Chris Sidwells looks back at when the world’s best professionals raced on British roads for the very first time.
By 1959 road racing had been part of life in mainland Europe for over 70 years, but in mainland UK it was banned for almost as long. This was the first year it was permitted by cycling’s then governing body, the British Cycling Federation, although it had been going on unofficially for some years. To celebrate this emergence from the shadows, a Frenchman launched an ambitious project to bring the world best to British roads for the first time.
His name was René De Latour, he was a New York-born French journalist and dedicated Anglophile, who chose the Isle of Man for his ambitious project. He knew it well as the one place where bunched road racing had been allowed in the UK, and he took members of his cycling club, the VC Levallois, to compete in an annual race there called the Manx Trophy
That race was for amateurs and based on the island’s famous motor cycle TT course. The first Manx Trophy, run in 1936, was a reincarnation of a much older race called The Push-bike TT, where after a lap of the TT circuit riders turned off the promenade in Douglas and the race finished inside the Palace Ballroom.
Charlie Holland won the first Manx Trophy over one lap. In 1937 the race did two laps of the TT circuit, and by 1951 it had grown to three. By then the race was part for a week of cycling on the island, a week that attracted droves of club riders from all over the UK, so De Latour knew a pro race was guaranteed a good crowd.
He approached the Isle of Man Week organisers, who convinced the Isle of Man Tourist Board that a pro race would bring even more cycling fans to visit and spend, so the Tourist Board came up with extra money to put on a professional event.
It was called the Manx Premier Race and the first edition was held on Wednesday, June 17th 1959 over ten laps of the 10-mile Clypse circuit. De Latour used the European rider’s agents, Daniel Dousset and Roger Piel to sign up five of the biggest stars in cycling, each bringing four team mates. The stars were Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Raphael Geminiani and Roger Walkowiak. By 1959 they had won seven Tours de France, five Giri d’Italia, two world road titles, and countless classics between them.
The start of the 1959 Manx Premier, Coppi centre, Anquetil in green on left.
The star’s teams were Coppi-Tricofilina, Mercier-BP-Hutchinson, Helyett-Leroux-Fynsec, Rapha-Geminiani and Peugeot-BP-Dunlop, so that was 25 riders in all. The rest of the field of 78 was made up of riders representing British-based professionals, or as they were classed at the time, independents.
One of the Brits was George Shaw, who later managed the early TI-Raleigh team. I knew him quite well, he was Tom Simpson’s best friend, and this is what Shaw told me about the day he raced against Coppi, Anquetil, Bobet and the rest. “The first thing to remember is that all the British-based riders had to take the day off work to do the race. We were classed as professionals, but all that meant was we could officially take cash. Basically all we got was expenses to get to the island and a chance of a cash prize if you were going well.
“We did what we could in those days. My training was crammed between full-time work and night school. We raced as hard, but basically what happened in the Manx Premier was that the British riders did the first half of the race, and then the continentals showed us how to go on for the rest of it. I don’t know how many British finished, but it can’t have been many. But we’d all raced against Fausto Coppi, and that was the main thing.”
Shay Elliott won the first Manx Premier from Jo De Haan of Holland, with Brian Robinson in third. André Darrigade, who would win the world title in Holland later that year, made the big attack that saw the Europeans draw clear. The fans loved it, and nobody who was there ever forgot the Coppi Race. Suddenly the Manx Premier was a regular part of the European pro calendar.
The same Euro-pro versus Brits structure was kept, as an Isle of Man week regular as an amateur and a pro, Barry Hoban remembers; “Rene De Latour used to get all the European pros to meet at Le Bourget airport just outside Paris, where he set up a charter flight to the Isle of Man, so they could get in and out quickly,” he says.
Hoban rode the Manx Premier for the first time as a new pro in 1964, and he was third to the first double winner, Shay Elliott. Darrigade won the second Manx Premier, wearing the rainbow jersey in 1960, Jo De Roo won in 1961 and Rudi Altig in 1962. Alan Ramsbottom, one of a growing band of young British pros in European teams by then was third, equalling Brian Robinson’s best Brit finish of 1959. Surely it was time for a British winner.
Tom Simpson was an amateur racing in Brittany when the first Manx Premier was on. George Shaw remembered Simpson being disappointed he couldn’t race against his childhood hero, Fausto Coppi. “Tom always wrote lots of letters and cards to us, and in one of them he mentioned how he’d wished he’d been there, although he was still technically an amateur then.
“Tom turned pro at the end of 1959 and finished fourth in the worlds to Darrigade, but he didn’t ride the Isle of Man race in 1960 either, even though he was down to do it. That was because there was still national service back then, and Tom had been deferred while he did his draughtsman apprenticeship. Theoretically he still had to do it, even though he’d turned pro, and the authorities were after him by 1960. They found out he was contracted to race in the Isle of Man and they had military police waiting for him at the airport. Luckily Tom got a tip-off and didn’t get on the plane in Paris.”
The question of Simpson’s military service was quickly sorted out, and by June 1963 he’d won the Tour of Flanders, led the Tour de France and finished 6th overall, and taken a string of classics podiums. When he took part in the 1963 Manx Premier he was world number one, leading the season’s rankings, or the Super Prestige Pernod competition as it was called.
The race was hit by gale force winds and torrential rain, which quickly lashed most of the riders into submission, including the legendary Rik Van Looy, who stopped after 60 miles. Simpson, though, was inspired. He attacked from the start, pushing ahead with various groups until he formed a group of four, which he left with one mile to go and won. Only 16 riders finished out 70 starters.
Simpson won the 365-miles all-in-a-day Bordeaux-Paris classic a couple of weeks before the Manx Premier, but in an interview with Cycling Weekly’s predecessor magazine, Cycling he said that the Manx Premier was harder.
Start of 1963 Manx Premier, with Tom Simpson in Peugeot BP jersey front and centre, Rik Van Looy on Tom's left in blue. 2042
Simpson’s 1963 victory was an epic in the Manx Premier’s short history, but the best celebrity one-two was in 1965, when five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil narrowly beat a new pro called Eddy Merckx.
Tom Simpson returned to the island in 1967, when he became the second rider after Elliott to win the Manx Premier twice. It was also his last road race victory and his last visit to Britain. It was stormy on the island again, but Simpson was on top form because he’d built his year around the Tour de France, which started a few days later. The race was 80 miles and on a shorter circuit, and Simpson attacked at half way taking a small group with him. The field split up behind, so after going alone with 20 miles to go Simpson began lapping some of the back markers. He won by over three minutes from the 1966 Tour de France winner, Lucien Aimar.
Simpson died just over two weeks later in the Tour de France, and one of the three survivors from the British team, Arthur Metcalfe won the 1968 Manx Premier. Jan Harings of Holland won in 1969. By then fewer European pros rode the race, and when Barry Hoban brought the curtain down on the Manx Premier in 1970, the field was almost all British-based riders.
And that was the last Manx Premier race. The first British race the world’s best took part in. Since then the Tour de France has been here, there have been several big UK pro races, but there is still the need for a UK classic. That’s what British bike racing needs next.
If you enjoyed reading this blog, Chris Sidwells has many more great stories, features and interviews on his podcast, the The Cycling Legends Podcast, which is a monthly audio cycling magazine. Just follow this link.
In 1961 Tom Simpson won the Tour of Flanders, something so far no other British male rider has ever done. That may change this weekend, of course, but this is how Simpson did it.