A couple of years ago I interviewed Vin Denson.
If you were looking for a British cycling legend, an anonymous housing estate in Essex probably isn’t the first place you’d look. Neatly trimmed hedges divide the houses, everything looks very respectable and ordinary. It’s not a bad place to be retired but it’s a far cry from the heights of Galibier or the glamour of Nice. Despite that, it does seem rather appropriate for the chap I’ve driven up from Devon to see. He isn’t a flashy figure, you might not even recognise his name, but he’s hugely significant in the history of British cycling.
He was one of the earliest British riders to join the turbulent world of continental cycling and the first to win a stage in the Giro d’Italia. Great champions like Jacques Anquetil, Rik van Looy and of course the late Tom Simpson held him in the highest regard for his strength, intelligence and selfless ability to give everything for the team. If you want an equivalent in todays peloton then Geraint Thomas or Ian Stannard are probably as close as you’ll get. Like them, Vin Denson spent most of his career riding in the service of other people, but he also had the strength and talent to win in his own right.
When I knock, the chap who answers the door isn’t quite the confident young man that I’ve seen pictured in books and magazines. Age is catching up with Vin, he’s in his eighties now, but the smile is the same, that big, bold, Denson sunbeam. Everyone I’ve spoken to says that he’s a lovely chap, always eager to tell people his story. They’re not wrong. I’m barely through the door before he’s whisking me off on a guided tour of his career, flicking through a scrapbook of photos and telling tales of who, what, why and when. His memory wanders a little sometimes, he had a stroke a few years ago, but the old stories are firmly embedded in his mind. He’s a fine speaker too. Sure, some of the anecdotes are so well polished you can see your face in them but there’s nothing feigned about his enthusiasm. Some old pros just walk away from cycing when they retire, but Vin’s love of the sport never left him. He told me about a recent engagement – “Just after my book came out (2008) I went to speak at the Glendene Cycling Club and a mate of mine said I spoke for two and a half hours” and if you’ve met Vin, it’s not hard to believe. Ostensibly I’m supposed to be carrying out an interview, but the reality is that once Vin is rolling all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Occasionally I try to nudge him onto a different course, but it’s a bit like trying to steer an oil tanker by pinging tennis balls off the hull. It’s a full half hour before he can be persuaded to leave the scrapbook and come out for lunch.
Vin was born in Chester in 1935 and like many pros, he first discovered cycling as a way to get around and explore. Aged nine he would head off to visit aunts in far away places like Shrewsbury, a round trip of more than eighty miles. Of course there was no chance of just ringing his dad for a lift if he felt tired, so he’d have to make his way back home, weary and fading fast, like the feeble batteries in his lights. He was encouraged by his cycling mad French teacher, who worshipped the diminuitive French climber Jean and brought exotic magazines like Miroir du Cyclisme for the boys to read. Mystical names like Tourmalet, Croix de Fer, Bobet, Bartali and Ventoux wove their way through Vin’s mind like a magical spell, setting his feet on a path that would lead to glory, pain and unbearable sadness.
Vin got his racing start with the Chester Road Club. He was particularly good at time trialling, bagging a club record 59′ 18″ for a 25 mile TT on only his second attempt. Although there was a domestic racing scene, it was small and rather insular. It was vanishingly rare for British cyclists to ride in the heartlands of bike racing, France, Belgium, Spain and Italy. Most British racing cyclists tended to concentrate on time trialling, rather than indulge in the cut and thrust of road racing. Although he liked racing against the clock and was very good at it, Vin found he enjoyed banging elbows in the pack even more, so he started to work his way through the limited pick of British races. Eventually he began to get picked for bigger races, like the Milk Race and the semi-pro Peace Race, which was run behind the Iron Curtain on roads which hadn’t been repaired since the war. The grander continental scene seemed a long way away, but in 1961 he was picked for the British Tour de France team. It was only six years since the first British team had taken part and no-one from that 1955 team had managed to finish. Vin’s Tour team would be led by the extraordinary Brian Robinson, a survivor of the 1955 debacle.
