian Prudhomme, the man who saved|
the Tour de France
(image credit: Dianne Krauss CC BY-SA 3.0)
His willingness to point the finger, name names and rock the boat as part of his efforts to clean up the sport he loves has not always made him popular, as was the case when he directly accused Saunier Duval-Scott manager Joxean Fernández Matxin of organising a doping program that would contribute to the downfall of Riccardo Riccò. However, it is largely due to Prudhomme and his fight against doping that the greatest event in cycling - and arguably in sport as a whole - was able to retain its dignity and continue after the great scandals of 1998 and 2006 came close to killing it. In 2012, with Lance Armstrong stripped of his seven Tour victories and the investigation into doping at the US Postal team threatening to become ever larger and more scandalous, Prudhomme still has much work to do.
More cyclists born on this day: Tommy Nielsen (Denmark, 1967); Hamid Supaat (Malaysia, 1944); Garry Bell (New Zealand, 1952); Ahmed López (Cuba, 1984); Tommy Shardelow (South Africa, 1931); Vladimír Kinšt (Czechoslovakia, 1965).