This is the story of a talented British pioneer, a true climber who would have been a cycling superstar today, but he was way ahead of his time.
Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Cycling Legends
Thorne is a small town just east of Doncaster, an unremarkable place with some remarkable people. The comedy writer Roy Clarke, creator of Yorkshire icons Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours is from Thorne. So is the man often credited with inventing the flushing toilet, Thomas Crapper (don’t laugh). The operatic soprano Leslie Garrett was born there, cyclists know her from singing the national anthem on the 2012 Tour de France podium in Paris, while Sir Bradley Wiggins stood looking on mystified.
Thorne has produced its fair share of sports people, notably Rugby League players and footballers, and two successful cyclists. One you’ll know, the 2018 British road race champion Connor Swift, and the other you might not. His name is Vic Sutton, and his time in the cycling spotlight was during the 1959 Tour de France.
It was only 16 years since the first proper road race was held in Britain, but on stage 10 Sutton led a select group up the Col du Tourmalet right at the head of the race. The 1957 Tour winner Jacques Anquetil was with him, so were the 1958 winner Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes who would the 1959 race. They were the biggest names of their day, and Sutton was giving pain rather than taking it. This is how it happened.
The Ambulance men
Sutton was one of a trio of ambitious racers who travelled to France in a wartime ambulance in February 1958. The others were Tony Hewson from Sheffield, and John ‘Jock’ Andrews from South London. After an eventful five-day journey they arrived at a campsite near Menton and the ambulance became their home. Hewson wrote about their life in exile, which is what living in France was back then, in a wonderful book called In Pursuit of Stardom, published by Mousehold Press.
Left to right; Sutton, Hewson and Andrews, and their ambulance
Hewson, the 1955 Tour of Britain winner, had lived and raced in France with John Andrews in 1957. They were good all-rounders and Andrews had a rapid sprint. Between them they won enough money to get by. Sutton was the youngest of the trio who went in 1958, and much less accomplished.
He wasn’t even a first category amateur in the UK, but that was because British races never would suit him. He had a special talent, and he must have known it. Pale, fair-haired and of bird-like build, Sutton was an out-and-out climber. Only the mountains of the Tour de France would show he was special.
Andrews and Hewson continued where they left off in French races, including hitting the headlines in the 1958 Tour de l’Ouest. That race doesn’t exist now, but it had the same status as the Critérium du Dauphiné, and was open to professionals and a class of racer they had back then called independents, basically pros without a fixed team. Sutton had to wait until the 1959 Tour de France to his mark.
Driving Miss Rosie
Hewson and Sutton returned to France in early 1959 without Andrews, because he’d made the grade and won a pro contract for Mercier-BP, the equivalent of a World Tour team today. Hewson and Sutton formed a Yorkshire trio with Alan Huntingdon, buying an oil-guzzling pre-war Wolseley 12 that they called Rosie for the journey, and a caravan to live in when they got to their Charente base. They raced as independents, with Sutton improving slightly and Hewson being just as good as he was the previous year. Then they were selected for the Internations team for the 1959 Tour de France.
The Tour was for national teams back then, but the national format didn’t fill the available slots. Only four nations were able to field the 12-man teams the organisers wanted in 1959. They were France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. The Netherlands and Luxembourg joined forces to make a team, so did Switzerland and Germany. That gave a field of 72, still not enough for the Tour.
France had a surfeit of good riders, so three French regional teams were invited, but there were still some riders left in Europe who were good enough to get through the Tour. They formed the Internations team. It had four Brits; Andrews, Hewson, Brian Robinson and Sutton; an Irishman, Shay Elliott, and two each from Austria, Denmark and Portugal, plus a Polish rider.
“There was no Grand Départ in those days,” Tony Hewson recalls. We lined up for team pictures just before the start. It was pouring with rain, so we all had clear plastic capes on. Then amid police whistles and revving of engines we huddled together on the start line. A tricolor ribbon was stretched across the road, the mayor of Mulhouse cut it and the spectators all shouted “Allez! A Metz.” And off we went to Metz on stage one, Mulhouse to Metz.
