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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

Memories of the demigods - Barry Hoban's Tours de France

By Lucy Power

Barry Hoban winning the Avignon-Montpellier stage, Tour de France 1974.
Click for larger image

Arguably Britain's most successful Tour de France rider, Barry Hoban competed in 12 Tours de France between 1964 and 1978, finishing 11 of them. He won eight stages, placed second in seven, and third in another seven. Barry's sojourn at the Tour bridged a significant part of Tour history - his first Tour was Jacques Anquetil's last, he rode alongside Eddy Merckx, and his last Tour was Bernard Hinault's first.

Barry spoke to Cyclingnews from his home in Wales, and discussed the differences between the Tour in the 70's and the 2003 Centenary Tour.

It's not hard to get Barry Hoban talking about the Tour de France, so a conventional interview format is pointless. Even now, over two decades since he retired from racing, Hoban is passionate about cycling and loves to talk about his racing days. Here then, are his thoughts on the Tour 2003 vs the '60s and '70s era.


Barry Hoban: You were all riding on the best technology available in that day, so technology didn't really come into it (relative to your competitors in the peloton).

Hoban wins Gent-Wevelgem, 1974 (2nd Eddy Merckx, 3rd Roger de Vlaeminck)
Click for larger image

People say to me today, "Ah Barry, what would you have done with a bike like this (e.g. a full carbon frame)?"

I say, "Well, if I'd had a bike like that, and Merckx had ridden on the old Columbus tubing one, so I'm riding with one that's five or six pounds lighter, I think I could have worried him a bit!"

The speeds, specifically in the time trials, are far superior to the speeds in the Merckx, Gimondi or Anquetil eras, but that's only down to aerodynamics. The team leader, Poulidor, Zoetemelk, Merckx and company, might have a slightly lighter frame, but there weren't the materials to make it significantly lighter. They'd have 24-spoke wheels with silk tyres, but the actual significant weight decrease was next to nothing. We (the rest of the team members) basically rode our same bicycle, put longer cranks on, and a lighter pair of wheels, and pre-Lycra, you might have a silk jersey for a time trial, that's about the only aerodynamic thing you'd have.

"The Tour director was in the mould of Henri Desgrange, whose ambition was to get ONE rider to finish in Paris. He tried everything he could to make that happen!"

Race Directors

Felix Levitan was co-director of the Tour de France with Jacques Goddet throughout the whole of the 1970s.

BH: The Tour director at that particular time was brought up in the mould of Henri Desgrange, whose ambition was to get ONE rider to finish in Paris. He tried everything he could to make that happen! One Tour in the 1970s, after the prologue on the first day there were three separate stages. We started the first 110km stage, had a one hour break, the next stage was 120km, and we finished with another stage of 130km! The Tour de France was over 1000 km longer. We had stages of 395km...

Nowadays thankfully the sport is run correctly, but when Levitan was running it, he was a Godfather figure, and he used to overrule the commissaires! The race director, theoretically, has no control over the race. Once the race is in progress, the commissaires are the ones who should define what happens, if someone infringes a rule. But Levitan used to just overrule them.

"Now, it's a complete multinational field - Australians, Americans, former Eastern bloc countries."

Tour organisation

BH: These days, with the security that's required, the whole organisation has increased tenfold. Right up to the end of my career, there were barriers (between the spectators and the riders), but you could just walk through them, go right up to the team cars and shake hands with Bernard Hinault or whoever, and get photos with them, but the riders are more at arm's length now. When we rode, we knew every journalist, every official in the Tour, we knew everyone. Now it's impossible to do that, it's just grown so enormous, there's no way a rider would be able to know everyone.


BH: At the end of the '70s and early '80s, there wasn't one American in the Tour. Phil Anderson had only just turned pro, he was the first Aussie [Anderson was the first Australian of recent years. the first Aussies to ride the Tour were Ivor Munroe and Donald Kirkham, in 1914! - Ed]. There were no eastern bloc countries, no Colombians, and a spattering of Scandinavian guys. It was mainly mainland inner Europe - Belgium, Holland, France, Spain, Italy, a few Portuguese and some Swiss. If you look at it now, it's a complete multinational field - Australians, Americans, former Eastern bloc countries. It's grown enormously, and all of these guys bring their own national media attention.

Teams - money and organization.

BH: The teams themselves were on a much tighter budget. We had ten riders, we'd have two mechanics, two soigneurs. Now they have four mechanics, four soigneurs - a masseur looks after two guys. Our masseurs used to look after five guys! The teams today have got better facilites - team buses decked out with washing machines, workshops etc. These just started coming out towards the end of my career; a couple of teams did that, but it was only just starting. On the rest day, if there was a rest day, the soigneurs would find a local laundrette and go off and do the washing, and the clothes were all wool in those days, so nothing like lycra, they don't dry as quickly.

Lycra was just coming in towards the end of my career. Right up to that time, the teams would contact a clothing manufacturer, and pay for the clothing to be made. Team clothing is now all made on a commercial basis, free of charge for the team, everything under the sun, socks, mitts, you name it. Basically all we got was a jersey, your shorts and a cotton cap - track mitts, socks and shoes you bought yourself.