Robinson was a tough character. Almost forgotten today he was the first British rider to forge a successful continental career with foreign trade teams, but very few had followed in his footsteps. He was the first Brit to complete a whole Tour and the first to win a stage, in Brest on June 2nd 1958. For a young amateur like Vin, contemplating his first three week stage race, Robinson must have seemed like a creature from another world. Also in the 1961 team was a young rider who Vin became close friends with, the raw but hugely talented Tom Simpson. That Tour wasn’t a great success for the British team. Although Robinson was a seasoned pro, the other riders had never experienced anything like it and in the testing heat of a three week stage race they wilted like plucked flowers. Vin was going better but one blisteringly hot day he noticed Spanish riders filling their bottles from clear mountain streams. It seemed like a good idea, so Vin did the same. It was a serious mistake. “I was sick as a dog. For the next three days I just had the runs. I coudn’t keep food down at all. I was getting thinner and thinner and eventually I was seeing black and white.” Despite his determination, Vin was left with no choice he had to climb into the broom wagon and abandon the Tour. Later in that same stage Brian Robinson also tried to abandon, but Vin still had the strength to push him out of the van, “go on, bugger off, you can still finish”. Robinson finished the stage, but packed the next day. I asked if he ever thanked Vin for making him continue. Vin laughed, “no, I don’t think he ever did!”.
Still suffering from the stomach bug he had picked up Vin headed back to Britain, wiser and a few kilos lighter. It seems extraordinary but despite having ridden the Tour, he wasn’t a professional and didn’t have a team or a contract, so he set up home in York with his wife, Vi. Vin found a job as a quantity surveyor, a job with good career prospects. And that could easily have been where his cycling career ended. It would be a familiar tale and one that bore no shame. An early explosion of joy and hope, snuffed out by the need to earn a living and provide for a growing family. But that wasn’t how Vin was going out and credit for that falls to his wife. A talented cyclist in her own right, she once beat a young Beryl Burton, Vi Denson was a strong woman who knew exactly what a racing cyclist needed. “She understood the food, that everything we ate was correct. She used to pack my suitcases and my shorts, get everything ironed. I’d come in, have a quick wee and then be straight out the door to catch the train to Paris or wherever. She was unbelievable.” Although they had what most young couples of the day aspired to, a bungalow of their own, a stable income and the promise of a decent career for Vin, that wasn’t what either of them truly wanted. One day Vin confessed he’d been thinking about trying to make it as a pro on the Continent. “Vi said, ‘what are you waiting for? If you see someone riding past while you’re working inside four walls, you won’t be happy doing that’ She knew I’d never be happy without being a pro and she’d be living with a misery for the rest of her life so she told me ‘come on, lets have a go’. She made the decision!” Within a few weeks they’d sold the bungalow and made plans to move to France.
The Densons settled into life abroad with relative ease. Vin rode for a small team, Frimatic, as a semi-professional under the watchful eye of Andre Mater, who he had met the previous year. Mater was an interesting character, not least because he owned a string of hotels which were frequented by naughty ladies of negotiable affection. Vin tells a tale of staying there with Vi and their baby son. “We stayed the night in one of his hotels that he owned, which was used by prostitutes. They were really good to us – ‘come on Mrs Denson, you can’t stay there with the baby, come to my room, it’s warm and I’ve got a record player'”. As Vin tells it, the way he and Vi dealt with what could have been a very unsettling experience speaks volumes for their resilience and good nature. It’s almost a cliche for wannabe pros to try their luck abroad only to fail to cope with the sheer foreignness of the Continent. Vin seemed surprised when I asked how they had managed to adapt so well – “I don’t know why that was, but I’ve always been adventurous and wanted to see what was round the next corner. Vi was the same. Some other guys, they’d be good enough to try abroad but they’d say ‘oh, where am I going to live, what about a car and all that?’ I’d say ‘fuck it, use your initiative!’ I equipped our flat with the stuff I won. You would get armchairs or fridges as prizes, that kind of thing.” Cyclists tended to come from countries with a history of racing, Spain, France, Italy and Belgium. Brits like Vin and Tom Simpson were foreigners and had to work harder to make their careers stick. “It was not sufficient simply to be as good as, or even better than a Frenchman or a Belgian rider. An Englishman had to be streets better and work twice as hard to get a place.” Some riders couldn’t take the pressure and went back home, others simply stayed in the UK. Vin settled in so well he even acquired a nickname of sorts, Vic.
