Cast your mind back, if you will, to the summer of 1980. My parents had rented the house of the opera singer, Alfred Deller in Kent. If that was not mortifying enough for this future blogger, they insisted on trailing us round to visit their many friends who lived there. We had lived in the area between 1967 and 1974, and there were many people of no interest whatsoever to my 16 year old self, and my brother, 12, that we were forced to spend time with being on our best behaviour.
Mercifully, the period has almost entirely been expunged from the memory of my inglorious adolescence – with one notable exception: the time we were invited to have supper at the home of Tony and Katie Hewson. Not the Tony Hewson – winner of the 1954 Viking Trophy in The Isle of Man, and best climber in that illustrious competition? I hear you gasp.
Yes, the very same.
What I remember of that evening was that it felt like, for the first time on these shores, to be taken seriously by people other than my family. I confess that I cannot recall a single sentence of the conversation that night, only that the room was dark, lit only by candle -light, and that Tony and Katie took a genuine interest in whatever foolish conversation I could muster.
No doubt at the time, my parents told me that Tony (a former teaching colleague of theirs) had ridden in the Tour de France in 1959. Did this dazzling reference to sporting stardom even register? I doubt it. In any event, I carried the warm feeling of inclusion, and of being taken seriously by them with me ever since.
Fast forward, then, to June 2003, and not long into this blogger’s less than illustrious career as a wheelman. It was that year that I entered, for the first time, a charity bike ride in aid of various good causes, organised by the charity Norwood. The event was a 55 mile ride from Esher College in south London, to Hove Lawns on the Sussex seafront. I had caught the cycling bug in 2000, and, as my interest in the Tour de France developed, my parents reminded me of their friend who had ridden the event in 1959. My response to their gentle anecdote was unsporting, to say the least. No, no, no, I replied. Tony Hewson must have meant he had ridden The Etape – a single stage of the race ridden every year by amateur enthusiasts in advance of the actual competitive stage being held. – not actually ridden in The Tour itself. Parents, as my children have discovered for themselves, can say the stupidest things, I thought.
Tony Hewson not only did ride in the 1959 Tour de France, but he won the Tour of Britain and The Tour of Scotland in 1955. In 2006 he published ‘In Pursuit of Stardom: Les Nomades du Velo Anglais’, a memoir of his career as a racing cyclist in France and Belguin between 1957 and 1961.
Why is Tony Hewson my cycling hero? He is my cycling hero not because of his victories, and the impressive honours he achieved before retiring from cycle sport at the age of 26. He is my hero because of the way he rode, his attitude in the saddle, as well as as his skill and ability as a cyclist.
Here are two brief examples from his first book to illustrate what I mean.
He started the 1959 Tour de France poorly prepared after a six week chest infection:
‘My plan was simply to ride myself back to health over the first week of flat stages. All went well for two stages and I kept in the bunch without too much difficulty. But fate had other ideas. Crossing Charleroi during stage three, an attack had gone off the front and the pace was high. My front wheel fell between the bars of a drain in the gutter and buckled. The wheel change took for ever and, though two team-mates waited for me, the whole caravan had gone by before we started our pursuit. It lasted all day, through the Hell of the North , to Roubaix, where we finished exhausted and just inside the time limit.‘
On stage seven, to La Rochelle, he was told to wait for a team-mate, Retwig, riding with him in an international team. Retwig had punctured.
‘It was suicidal and I knew it, but I waited nonetheless. Retwig was already well adrift and he abandoned soon afterwards. I chased alone for a while but the situation was hopeless. There was no chance of finishing inside the time limit and, in any case, a long time trial of 180km is not the best way to prepare for the mountain stages to follow. I joined Retwig in the wagon balai‘
Tony Hewson (centre) with Jock Andrews and Vic Sutton.
I will never ride a competitive cycle race, but, whether on or off the bike, many is the time I have ‘ finished exhausted and just inside the time limit’ ; an achievement in itself, I like to think.
There have been days during the past few months, and there will be days in the future, no doubt, when I will have to call it a day, and climb on board the support vehicle having scraped my shins on the limits of my endurance. But thinking about Tony Hewson, I will once again clean my chain, pump up my tyres and head for the hills.
New Every Morning
Everyday is a fresh begining,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of all sorrows
And older sinning,
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.
Susan Coolidge (1835-1905)