The 1953 Tour of Britain: An introduction

1953 Tour of Britain 2017 Peloton
The opening excerpt from the original 1953 Tour of Britain souvenir programme 

THE Daily Express Tour of Britain passed another great milestone in its history on Saturday, September 19th, 1953. On that day, countless thousands of people stretched along the road between Bournemouth and London. The race saw one of the most dramatic battles ever recorded in the annals of cycle racing.

They saw a large group of riders, travelling at breath-taking speed, headed the most part by four men in brilliant red jerseys and one man in a yellow jersey They saw in fact the Third Tour of Britain winner, Gordon Tiny Thomas, surrounded by his B.S.A. team-mates who were making sure that no rider escaped from the group in an attempt to take away Thomas's symbol of leadership, the coveted maillot jaune.

They saw man after man try to break clear and dash away on his own; but at each attempt the B.S.A. riders swarmed about him like hungry bees round a honey pot, taking with them their leader. It was a hard, long and furious battle; it was ruthless; but it was cycle road-racing at its best.

They saw, those who had waited in their thousands near and along Olympic Way, Wembley, the wonderful victory that Thomas had earned. Thomas crossed the line in company with 36 other riders. He had started the day with a 4-minute advantage over his closest challenger. He finished the day with that 4 minutes still in hand. He had won the overall race on general classification, and took with him to his Shipley home in Yorkshire the Daily Express Tour of Britain Trophy that 59 men had set out to win 14 days and 1,600-odd miles before.

What a great British sporting venture those days and miles had witnessed! The race had started out with every indication of an overwhelming victory for the Continental riders in the race. Italians Monti, Ciancola and Gestri had been the complete masters on the first day. Belgian Guldemont made his presence felt on the second day. France came into the picture on the third day, with Maurice Baele taking the stage honours. And five Continental riders held the first five places in the overall race at the end of Stage 3.

Relentlessly our own men pressed home the counter-attacks. The best foreign star filled fifth place on the fourth day. He was Belgian Guldemont. On the fifth day he had dropped to eighth; Monti was sixth. And from that hammering, the great Continental challenge never really recovered. Indeed, Guldemont forced his way back to third place at one stage, but in the final analysis, the best foreign rider was seventh- again Guldemont. Baele and Monti filled the next places.

It was a great triumph for our own men. And true to Tour of Britain tradition, the ultimate winner came as a surprise. For Gordon Thomas had been in seventh position at the end of the tenth stage. With only two days left, it seemed impossible that he could make up some eight minutes on Brian Robinson, who then held the yellow jersey. But in a single stage, and by virtue of truly wonderful team work and team management, he made up very nearly 13 minutes on Robinson, went into the lead, and held it on the final stage.

Apart from Thomas, six riders had worn the yellow jersey during the race Monti, the Stage I winner, was the first. At the end of Stage 2, it was passed to compatriot Ciancola. From Ciancola, Guldemont took over. Then John Pottier became the first Briton to ride in it. He was then displaced by Dave Bedwell. After the Morecambe-Llandudno stage, Bedwell passed the yellow jersey over to Robinson, with whom it remained until the end of the tenth stage.

How is it that, in 12 racing days, six men can be the leader? The answer lies in the very fact that the leader wears the jersey. That badge of office' makes him the most marked man in the race. He has not a moment's peace. Every eye watches his slightest move. If he goes to the front of the bunch, his closest challengers move up too. If he tries to break away, he is pounced upon unmercifully. If he drops to the back of the bunch, his challengers immediately attack and try to break away If a possible new leader manages to break clear, his team-mates will do their best to be with the group containing the maillot jaune and try to slow that group down Perhaps the greatest example of this intense team rivalry was given on Stage 8 Hercules captain Dave Bedwell set out from Morecambe wearing the yellow jersey in what appeared a fairly secure position. Very early on, he dropped back to have a quick word with his injured team-mate Derek Buttle, riding at the back of the bunch. In a flash, Wearwell, B.S.A. and Pennine riders attacked. How they sprinted! In a few miles they had opened a wide gap.