Eventually, with Vin riding well and winning a key stage in the Circuit de Acquitaine stage race he landed the big prize that he and Vi had gambled on – a contract with the Pelforth team.
Riding with one of the top teams meant a big step up. In his first Het Volk, the Belgian semi-classic now known as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and won twice by Team Sky’s Ian Stannard, he found himself riding alongside Jan Janssen, a young Dutch rider who would go on to win the Tour and become world champion. “It didn’t take many kilometres to realise he was out to show his ability and that we were in a real race.The toughest races we had both experienced before were the hardest stages of the Peace Race, Tour de l’Avenir or Tour of Britain – and they were a picnic compared to this.” Being Vin, he adapted well and started to make a reputation as a strong rider who would work like a dog for the team. In Milan – St Remo he proved his value with a strong ride supporting the Pelforth team leader, Joseph Groussard. An early attack led to a crucial break forming, which included Vin, Groussard and Vin’s great friend, Tom Simpson. The Pelforth team manager roared up in the team car to bark orders. “Anything that moves, even if it’s a leaf, you jump on it! And you Joseph, stick on Vic’s wheel and never go past it!” For 245km, Vin drove the break, chased down attacks and sheltered his leader. In the final kilometres, too spent to close the gap, Vin grabbed Groussard’s hand and slung him onto Rolf Wolfshohl’s wheel. In a tight photo finish Groussard just edged Wolfshohl for the win. The team manager, De Muer, was so delighted he offered Vin a place on the Pelforth Tour de France team, a huge achievement for a first year pro. Unfortunately things didn’t work out as promised. Despite Vin riding his legs off for Pelforth in later races, including helping Henry Anglade win the Tour du Var, De Muer reneged on his promise and Vin was left out of the Tour squad. The experience left Vin angry and frustrated. “I missed out on a lot of money by not riding the 1963 Tour. A Tour rider is a celebrity in cycling and in the ’60s he would be invited to to some 40 or so criteriums after the Tour. Even an average rider could expect about £80 appearance money, plus prizes and primes.” Bear in mind that Vin was being paid £50 a week by Pelforth, when he could persuade them to pay him, and it becomes clear that these financial calculations were as much part of a cyclists mindset as the glory of winning. Missing a big race meant a serious loss of income and every pro knew they only had a few years to scrape together as much as they could for life after their cycing career came to its inevitable end. It wasn’t the last time that Vin would be stiffed by his team either.
By now we’ve decamped to a local pub for lunch. Even though his fish and chips are starting to go cold, Vin is still in full flow. Although I’m more than happy to listen, it seems unfair to spoil his meal so I suggest that he might want to finish eating before carrying on. Vin, ever the super domestique, isn’t having any of it – “I’m thinking of you rather than cold food, trying to tell you as much as I can”. There’s no arguing, he knows exactly what he’s doing and frankly it would be rude not to take advantage of such generosity, so I sit back and carry on listening.
With the relationship between between himself and Pelforth turning sour things were looking tough for the Densons. Vin and another British rider, Alan Ramsbottom, had been reduced to raiding farmers fields for vegetables during training rides and their children slept in cots made from old packing crates scavenged from a factory yard. It was Tom Simpson who suggested that the Densons should move to Belgium. Living there was cheaper than France and there were more local races to earn money in – “you could race every day of the week, except Monday. You ony had to look in the paper and decide where to go and there were cash prizes frequently down to 30th place.” There were other prizes too, fridges, suits, canteens of cutlery, which suited a pro building a life abroad!
Tom was trying to get Vin into his Peugeot squad, but when that plan fell through Vin got an offer to ride for another top team, Solo – Superia. Solo were no ordinary squad. Known as the Red Guard for the colour of their jerseys, they were built to serve the needs of just one man, Rik Van Looy. Van Looy was a formidable character. Nicknamed the Emperor of Herentals, his Belgian team didn’t just ride for him, they worshipped him as a demigod. In a phenomenal career he won all five Monuments, the first man to do so, two world championships and thirty seven Grand Tour stages. His team was renowned for being hard as nails. They had also perfected the art of the full-team lead-out, with the whole squad pulling Rik to victory in the final kilometres. Commonplace now, with sprint trains carrying the likes of Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel to stage win after stage win, it was a controversial tactic in the 60s and not one that found favour with everyone. Vin found that racing in Belgium suited his muscular, powerful style of racing. He loved the cobbles and even started to find riding on smooth tarmac boring.
