In the spring of 2017 I made a pilgrimage to Torhout in West Flanders to see the plaque marking the home of Karel Van Wijnendaele, inventor of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
In a nearby café, where the radio played a Dutch language version of the country and western hit ‘Blanket on the Ground’ and the elderly patrons watched a silent rerun of Colombo, I ordered a coffee.
The waiter was in his late forties, wearing a black AC/DC t-shirt. I mentioned to him that I’m British and interested in bike racing. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You know there was a guy from round here who won that crazy course you used to have over there.’
Later I worked out the ‘guy’ was Torhout-born pro racer Eddy Vanhaerens and the ‘crazy course’ was the London to Holyhead road race.
The Flemish use the English word ‘crazy’ quite a lot, often to describe things that are only mildly off-kilter such as wearing a baseball cap back to front, or putting milk in your tea, but in this case it was, if anything, a bit of an understatement.
At 427kms London-Holyhead was the longest unpaced one-day race on earth, around 130kms more pedalling than Milan-San Remo, the current holder of the title.
More than that, it was characterised by weird old British eccentricities that saw the peloton driven into the gutter by oncoming lorries, overtaken by caravan-towing holidaymakers and forced to stop ‘with at least one foot on the ground’ at traffic lights, or risk arrest and a fine from officious traffic police.
From its first start at Marble Arch 1951 to its final hurrah on the seafront of the Welsh port forty years ago, London-Holyhead was run on just nine occasions.
Looking back now, it seems a minor miracle that it ever took place at all.
The race, which followed the course of the A5 coach road completed by Thomas Telford in 1826, was the brainchild of the legendary Percy Stallard, the culmination of a hard fought campaign to end police opposition to mass start bike races in Britain, which had begun in 1894 after protests by the gentry that cycle races startled their horses.
Wolverhampton-born Stallard was a complex man, variously described as cantankerous, autocratic and truculent.
What can’t be doubted is his commitment to bicycle racing.
A former British cyclo-cross champion who was born above a bike shop, Stallard was determined to bring continental-style races to British roads.
His ambition brought him into direct conflict with British cycling’s then ruling body, the National Cyclists Union, which had banned members from organising mass start races on public roads back in 1897.
In return, British police forces had tacitly agreed to turn a blind eye to time trials, just so long as they were carried out discretely.
The NCU took this latter stipulation so seriously they advised members not to wear brightly coloured team jersies, but to don all black outfits instead. Unsurprisingly the combative Stallard – who sometimes gave the impression of a man who could start a fight in an empty house – had no time for this sort of craven appeasement and, having pointed out that there was actually no law forbidding racing on public roads in the UK and that cars were more unsettling to horses than bikes, defied the ban by organising Britain’s first mass start race from Wolverhampton to Llangollen on June 7th 1942.
Eighteen riders participated. Stallard and all the competitors were immediately suspended by the NCU.
Sticking two fingers up at them, Stallard founded the British League of Racing Cyclists and a bitter feud between the two bodies began.
After briefly being expelled from the organization he had created for scabrous comments about the inadequacies of some of his fellow members, Stallard returned to the BLRC in 1951 and began to organise his great one-day race.
The first edition of London Holyhead was run on Saturday 9th June 1951, which coincidentally tied in nicely with the Festival of Britain which had begun on London’s South Bank a few weeks before.
After the gruelling years of the war there was a fresh optimism in the early summer air, a sense of renewal.
Despite the 5am start, skies the colour of a navies’ vest, bone chilling winds and rain that at times verged on the horizontal, the race from London to Holyhead, seemed very much part of a new, brighter age.
The free programme that was given out to spectators explained the heroism, ‘a ride that would normally take three or four days will be completed in approximately 12 hours’ .
The race attracted a select field of 28 professionals and independents, including five British pros who were then riding in France.
The peloton wound its way across fourteen counties, through the rolling farmland of Bedfordshire, the heavy industrial smog of the Black Country and the towering peaks of Snowdonia, before crossing the Menai Straits on Telford’s celebrated suspension bridge.
The winner in a three way sprint on a puddled promenade on Anglesey was Les Scales a 22-year-old toolmaker from Staines who rode for Dayton; electrician Geoff Clark from Bradford was second and Birmingham’s Fred Nicholls, a colliery worker was third.
Despite the rattling speed, sodden conditions and vast distance only three riders failed to complete the course.
Having made his point, Stallard went on to help organise the Milk Race and the Tour of Britain and apparently forgot all about London-Holyhead.
When the NUC and BLRC finally buried their differences and merged in 1959, he took the hump, gave up on cycling altogether and began hillwalking instead.
Over the next ten years the great race –100kms longer than its nearest rival Porto-Lisbon (Bordeaux-Paris was Europe’s longest race but for the first half of that riders were paced behind motorised dernys) – achieved almost mythical status amongst the British cycling fraternity.
It was these tales of de’ering do that fired the imagination of David Saunders, future Daily Telegraph cycling correspondent and ITV Tour de France commentator, who was then employed by Corona soft drinks as a PR man.