The commercialisation of the sport has altered it dramatically. A rider who has a reasonable reputation will get an extra payment which is not part of the team setup, for whatever sunglasses, helmet and shoes he wears, whatever computer he uses, and so on. That just wasn't allowed. Adidas were the first ones to come out with a commercialised cycling shoe - Merckx got paid, Poulidor got paid, only two or three guys got paid. The rest of the team got the shoes free of charge, which was a perk for us, but it was only the big guys who got paid.

Riders or demigods?

"Just after the war, there was a huge gap in the calibre of the riders. The top riders were head and shoulders above 'the mere mortals'."

BH: When I first turned professional in 1964, then the team leaders - the Anquetils of this world, the Rik van Looys - they were demigods. We'd ride the same races, and I remember one particular day - Anquetil spoke to me. Anquetil had been my hero as a kid. I just used to look at him - wow - I daren't talk to him. He said something to me, I don't even remember now, but it was "Anquetil spoke to me today! Wow, i've been touched." But that changed - that was in the mid-60's. Towards the end of the 70's it had changed.

What changed it all was - if you went back to just after the war, in the early 50's, you had guys like Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, if you took the A-Z of professional cyclists, there was a huge gap in the calibre of the riders. The top riders were head and shoulders above 'the mere mortals' if you wish. Over the years that gap became less and less. At the height of my career I classed myself as being a damn good rider. I wasn't a great rider, I was a damn good rider, but on my day, I was a great rider. And on an off-day of a great rider, he was a good rider.You flipped the borderline quite easily. That does apply in many respects even today. Not so much in the Tour, but in other events, smaller tours and classics, it's not always the big guys that dominate.

Le Tour - the race itself

BH: The Tour de France is the one where I've always maintained that you could have 100, 250 or 500 riders, whatever; there are still only going to be five riders in with a chance of winning. The prologue isn't really an elimination thing, but the first time trial, or the first mountain stage, is an elimination. It becomes a wearing down process. By the time you get halfway through the Tour, after the Alps and prior to the Pyrenees, you're already down then to six or seven riders who have a chance of winning the Tour. Then there will be a hiccup for someone, a hiccup for someone else, all it needs is one bad day. If you blow on Alpe d'Huez - the difference between a non-climber or someone who's blown to smithereens, and the guys who are purging at the front, is 16 minutes, a minute per kilometre. All you need is some guy to blow completely - they may not lose 16 minutes but they could lose 10. And that's their Tour gone, really.

Who can challenge Lance Armstrong this year?

"The riders play into the hands of the greats. They almost beat themselves."

BH: I don't think there's a direct challenger for Lance at all. The riders play into the hands of the greats. They played into the hands of Merckx, Indurain and Armstrong, in that they almost beat themselves. Lance, great rider that he is, will come a day when - crack! - he'll realise, it hurts. It happened with Indurain, you never know quite when, you can't pre-empt it. No one pre-empted Indurain, on the year that he just went... No one will pre-empt it with Lance, it will just suddenly hit him, age creeps on, another year, another year... For Lance to be beaten, he's going to have to show a weakness, a failing, and then the contenders have to react immediately - otherwise he could quite easily recoup.

It's always been the case, it has been the case with the greats before, they over-awe the opposition, and the opposition start riding for second, third, fourth and fifth place. The Tour plays into the hands of the guy who's dominating. There's no-one bullish enough around at the moment, that's thrown the gauntlet down, when it comes down to man to man. Amstrong has had this fantastic attitude, of being able to prepare uniquely for the Tour, he rides other races, but they've all been not of great significance. The one event he's concentrated on is the Tour. He's self-centered and focused on that, with Bruyneel he's got an excellent team director, excellent team relationship, all the technology they have... if LA doesn't win this year, it will be the human element that lets him down - himself. On one stage only.

That's all it would take?

BH: If you crack, and you panic, like Lance did a couple of years ago when he got the knock a bit. His team director Bruyneel was saying to him "Don't panic, don't panic"... and he was OK in the end. Even Miguel Indurain had things like that as well. I think one year with Indurain, when the ONCE guys were like attack, attack, attack, he started panicking, and his team director said, softly, "Miguel - don't panic, just rest, recoup," and he did come around. It needs that team director to keep the guy's feet on the ground. If you panic and start ranting and raving at your teammates, and you're using nervous energy, it goes from bad to worse. There's a lot of control required - it's a big chess game.

The best ever rider of the Tour de France?

BH: The best rider ever, of any era, and there will never be anyone like him, is Eddy Merckx.

There never will be anyone like Eddy Merckx. No one has to win Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, the Tour of Italy, the Tour de France, the World Championships, The Tour of Lombardy and set the hour record all in the same year. If you took some of the year's results for Merckx - they would be sufficient for career results for riders today. Axel Merckx, he's a good rider, he's not a great rider by any means, but in real terms he's earned more money than his father did!

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