Although Vin looked good as part of the Red Guard and was as much a team player as anyone, his independent spirit and keen sense of fair play sat ill with the way the rest of the team kow-towed to Rik. Not only that, but the finances were dodgy. Prize money that should have gone to the team would find its way into Rik’s pocket, never to be seen again. Even worse, in the Championship of Flanders Vin was chased down by his own team when he was in a race winning position. By now Vin was winning enough money from prizes and primes to make a reasonable living, but he never forgot the way that cyclists could be stitched up at the drop of a cap, especially a foreign rider on a continental team. With things not working out as happily as they might, he accepted an offer to ride for Jaques Anquetil’s Ford France team. Signing for a powerful new team took the pressure off Vin, but even so, once he’d announced that he was jumping ship Solo didn’t pay him a penny, yet another reminder of how precarious life could be as a professional rider.
Along with Tom Simpson, the ride most associated with Vin is Jacques Anquetil. The first five time winner of the Tour de France and with an astonishing string of major victories, Anquetil was the epitome of French cycling cool. Smooth and effortless on the bike, stylish and elegant off it, he was a calculating rider who managed his effort and never worked harder than he absolutely had to, although when that moment came he pushed harder than anyone else. He could appear an aloof, rather superior character – even the French found him hard to warm to, but to his team mates he was a great boss. Vin loved racing for him – “He was amazing, such a good, generous guy, the best guy I ever met in racing”. In a 1987 interview, shortly after Anquetil’s death from cancer, Vin paid tribute to him. “”I always considered Jacques to be the very best professional”, he said. “I admired him for the gentlemanly manner and charm with riders, the public and media. A more honest and sincere businessman and friend you would not find in any walk of life. His word was his all and was of great importance to him. He was a truly great man and champion who will be greatly missed and impossible to replace.”” In some ways, signing for Anquetil was the making of Vin, he’d already had a career many pro’s would have been proud of, but with Ford-France he really seems to have blossomed. It helped that Ford – France were a well run team that looked after their riders properly, a complete contrast to some of the teams Vin had ridden for previously. They also gave him a three year contract, which meant more security than he’d ever had before. Riding for Ford – France obviously meant riding in the service of Jacques Anquetil. Maitre Jacques was an exacting boss, he expected his riders to lay down their lives for him when required, but he was also generous, allowing his teammates to ride for themselves. During this golden period Vin won a number of significant races, including the Tour of Luxembourg, which did wonders for his appearance fees. “After winning Luxembourg I rang the organiser of Wondelgem and he said ‘ah, Vic, I saw you last night on the telly. How much do you want to race?’ I said, I’ll have what Eddy Merckx is getting”.
His biggest triumph, the win that wrote his name into the history of British cycling, was stage 9 of the 1966 Giro d’Italia.
The day started quietly, with a gentle roll-out from the Naples. It wasn’t a crucial stage, so the journalists were swarming around the peloton on their motorbikes, interviewing star riders and getting others to do their party pieces. Vin had a bit of a reputation for singing, so a Belgian radio journalist got him to sing ‘It Was On the Isle of Capri’ for his listeners. It’s hard to imagine someone pulling alongside the modern peloton and asking Wiggy for a quick blast of ‘A Town Like Malice’, but that’s the way it was back then! Eventually the race got going properly and at one of the intermediate sprints Vin launched an attack. Although the race manual said that the stage was ‘plain’, meaning flat, it was actually a steady uphill slog from sea level to the finish town of Campobasso. A perfect route for a strong rouleur like Vin. Two other riders went with him, Bailetti from the Bianchi team and Messelis from Mann-Grundig. With their team mates blocking the chase, the three escapees build a substantial advantage. Like a good pro Vin had the route card with him and spotted two stiff climbs in the final kilometres, one at 40km and another at 25km. He was feeling good and with the peloton now more than five minutes behind decided that this was where he could shift his breakaway companions and try to win the stage. After testing his legs on the first climb, he made his move on the second
“I was determined to get them on the second. I was eating well and I knew I was on good form. I knew I could win if I made the right move in one go, but I knew I had to make it in one go…..On the second hill I changed up a gear in readiness and then dropped back behind them, making out I was taking a drink. I didn’t take a drink, I dropped the bottle instead, which distracted them, and then I attacked. Boy, it hurt….My legs were nearly breaking and I was tempted to get back into the saddle and change down to a lower gear, but I thought about the kids back home and said to myself ‘Come on Vin, you’ve got to do it for them'”
When he crested the hill Vin had just 100 metres advantage. He dropped down the other side like a stone and began the short climb to the line.
