A Rainy Day in May

The story of an extraordinary British race with an extraordinary British winner.

Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Photosport International

Rain lashes the bleak Pennine moors, dark clouds smother the tops, but through it all one determined bike racer emerges, pounding up the long climb from Lancashire into Yorkshire, back-lit by following cars. Barry Hoban is owning this race, a remarkable Marathon he’s been in charge of all day. Soon he’ll reach the top of the climb then thunder down into his native Yorkshire to win London-Bradford, a battle-hard veteran taking his last big victory in a long and glittering career. 

Image of Barry Hoban  

London-Bradford was a 260-mile single-day race. It replaced another epic, the 265-mile London-Holyhead, an important race for the band of pro riders who were based and raced in UK. Empire Stores sponsored the last two editions of London-Holyhead, but Empire Stores was based in Bradford, so the organisers switched the finish to Bradford for 1979. The sponsor upped its money, and that’s where Hoban came in.

Hoban wasn’t based in the UK. He went to France in 1962, turned professional there in 1964 and was still in a top French pro team 15 years later. Which is exactly why the London-Bradford organisers wanted him in their race.   

Image of Barry Hoban

                Hoban won eight Tour de France stages during his career, Mark Cavendish is still the only British rider to have won more

“Whenever UK race organisers had good money they wanted some continental riders to add a bit of colour to their race, which was fine but it caused friction between me and the British-based pros. The continentals were better prepared because they had longer and harder races, so more often than not the continentals won. The British pros felt like every time they had a good pay-day, the continentals came over and took it from them,” Hoban says.

Image of Barry Hoban3 Hoban 25515 001 830      
                                              Hoban wasn't just a sprinter, he was a classics rider who won Ghent-Wevelgem and
                                                                  was 3rd in Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

That’s what happened with London-Bradford in 1979. “One of the organisers, Stan Kite, and I don’t know what would have happened to British pro racing back then if it hadn’t been for Stan, rang me up and asked me if I’d ride the race and bring some continentals with me. An ex-rider, Julien Stevens lived near us in Belgium and he was running a team, Boule d’Or-Lanoo, so I asked if he wanted to bring some of his guys over. I told him Stan would pay our expenses.

“I was winding down 1979 really. I rode for the French Miko-Mercier team, but I was 39 and it was my last year. There’d been a coup in the team, and the directeur sportif I had my best years with, Louis Caput, was thrown out and a recently retired rider, Jean-Pierre Danguillame installed as the new director. I knew that with Danguillaume I wouldn’t get selected for the Tour de France, so I’d been riding on my own in Belgium, where Julien Stevens looked after me in races, giving me a wheel if I punctured, or whatever.

Image of Barry Hoban

“Anyway, I’d got a lot of high quality races in my legs and I was going well. The prize list of London to Bradford was good; 10 primes of £150 each in the towns along the way, and £1000 for the winner. That was good money in 1979, so I psyched myself up for it.

“This was going to be an objective, and I had the advantage over the British pros with the races I’d done. Riding without a team meant I could ride 200 kilometre races on two bottles and what food I carried in my pockets. I always told new pros that they had to ride a 200-kilometre race like they used to ride a 100 or 120-kilometre race. They had to be comfortable doing that day in day out. I didn’t need extra feeds, I was conditioned, and that’s a big advantage in an extra-long race like London to Bradford. So I was really up for it,” Hoban says.

The race started outside the Post House Hotel in Hampstead, but was neutralised as far as Elstree, then it headed up the A5, just like London-Holyhead had done. Not much happened at the front in the early stages, it was just a matter of getting the miles done. There was more action at the back, with punctures and riders removing arm and leg warmers as the day warmed up.

Image of Barry Hoban

The first cash prime came just before the 100-mile mark, and in a statement of intent Hoban won it by out-sprinting two British-based pros, Trevor Bull and Geoff Wiles. Then he got in a short-lived breakaway, but it was jumped on by the Brits, who brought it back. Ian Banbury edged out Hoban for the next prime, then it got very frisky for the next 50 miles with attack after attack. Nothing stuck until one of the Boule d’Or Belgians, Benny Van Der Auwere slipped off up the road.

That suited Hoban, Van Der Auware’s team mates sat back and handed the British pros a fait accompli; ride while we sit in or you lose. The Brits rode and they limited Van Der Auware’s lead, but the young Belgian who had just turned pro was strong, so keeping him within safe distance cost the British teams’ energy. It also cost them money, because the Belgian mopped four consecutive primes, netting £600 for the continental kitty. There was only 50 miles left when Van Der Auware was finally caught. It was Hoban’s cue to take control.

“Coming into Oldham I knew we were approaching the critical climb, the one that goes from Lancashire into Yorkshire on the A62. I knew it from my early days. I knew it was long, and I knew you could make a real difference on it, especially if you hit the descent hard as well. I also knew that Ian Greenhalgh was local to Oldham, and when he attacked shortly before the town I waited for a couple of minutes then went after him,” Hoban says.

He quickly caught Greenhalgh, while the Belgians disappeared from the front of the peloton, leaving only the British pros to chase. And when the road started going upwards after Oldham, Hoban pressed a bit harder on the pedals and was away on his own. He powered up the bleak, rain-soaked moorland climb to the top of Standedge, where a huge crowd of club riders were waiting to give Hoban a hero’s welcome as he crossed the border into Yorkshire.

Image of Barry Hoban

He kept the pressure on down the other side, and by the time he reached Marsden, which is only two and a half miles after the summit, Hoban was four minutes clear of a disintegrating bunch, a margin he’d gained in the space of 12 miles. The rest hadn’t given up; some strong riders; Bill Nickson, Sid Barras, Paul Carbutt and Keith Lambert, were chasing, but they made no impression. Hoban just kept pulling away. He took the prime in Huddersfield to thunderous applause, then headed for Leeds. There was 25 miles to go and Hoban now had six minutes over his nearest rival.

“The last bit was lumpy, and I remember at the top of one drag Julien Stevens, who was driving his team car behind me, came alongside and said, “You are winning this in an armchair.” But it wasn’t because the rest gave up, it was splitting to smithereens behind me. They were riding,” Hoban recalls.

By now he was riding the roads he trained on almost every day as a young amateur. At one point the race passed within five miles of where Hoban was born. He even knew the track finish at Odsal Stadium in Bradford, where 8000 people were there to welcome him. “That was an odd-shaped track, the bankings weren’t equal. It was pear-shaped if I remember,” Hoban says.

It must have been emotional coming to the end of his career and winning a big race in Yorkshire, the place he left 17 years before to live and race in France, but Hoban didn’t think about it until he was inside the stadium. “It never registered until I got near the finish. It was getting colder all the time with the rain, so I had plenty to think about,” he says.

Hoban won by six minutes and 53 seconds from Paul Carbutt and Bill Nickson. The indefatigable Benny Van Der Auwera was fourth a further minute behind. Bradford boy Dudley Hayton was fifth at 8 minutes 28 seconds, and Sid Barras was sixth, over nine minutes behind Hoban.

Of the ten intermediate prizes Van Der Auwera won four, Hoban won three and Boule d’Or’s Eddy Van Haerens won one. “It was a good pay-day,” Hoban confirms. It was total domination too. Hoban was a class act, and if anybody had doubted it they couldn’t after that rainy day in May in 1979.

 Barry Hoban book cover

Vas-y Barry, Barry Hoban’s autobiography, it’s his second because he says: “This is the one I really wanted to write after I stopped racing,” was  published by and is available from www.cyclinglegends.co.uk using this link.