“Bikes are immaterial,” says former Tour de France rider Vin Denson. “It’s the legs that matter.”
Speaking to an audience of cyclists on Saturday at Leigh, Surrey, the strongman who rode for Jacques Anquetil for several year said: “All the bikes are the same. If you made it onto a Tour de France team you’d get lots of bikes offered.”
Turning to the group of youngsters in the audience he advised: “You have to have ambition and not just for the next year – you should make out a four- or five-year programme and then work to it.
“I was inspired as a youngster by photos of stars riding over mountain passes in two metres of snow in their national jerseys and seeing them I decided I wanted to do that.
“We didn’t have coaches in those days, I certainly never had one, so you would go with the strong riders, copy what they did, ask questions and hang on their wheels.
“I was once in a race with Brian Robinson, the first rider to win a stage in the Tour de France. He was about 24 then and experienced, while I was just 18 and I must have annoyed him because I was asking questions endlessly.
“Brian and Shay Elliott were in the Tour de France when I did it the first time and I rode by copying them. We finished in the front 20 which was good, but most important for me was that I was learning all the time.”
Vin lengthy professional career was remarkably crash-free, though he did suffer from two memorable tumbles.
The second was a result of being on the wheel of smaller rider on a descent.
“Anquetil was a great tactician and he had some of everything on this team – rouleurs, climbers and sprinters. Our roulers were so imposing that the others often called our Ford France team the ‘equipe de rugby men’.
“Anyway one day we were in a group on a major descent and we were all roulers in this group apart from Jean Stablinski who was a little guy.
[Stablinski won the Vuelta in 1958 and was world champion in 1962. He was on the same team as Vin at the time]
“I had drawn the short straw and was on Stab’s wheel on this particular corner. He didn’t have to brake hardly because he was so light, so I was hanging back at about 4m from him when this car came through and gently eased me right off the road.
“The next thing I knew I was looking up two skirts… and when I looked some more I saw they had knobbly knees… they were two monks!
“Anyway they quickly took the cords from their robes and said to ‘tie the bike’ on and while the mechanic was putting me fresh wheels in the bike, they then set too and pulled me out. I was lucky.”
Vin afterwards agreed to take questions from each of the Redhill Raiders (aged 7-10) who sat in the audience.
What would be the one word that you think best describes your career?
Who was/is the best Tour de France rider?
V: Eddy Merckx…. and I say that even though I rode with Anquetil against him. But Merckx was incredible because he could just ride away from the entire field.
I remember we were the Tour of Sardinia, a stage race, and one day he rode off and won by three minutes.
Anquetil and all the other big names had their noses put out by this little-known newcomer and they put their heads together before the next day’s stage and agreed that ‘the upstart’ wouldn’t do that again.
So they went tearing after him whenever he moved, but even so with 4km to the finish line he accelerated on his own and we couldn’t catch him…. he won that day with a gap of 30 seconds.
What was your best moment?
V: Winning the Tour of Luxembourg. Before the start, three of us were given permission by the team to look to win.
After the time-trial stage a team-mate was lying fourth and I was eight, just 30 seconds behind him.
There were attacks from strong riders everywhere in the next day’s stage and when one attack went it took me up the road as well.
Eventually I said to the team manager “I’ve ridden myself inside out today to defend our best-placed rider but this break now has a gap of 2min 30sec on the bunch and I want to attack at get away on my own.”
Her said: “If you can make a clean break then go.”
I did just that.
There is no greater feeling…. you feel like two men when you’ve got the yellow jersey on your back.