“It was a bit stiff, but shortly before the finish a motor bike came alongside and the rider gve me the news I wanted to hear: I had a 20 second advantage. “Well, don’t ease now” I said to myself. “Give it more”. In the end I won by 44 seconds from Bailetti, and didn’t it feel good and wasn’t I relieved to get over the line.”
Vin was the first British rider to win a stage in the Giro and it wasn’t until 1987, 21 years later, before Robert Millar bagged the next one.
Helped by the prize money from the Giro, Vin and Vi opened up a bar in Ghent, the Bar-Dancing. Decorated with jerseys and souvenirs from Vin’s career, the bar was popular with locals and riders. Of course, Vin’s career was still going strong, so Vi ran the bar when he was away.
Later that year Vin rode the Tour de France, helping Lucien Aimar to victory. Vin didn’t finish the race though. On a tough day through the Alps he was eliminated after a succession of accidents and mechanical problems for himself and his team mates. Despite finishing 2 minutes inside the time limit, Vin and more than sixty other riders were thrown off the race by the Tour Director, Felix Levitan. Vin discovered that the reason behind the decision was simply because the Tour hadn’t booked enough accommodation for the next days stage. Levitan had gambled that a large part of the field would fail to make the cut off. He lost the bet, but it was Vin and the other riders who paid the price. Levitan’s word was law, even if he was making it up as he went along, so there was no point protesting. Nearly 30 years later Vin managed to corner Levitan when the Tour came to Britain in 1994 – “I saw him (Levitan) at the Tour in Dover and made him understand my point of view”. Vin was too generous spirited to harbour a proper grudge, but he hated unfairness and was determined to have his say, even if it was three decades later.
At the end of 1966 Ford – France ended their sponsorship. There was no drama though, because a new sponsor, Bic, stepped in and simply took over the team, lock stock and barrel. The only noticeable change was on the front of the team jerseys. In 1967 Vin raced his usual program with Bic, including the Giro, but when it came to the Tour, the organisation had decided to revert to national teams. Vin was happy to be reunited with Tom Simpson and pleased to be riding for Great Britain. Moral was higher than the previous time they had ridden for Team GB back in 1961, they were now seasoned pro’s with a string of major victories between them and Tom had been World Champion just a couple of years before. Although they lost three team members, all of them riders who usually raced back in Britain, everything was going well and Michael Wright even managed to win the seventh stage. After that high point, things started to go wrong. Wright had a bad crash which effectively ended his race, although not until after he had struggled bravely to the end of the stage, helped by Vin. Worse was to come. Tom, who was under pressure to perform well and secure a good contract, fell ill and was unable to eat. Not being able to eat and recover properly is one of the worst things that can happen to a rider during an arduous three week Grand Tour and it put him at a serious disadvantage. But Tom wasn’t one to simply take it easy and ride himself back into health. Despite having taken a beating through the Alps, Tom had managed to keep himself in 7th place overall. Vin tried to persuade him to accept this but Tom was hellbent on a high finish and was prepared to take chances. Tom had targetted the Ventoux stage as a possible springboard to victory. That now seemed unlikely, but Tom was determined to move up the order, if not to the overall win then at least onto the podium. As the race started to climb the mountain some of the higher placed riders attacked, which spooked Tom into following. Again, Vin tried to persuade him to hold back, but to no avail, so he gave Tom a handsling to launch him and called ‘die, die’ after him. It was only intended as a cheery bit of cycling banter, encouraging Tom to go hard, but it was bleakly prophetic. With Tom up the road, Vin and some of the other domestiques formed a small group, working together, sharing water and encouraging each other as they settled into the hard task of climbing the mountain.
Ventoux is no ordinary mountain and even before the events of 1967 it had a fearsome reputation. The climb was steep and on the upper slopes, mercilessly exposed. The wind would push riders off the road and the Provencal heat would beat down on them from above and below, reflecting off the bone white rocks. On July 13th 1967 it was even hotter than usual – “The heat coming off the mountain that day was incredible, it took your breath away…it was like going into an oven”.