Wearwell Tour of Britain 1953

Bedwell, forcing himself to the front of the group, tried all he could to break clear on his own and give chase. But no-one in the bunch would help him. Every sprint the stocky Hercules rider made saw team-mates of those ahead on his heels. Whenever Bedwell was forced to ease, others about him went to the front and slowed the pace. In the end, Bedwell lost his lead and never had another opportunity of regaining it. A similar thing happened to Brian Robinson on the tenth stage. Again it was a combined attack, by the B.S.A., Wearwell and Hercules riders, which brought about the leader's fall. When two B.S.A. men, two Wearwell men and a Hercules rider were in the lead, none of their team-mates would force the pace in the main group. Robinson suffered as Bedwell had done. He was watched all the while, and every individual attack he made was quickly stifled.
Clive Parker, the Hercules rider in the lead, had mechanical trouble, and the news made his team-mates anxious to get up with him. But by then it was too late to do anything very much about the four men in advance of the field. They had a quarter of an hour in hand. Thomas, who was best placed of the four in the overall race, sprinted to win the stage. Les Scales, leader of the Wearwell riders, finished second to him. Scales's team-mate Pottier was third and Arthur Ilsley, Thomas's B.S.A. team-mate, was fourth. The four ended the day 13 minutes ahead of Robinson. Thomas, Scales and Pottier went into the first three places of the general classification. Tactics, opportunities, endurance and determination all played a part in these two stage incidents.

The same factors were characteristic throughout the great drama of the road and were witnessed by millions of people as the Tour passed through England, Scotland and Wales. In every town, crowds formed a cheering avenue as the racers sped through. In villages and hamlets folk came out of cottage and home- stead to watch the spectacle. Along isolated stretches of road, knots of field workers gathered to add their cheer to the echoes rolling from the towns.

Schools all along the route suspended lessons for an hour, while children and teachers gathered by the railings to watch. The waving and cheering of these children gave a tremendous thrill to the riders and to the organisers.

At hill-tops, particularly where primes were involved, were gathered crowds of people who had travelled to watch the spectacle. In some cases, primes were fought out many miles from the nearest towns. Yet spectators were there, arriving in coaches and cars and on bicycles.

The whole route was marshalled by motor-cycle escorts. Every dangerous bend, every tricky road junction, every awkward corner, had a marshal present to guide the riders round. Police co-operation throughout the land was excellent. In most cases, automatic traffic signals were turned off, and policemen waved through the racers. In this way, any delay to other traffic which the passing of the Tour may have caused was reduced to a minimum. The courtesy shown to the riders by other road users and by the crowds was magnificent. Motorists who came unexpectedly upon the Tour moved their vehicles on to the verge, and immediately joined in the atmosphere of fête which went with the race The degree of riding skill displayed by the riders was the highest ever witnessed in this country. There were, of course, minor spills, but no serious accident occurred, despite the fact that on downhill stretches the speed of the bunch was often in excess of 40 miles per hour.

Wearwell Racing Team 1953 Tour of Britain
The riders had two rest days during their fortnight of racing. That did not mean that they spent the day in idleness. Rest days gave them a chance of carefully working out their team's tactics for the coming stages. It gave them opportunity of assessing the strength and the weakness of opposition teams. It gave them a chance of making sure their machines were thoroughly overhauled. Although each team carried its mechanic, racing cyclists are never happy unless they have checked and re-checked every component themselves. This may seem an unnecessary precaution, but, as the mechanics themselves know so well, the rider who is absolutely confident of his machine stands the best chance of being in that worry-free frame of mind which helps to win races.
Each rest day, teams could be seen on their machines. Riders dare not let a day go by without a training spin, lest muscles tighten up. No great distance was covered in these runs, but just the necessary amount to ensure suppleness. Rest days meant hard work, too, in the way of autograph signing and official receptions. Around every hotel in which competitors were billeted, knots of people gathered, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite rider.

Indeed, as each year passes, the Tour of Britain becomes more like the great Tours of the Continent. One Italian rider, making his first visit to Britain and being under the impression that cycle racing was an unknown sport here, said at the finish, "The scenes in Britain have surprised me beyond all measure. Time and again I felt that I was riding in the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia; only rarely on the Continent have I found such enthusiasm. This Tour must take its place alongside the great classics of the Continent. It has been an honour for me to take part, and I shall go back to Italy much wiser.”

 Gordon Tiny Thomas Tour of Britain 1953 Trophy Winner

Gordon Thomas - Winner of the 1953 Tour of Britain

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