Vic Sutton at the start of the 1959 Tour de France.
Sutton is no longer with us, but this is him 60 years ago telling Cycling magazine how hard the first week of the Tour was. “I knew it would be hard, racing in France is harder than in Britain, but this seemed much harder than I expected. I crashed on some wet cobbles and ended up well down on the first stage. I had cuts on my elbows and knees, and a mammoth bruise on my thigh. Next day I punctured. Then I caught a head cold, then I got sinus trouble. When we got to Bayonne (stage 9) I was 109th overall, 49 minutes down. The next stage was 207 kilometres, and I hung on at the back for all 207 of them. Then we had a rest day and my head cold went, and I felt much better.”
His Tour de France got much better too, Sutton was in the mountains now and it was time for him to shine. “I never had a plan on that stage,” he told ‘Cycling’. “The field split into about a dozen groups going up the 6,973 feet of the Tourmalet, and I jumped from one to the other until I reached the front.”
Brain Robinson remembers the stage well. “Vic suddenly appeared alongside me in the leading group. I was quite surprised because he’d struggled all week, but I was even more surprised with what he did next. He stayed next to me for while then said, “Right, I’m going to show these so-and-sos now” I’ll not say what he really called the other riders. Then he said, “They’ve hammered me on the flat, so now I’m going to show them.” And just like that he left us and flew off up the mountain.”
A few minutes later Sutton appeared in the front group, a skinny pale ghost next to the sun-tanned giants of cycling. Gaul and Bahamontes, the two legendary climbers the Angel of the Mountains and the Eagle of Toledo, went ahead near the top, but Sutton crossed the summit just behind them. Behind him were Jacques Anquetil, Roger Rivière and the reigning world road race champion, Ercole Baldini.
1959 Tour winner Federico Bahamontes (right) and Fausto Coppi.
Sutton’s natural gift was all he needed to go up mountains fast, but he needed more experience to come down them quickly, and this was his first day in the really big climbs. He was dropped going down the Tourmalet, then passed by a number of riders on the flat run to the finish, but he’d made his mark.
In a piece he wrote at the end of the 1959 Tour de France the journalist, René De Latour said; “In the mountains Sutton came into his own. He has got that mysterious something he must have been born with; the ability to climb big mountains. He is not yet a complete roadman; he sprints quite well, but is weak against the watch and on the flat. But an Englishman who is a star in the mountains is something new on the continent, and a successful future is assured for the ex-Doncaster carpenter.”
Sutton did his mountain catch-up act again in the Alps, going from the back of the race to the front group over the climbs of stage 17 to Grenoble. “I got within 50 metres of Gaul on the Col de Romeyère,” he told Cycling magazine. Gaul won the stage, while Sutton fell back on the descent and ended up in the first chasing group, just over three minutes behind the great Luxembourg rider.
Consistent climbing at the level of Tour winners like Jacques Anquetil and Louison Bobet, brought Sutton 37th place overall and a full pro contract with the Liberia-Grammont team for 1960. He finished 5th overall in the 1960 Tour de Suisse, but that was his best result because a few weeks later Sutton was out of cycling.
Great Britain team for the 1960 Tour de France, Sutton is second right.
After another torrid time on the flat he came into his own in the mountains of the 1960 Tour de France, finishing with the favourites on the Pyrenean stage to Luchon. Before the race the French magazine Miroir Sprint said in its Tour de France preview; “If only Sutton could descend as well as he climbs, if he did we will have found a successor to (Charly) Gaul.”
But Sutton never got the chance to improve his descending skills. He collapsed a few days later after a tough stage in the Alps, and was taken to hospital. Tests were done and doctors told him he had a heart problem and should never race again. The chance to build on his natural ability was gone.
Sutton never did race again as a pro, but he loved cycling, and he really missed competing. He made a comeback in the 1990s in 60-plus age group races. But sadly he died while competing in veterans’ race in 1999, when his heart finally gave out.