Riders today are generously supplied with drinks, either from the team car or a neutral service motorbike. In the sixties drinks were much harder to come by, even on blazing hot days like July 13th 1967. Riders frequently resorted to raiding cafe and bars for cold drinks, beer, Coke, wine, bottled water, whatever they could grab. At the beginning of the climb Tom had been seen drinking brandy from a bottle, not exactly the ideal thirst quencher, and using it to wash down pills. It proved to be a lethal combination. Vin was already concerned for Tom and that concern grew when a radio motorbike went past and he heard Tom’s name mentioned. Further up the mountain he came across the Team GB car hastily parked by small group of people. There were a pair of feet wearing cycling shoes sticking out from the crowd. They belonged to Tom. When he got there Vin had no idea just how bad things were. “I thought ‘God, he looks bad’ but Alec (Taylor, the team manager) said ‘he’ll be alright, he’s in good hands with Dr Dumas. Get back on the bike. Don’t lose any more time.’…I already knew he wasn’t going to finish, but I didn’t for one moment think he was going to die…I descended like a maniac on the other side of the Ventoux and arrived in Carpentras well within the time limit.” By the time Vin got to the finish Tom was dead.
The team, in fact the whole race, was in shock. Tom had been popular with everyone, for his smile, his sense of humour and his flambuoyant riding. Vin was particularly hard hit. He and Tom had been friends since the early days of riding 25 mile time trials for their clubs and of course they shared the bond of being pioneers, staking their claim to a place on the Continental scene and planting the Union Jack in the professional peloton. The next morning Vin was approached by Jean Stablinski, one of the senior riders. “He told me that he’d spoken to the other teams the night before, their unanimous decision was that there would be no real racing that day and that as a gesture to Tom I should take the stage….he was quite emphatic about it – ‘I don’t mean any disrepect and I know how upset you are this morning, but that’s our decision. It’s already been made, I’m just the spokesman.'”
In the end it was Barry Hoban who took the stage, unexpectedly and against the wishes of the rest of the peloton. Stablinski wanted to chase him down, with Vin in tow, but Vin had no inclination to go with him. “You can’t” he said, “with all the television cameras of the world focussing on us, we’d be the laughing stock…it would look so bad. Anyway, I’m not in the mood to stand on the rostrum today….good luck to him, let him go.” With Tom’s death, the 67 Tour pretty much ended for Vin. His trade team manager, Rapha Geminiani, tried to persuade him to carry on and ride for his Bic team mate Jiminez, but Vin’s heart wasn’t in it and he abandoned on stage 17. The remaining year on his Bic contract was annulled and it seemed as if his cycing days were over. Although running the Bar-Dancing with Vi and spending time with their children helped take his mind off things Vin was still struggling to get over the loss of Tom. Perhaps he was also unconsciously mourning the untimely ending of his own career. “The truth is, I was in another world. I would break into tears quite unexpectedly and Vi would have to wrap her arms around me.” Although he had walked away from cycling, he was still getting calls to join one team or another. Eventually he accepted an offer to ride for a new Italian team, Kelvinator, under the watchful eye of Ercole Baldini, a legendary rider who had been world champion in the 50s. There was no pressure on Vin, he and a few other senior pros were there to provide experience for a young team of up and coming Italian riders. After a respectable ride in the Giro, Vin went back to the UK to ride the Vaux Grand Prix. It was a tough race, with four circuits around the hills near Durham but more importantly, it was being used as a selection race for the British Tour de France team. Vin managed to win, which guaranteed his place in the team. It proved to be his final Tour, but a happy one. The squad rode for Barry Hoban, all bad feeling about his stage win the year before forgotten, and Michael Wright. Vin tells a good story about Barry winning the stage into Sallanches. Hoban had nipped up the road to bag a prime, but had carried on riding, rather than sitting up and waiting for the bunch to catch him. Vin, wily fox that he was, told the other riders that Barry had gone behind a hedge for a crap. “I was keeping them occupied, telling them jokes and stuff so they wouldn’t realise that Barry had gone up the road. When they twigged they were furious, hitting me with their pumps, throwing rice pudding at me. When I caught up with Barry at the finish I said ‘do you have any idea what I went through for you? I’ve got rice pudding down the back of me neck!'” Later on in the Tour Vin thought that the Spanish team were about to get their revenge.
