My first brush with the World’s was 36 years ago. In 1967 I was living and racing in Ghent, Belgium. To us “baby boomers” that period was a very special time. The Beatles, the Stones, Cream, Hippies, free-love and a whole new post war generation was breaking free. Much to my conservative parent’s dismay, I quit my promising fledgling engineering career and disappeared over the English Channel to race bikes for a living?!! It was April, my parents wrote me off.
A few days after riding into Ghent I discovered an ‘English Ghetto’ of like minded English lads that had holed up in some ancient 17th Century Flemish weaver’s cottages that we later discovered had been slated for demolition 15 years before we all moved in. We lived a frugal life with the simple motto ‘if you can’t eat it, don’t buy it’. We lived from race to race. Our continued ability to stay and remain free from ‘normal life’ depended upon winning cash at the races. Train, race, eat and sleep. Our only entertainment was the fantastic new music piped to us through ‘pirate radio’. I lived like this for two years.
Our most famous ‘locals’ were Tom Simpson, Barry Hoban and Vin Denson. These guys and a few others had made it into the top teams of the day. Tom had won some classics and in 1965 he became World Champion. But on July 13th, 1967 everything changed. In his quest to claim the ultimate prize (the TdF), Tom died just 1.5km from the top of Mt Ventoux. In this country most people recalling that era remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. My overwhelming memory is of watching Tom’s demise on black and white TV in a Belgian shop. It was a Tour never to forget.
Especially for those of us racing in Belgium, it was a dark time. Many were on the verge of packing up and going home but I decided to stick it out. And then along came the World Championships. “Boom”, out of nowhere an Englishman wins the Amateur Road Race Championship. No sooner had Graham Webb won the title than ‘fat Albert’ Beaurick, the famous Belgian mentor of Tom Simpson, saw an opportunity to make money. So he rounded up a bunch of us English scruffs from the Ghent area and created a team around Webb. Off we went all over Europe as the British team to contest the so called world’s revenge races. We raced our eyeballs out, feasted like pigs as special guests everywhere and naturally partied like mad at the post race celebrations.
This was a classic case of the Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame because I and the other lucky lads that landed this gig basked in the reflected glory of the rainbow jersey for several hectic and crazy weeks. Our nationality was the ticket to a few moments of fame. Now, ‘fat Albert’ loved to drink beer, eat and make money any way he could. We were easy pickings. So he appointed himself our agent and promptly set about organizing a whirlwind tour of Europe. At that time race money came in three basic chunks. Expenses to travel and eat, start money and then actual race winnings. Albert got his hands on the first two chunks so we had to win something.
Only the super rich flew back then. Trains and busses transported us. One such journey took us to the Grand Prix d’Esperaza which was located in the foothills of the Pyrenees east of Carcasonne. We left Ghent by train and headed for Paris where we changed trains and then journeyed overnight to Carcasonne. It is standard procedure in Europe to reserve your seat (for an extra fee) for longer journeys. Not till we got on the train did we discover that Albert had funded his week’s beer with our reservation fees. So we sat and slept in the corridor all night where people were endlessly clambering all over us to get to the restroom.
When we finally crawled into Esperaza we discovered a classic old hill town with an ancient bridge spanning a broad mountain river. It was my first ever trip to the mountains and I was ready to fly. The sight of bronzed and lean Spanish climbers made it even more exciting. Quite different from the chunky Belgians. I remember little of the actual race but I know that we all did pretty well for Queen and country. Graham Webb did not win. In fact I don’t think that he ever won a major road race again. Graham was a classic English time triallist. Strong as an ox but not up to handling rapid accelerations and fluctuating tempo’s.
At the World’s he was completely unknown so when he slipped off of the front they let him go. Being in Holland and not a hill in sight, Graham turned on the afterburners and TT’d to victory. That was the last time the elite let him go out on his own.
I roomed with him a couple of times and discovered that he was obsessed with keeping his muscles warm. Even in bed he wore this thick all wool track suit that covered him from neck to toe. On his head he wore a black woolen balaclava head piece that completely covered his head and had just two eye holes and a slit for the mouth. Waking up in the middle of the night and seeing that sight gave you a real start. How he wore this garb in the summer months I will never know. When Graham retired from racing I believe that he stayed in Belgium, married a local and became the proprietor of a typical Belgian French Fry stand which he runs to this day.
After the race it was party time. The town shut down the old cobbled square, placed tables under the Plain trees and served up a huge feast for the world elite of pro/amateur cycling. Place of honor was reserved for the World Champion and his team. Apart from being grossed out by a huge platter of local wild fowl cooked with their heads still on, we feasted like kings. The wine flowed freely, the local band let rip and we were all soon enjoying dancing with the local beauties of Esperaza. Next day there was no race, just the evening train back to Paris.
This time we had set ourselves up for a comfortable journey with seats. We slumped back exhausted from racing and feasting to sleep our way back to Paris. In the wee hours of the morning one of the lads woke us up. “We’re not moving, and it is really quiet!”. A quick reconnoiter revealed that we had been shunted up a siding. We were now a few silent carriages without an engine. It’s common practice in Europe to divide trains up somewhere along its journey to send sections in different directions. A basic rule of travel is to check that out at departure.
At dawn some French railway workers discovered us. When they finally recovered from their uncontrollable laughter they lead us back up the tracks to a station where we eventually connected with a Paris express. I think that our train pulled into the Austerlitz station. From there we had to trek across Paris to the Gare du Nord to link up with the train back to Ghent. We piled out of the Austerlitz station and spilled onto the huge cobbled forecourt about the size of two football pitches. People were lined up politely waiting for taxis. Time was short and we did not know the way so I and a couple of others went to the far end of the area and tried to grab a taxi on the way in. Out of nowhere this huge Gendarme (policeman) confronted us and ordered us back to the line-up. Time to play the Rainbow Jersey card. “Mon dieu! Monsieur Webb, Championat du monde” (Graham’s picture had been all over the papers and he was very recognizable). With that our Gendarme went off and commandeered a taxi!
Meanwhile the bemused folks in the long taxi lines tuned in and all of a sudden we were signing autographs everywhere. The taxi arrived; we threw in our bags, hopped on our bikes and got motor paced at high speed through the hectic Parisian traffic to our destination. Our taxi driver had the time of his life leading this crazy procession of cycling celebrities across the City of Lights. And so for a little while longer our very own World Champion helped a bunch of modest racing cyclists experience the magic of the Rainbow Jersey and race with the world’s best.
– Graham R. Jones, October 2003