Thanks to Saunders’ enthusiasm for cycle racing Corona had sponsored the 1959 West Bromwich to Holyhead race, and various other small events throughout Britain.
It was when chatting with Wolverhampton-based cyclists Stan Kite and Bobby Thom (who’d finished 7th in the 1951 race) at these events that Saunders conceived the idea of reviving Stallard’s epic.
He quickly secured his employer’s sponsorship for the race and it was relaunched in 1961, with Stan Kite as organiser.
In the early hours of 27th May 1961 a field of 40 independents and amateurs assembled at Marble Arch for the start of the second London-Holyhead. At 5am the race set off up the Edgeware Road.
The brightly coloured jerseys of the riders brought a welcome splash of colour to a nation that still seemed to largely be in black-and-white.
Because of the traffic in the capital, actually racing didn’t start until the field had passed through Edgeware.
After that the attacks came thick and fast. Eventually Yorkshireman Bert Hitchen of Viking Cycles broke away with Pete Ryalls (Henry Holmes).
They built a lead of two minutes into Holyhead, Hitchen winning the sprint. Another Viking rider, Liverpudlian George O’Brien came third.
The race was back again the following May.
According to David Saunders, who provided commentary for a short film of the event, the 29 man field ‘was fortified by a 4am steak breakfast’ (No pasta in Britain back then, unless it was hooped and in a tin).
The day was cold, wet and windy throughout, except on Anglesey where the sun broke out in welcome. Hitchen was back, now riding in the red, white and blue jersey of Falcon and he along with Londoner Albert Roberts, Ryalls (who’d joined Viking), youngster Dennis Tarr and stylish veteran Doug Collins (the last two both of Condor Mackeson) set the pace for most of the race, the pursuing pack almost coming to grief in the Midlands when an oncoming double decker bus pulled out to pass a parked truck and narrowly avoided ploughing into them.
Hitchen, Tarr and Collins broke away again after crossing the Menai Straits with the two Condor men trying to crack the Yorkshireman with continual attacks.
Tarr had broken a chain early in the race and observers thought the chase back to the peloton had tired him. But in the sprint on the Newry Promenade it was the youngster who took it from Hitchen. His time 12 hours, 41 minutes, 55 seconds. His first prize £100.
The race was nearly half-an-hour slower than the previous edition, but had drawn improved crowds on Anglesey where holidaymakers had gathered along the promenade to watch the finish.
Along the route itself the race seemed to attract little attention, gaggles of shoppers in the towns barely breaking off from their chattering to watch the cavalcade pass, while in rural areas there was often only livestock to witness the riders’ efforts.
In 1963 Hitchen was again in at the finish, but this time it was a bunch sprint with 20 riders involved. Londoner Alan Jacob (Condor Mackeson) took first prize ahead of Dave ‘The Tiny Terror’ Bedwell. John Perks of Falcon was third, and Stan Brittain (Viking) fourth.
The 1964 event was fourteen miles longer than previous races due to roadworks round Gailey (where the M6 was being built).
There were further problems with traffic – Eddie White hit a parked motorcycle after 135 miles and was attended by St John’s Ambulance men who loaded him onto a stretcher.
He gamely recovered and pursued the field all the way to Holyhead.
Hitchen recorded his second victory using his big sprint finish. He was part of a three man break just as in 1962, this time joined by his team mate Billy Holmes and Tony Mills (Ryall-Raxar).
The trio got away amongst the granite and slate quarries of Cerrig, 60 miles from the finish and only Bill Bradley had made any serious attempt to catch them. He finished fourth but over 3 ½ minutes down. Despite the additional miles this was the fastest race so far, Hitchen finishing in 11hrs 47 mins and 6 secs.
In the winter of 1964 Corona announced that 1965 would be the final year of sponsorship for British cycling.
Over seven years they had put £35,000 into British cycling sponsoring the Tour of the West, the Merseyside Four Day and the National Schoolboy Championship as well as London-Holyhead.
In the hope of securing a new sponsor for the one-day race, Saunders pulled out all the stops and secured the services of five European-based pros: Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Vin Denson, Irishman Shay Elliot and the Belgian Rene Van Meenen. The quintet, accompanied by Keith Butler and Dane, Soni Kari flew into Southend airport the night before the race.
The presence of the stars in a 40 strong field attracted a crowd of 1,000 – five times higher than normal – to the early start at Marble Arch on the last Saturday of May.
TV cameras were also present for the first time.
Simpson was near the front all day and the race was run at what by British standards was a furious speed (the finishing time of 10 hours, 49 minutes and 4 seconds was the fastest in the race’s checkered history), despite the fact that the peloton was still expected to stop at traffic lights and zebra crossings – certain police forces actually stationed officers to make sure they came to a halt – something that vexed Simpson.
Always outspoken, he had harsh words to say about their attitude afterwards. In his autobiography he’d temper them slightly observing that the police were ‘sometimes uncooperative’ and the fans who followed the race in cars, frequently driving alongside the riders to take photos ‘often very stupid’.