“I was going up the last climb, no water left and I was absolutely parched. This little bloke with a flat hat came out and offered me a flask, so I knocked it back. Christ, it was firewater! Grappa or something like that. I thought ‘hang on, you’re the Spanish mechanic! Bastards have nobbled me! Turned out he was just a nice Frenchman offering me his drink!”
On stage 21 they won the team prize, again thanks to Vin’s quick thinking. For Vin it seemed a fitting tribute to Tom and brought him a sense of closure. He raced for the rest of the year in Kelvinator colours but when1968 came to an end, so did Vin’s professional career. He and Vi had taken a big risk by moving to France in 1962 and it had paid off but the time had come to come home. They moved back to England and Vin started looking for work. It was a tough time, again, but the Denson’s had experience of starting over. They sold the bar, bought a 15th century farmhouse and Vin started a damp proofing business. He still raced, occasionally at least, for a modest domestic outfit, Bantel. It was only for fun but it kept his legs turning. Both he and Vi joined the Redbridge club and Vi started riding again. The highlight of Vin’s post professional career came in 1974 when he rode the Mersey Roads 24hr time trial, posting a whisker under 450 miles and coming third overall, despite stopping in the pub for a couple of pints on the way round.”I needed a pee. I was between an E-Type Jag and another car and I’m by a tree peeing in between these two cars. This bloke came out to his car, I’m drinking my beer and he said ‘bloody hell, I’ve never seen a pint go down so fast in all my life!””
Life was good but in 1995 everything turned upside down. Vi, his rock, was diagnosed with cancer. She was only given six weeks to live, the tumour was so aggressive. Vin moved heaven and earth to get her an operation from a specialist. It wasn’t a cure, but it gave her another year. In that year the Densons lived life to the full. Vi still wanted to see her kids and husband riding, despite her failing health, so friends would take her to races. Finally, in 1996, Vi died. Vin paid tribute to her in the best way he knew how. “It was my ambition after Vi died to get under the hour for her, as homage you know.” The empty months that followed were hard for Vin but, pragmatic as ever, he found ways to cope, finding solace in friends, family and of course, cycling. He even had a final flourish on the bike, winning a bronze medal in 2000 at the Masters World Pursuit at the age of 65.
It’s hard to overstate how important Vin Denson is to British road racing. He was a pioneer, one of the earliest and most successful Brits to make the journey to the continental scene. Vin is also special because of his ability to share his enthusiasm, both in person and in his book The Full Cycle. He’s a great raconteur and more than willing to keep the memory of those days alive, something that he acknowledges himself. “When you talk at the club dinners, some lads can’t really express themselves and they’ve had more exciting lives than I’ve had.” However, what stands out for me is that when Vin took his big gamble, selling up and moving to France, it was a joint decision with Vi. That support and teamwork was what seems to have enabled him to settle down and concentrate on winning canteens of cutlery, cash prizes and ultimately major races. Vin has a reputation as being an unselfish domestique par excellence, but Vi also deserves respect for her work supporting Vin.
Vin still keeps a keen eye on the racing scene, he thinks that Ian Stannard is his closest equivalent in todays peloton. I asked which other riders he liked. “I like Wiggins for his arrogance – he’s a very intelligent guy. I hope we get him back in the team pursuit. Froomey is a different character. Great rider but I’m not sure I’d be friends with him.” Hopefully he’ll have enjoyed the recent heroics from Stannard, Thomas and even Wiggins’ Roubaix farewell.
It’s been a splendid afternoon, but I have to get back to Devon and Vin is off for his regular swim at the local baths. Before I go it’s time to grab a few photos. As soon as the camera comes out Vin transforms – he takes his glasses come off, straightens up, stands tall and looks ten years younger. It’s reminiscent of watching a rider doing up their jersey for the sponsors before crossing the winning line. That’s Vin, still a pro after all these years.
Many thanks to Vin for his time and kindness. Dedicated to the memory of Vi Denson.
Vin’s autobiography, The Full Cycle, is a classic account of life as a professional bike racer in the 1960s. You should read it.