When the race crossed the border into Wales and took the climb up Swallow Falls the European based riders surged away taking Hitchen, Bill Bradley and 1964 British Amateur Champion Peter Gordon (Viking-Trumanns Steel) with them.
The group remained together until the finish despite Simpson’s frenzied attempts to split them. The eight strong group headed across the Menai Bridge in pursuit of the £120 top prize.
The promenade was packed with fans. Simpson won by inches from Elliott, Hitchen was only slightly behind in third.
Almost immediately the race was over there was controversy. A photo appeared showing Elliott clearly applying his brakes just before the finish line. Just trying not to crash into spectators was the official explanation but others saw darker doings.
Bill Bradley said later that Simpson had spent a good deal of time on the run into Holyhead negotiating a deal, finally settling on gifting Hitchen third place in return for letting himself and Elliott take first and second.
Elliott later admitted that Simpson had paid him, saying that he had earned more by coming second than he would if he’d won.
Later, the British rider Pete Ryalls claimed that he knew for a fact that the fix had been in for Barry Hoban – who’d had a poor season – to win the sprint, an appraisal upheld by Vin Denson in his autobiography.
The exact truth, like much of what goes on in the clandestine and often Machiavellian world of the peloton, remains opaque.
Twelve weeks later winner Simpson would become World Champion and in the autumn be voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Despite the glamour he’d brought to London-Holyhead no sponsor was found and the race was shelved once again.
It returned to the calendar in 1970. By then Saunders had become ITV’s principal cycling commentator and PR for London-Holyhead was handled by Alan Rushton who’d go on to organise the Kellogg’s Cycling Championship.
It proved to be an uphill struggle. London-Holyhead was run on the same day as the FA Cup final making TV coverage – in the days of three channels – more or less impossible to secure.
“It was explained very clearly to me that [the race] was at the wrong time, that there were no cameras available, and that, in fact, there was no interest in it,” Rushton would later recall.
Neverthless, the race still created excitement in British cycling. Falcon contacted Shay Elliott and invited the great Irish rider to join their team for the race.
Elliott had retired in 1967 but he was having financial troubles. The call came late, giving the Dubliner only three months to prepare.
He trained furiously but it was not enough. Retirement had taken its toll. He finished 21st, only his heart and pride getting him to the finish line. He never raced seriously again.
Ten months later he committed suicide.
Aside from Elliott the only other foreigner in the field was Australian Graeme Gilmore. The Tasmanian would go on to have a fantastic track career on mainland Europe where he frequently paired up with the peerless Patrick Sercu at events such as the six-days of Ghent.
The race was won by Teessider ‘Super’ Sid Barras, in his first season as a pro with Raleigh. Brian Jolly was second, Dave Mitchell third and Colin Lewis, a Welshman who rode for Holdswoth-Campagnolo fourth.
Track great and future BBC voice of cycling Hugh Porter came sixth.
There was another hiatus before London-Holyhead was ridden again. That was in 1977. Again Super Sid triumphed. Yorkshireman Keith Lambert was second and Phil Corley third. Irishman Alan McCormack, who came from Sean Kelly’s home town of Carrick-on-Suir, was sixth. He’d go on to ride professionally for many years in Belgium and the USA.
In 1978 the race was extended to 435kms and attracted a strong field that included Barry Hoban (by then on the downward slope of his illustrious career), Hugh Porter, future UCI president Pat McQuaid and a trio of Flemish riders from the Carlos-Galli-Alan team.
Eddy Vanhaerens, Patrick Verstraete and Frans Van Vlierberghe were hardly men to compare with Belgian contemporaries such as Freddy Maertens, Roger De Vlaeminck and Walter Godefroot, but they had plenty of experience and talent.
Vanhaerens had been Flemish amateur road race champion and would finish on the podium in stages of the Giro and the Vuelta, Van Vlierberghe won a stage of the latter and also finished third in the brutal Le Samyn – often billed as Petit Paris-Roubaix.
Verstraete meanwhile was good enough to ride in and finish the Tour de France.
It was the man from Torhout who pummelled the field.
Riding in the traditional go-fast-and-then-go-faster Flemish style he broke away early with only Lambert and Londoner Corley able to stick with him.
The two British riders were team mates at Holdsworth-Campagnolo and worked hard to break the Belgian, but in the end it was Corley who hit the wall. Vanhaeren and Lambert rode away, leaving him to finish over five minutes adrift with the rest of the field a further seven minutes back. The Fleming and the Yorkshireman came into Holyhead together.
Verhaeren launched his attack from distance. He was too powerful for the Briton and took the race by a single second. Scotsman John McMillan was fourth, 13 minutes behind the winner.
Vanhaerens was the first foreigner to win Stallard’s great race.
He’ll likely be the last too, unless there’s a sponsor out there with a romantic streak, a taste for history, and an appetite for the impossible.