The Full Cycle, Vin Denson with Adrian Bell (2008)
Adventures of a talented and likeable English sportsman who broke into the extraordinary world of professional Continental cycling
Mousehold Press, 9781874739524 paperback 152pp £12.95
Vin Denson’s story of a young cycling enthusiast – a strapping lad of over 6ft – raised in Post-War Chester gives a vivid picture of a vanished era. Likewise, his account of becoming a professional on the Continent, and his labours and triumphs in the greatest events in the cycling calendar of the early 60s, illuminates a period that is a part of cycling’s history.
Vincent Denson – “Vin” to friends and followers in the UK, and “Vic” to his European colleagues – tells his story without artifice, so it proceeds chronologically, and is none the worse for that.
Did he keep a diary? If not, he has a phenomenal memory because he recalls precise details of all his bikes rides, all his races, and all the opponents he ever came up against. Or so it seems.
His early bikes on which he proved to be a formidable competitor were basic, and in the winter of 1954, he and his cycling pal Keith Lawton bought an old tandem with steel rims “just for fun”. On it, they attempted the straight-out 50-mile record, and managed to shave a couple of minutes off the |British National record – but were not credited with it because their stand-in timekeeper was not a qualified national official.
He sold the tandem to buy a trombone because he and his pals decided to form a jazz band, then he sold the trombone to buy an engagement ring for Vi Burgess, cementing a partnership that would last until her death in 1996.
Another lasting relationship was with Tom Simpson, in his time the most successful cyclist these islands produced. He and Denson became close friends, and this memoir has many anecdotes describing their comradeship and how it survived Simpson’s notoriously sharp tongue.
When it comes to Simpson’s death on July 13 on the 13th Stage of the 1967 Tour, Denson’s account of it well conveys how shocking it was.
The stage took the race over Mont Ventoux, one of the most gruelling climbs in the Tour. An already-struggling Simpson, ignoring Denson’s advice to wait for others to come up and help him along, was determined to chase down the leaders.
“I gave him a hand-sling and the last words I shouted to him as he set off were ‘Die. Die.’ It’s horrible to think they were almost the last English words he heard; they were meant to be encouraging.”
Later he was to pass the spot where Simpson had come off his bike. “I saw our team car stopped, and this crowd and feet sticking out from the crowd. I got off my bike and pushed past.” His friend had on an oxygen mask and his eyes were glazed, but Denson was not to know he had died on that mountain until after the finish.
This spirited, big-hearted man began then to lose sight of what had made professional cycling so irresistible, and the following year he and Vi and their children returned to England – and in 1970 he returned to amateur racing – thus completing the “full cycle” of the book’s title.
The death of Simpson changes the tone of the book, but this is towards the end so the bulk of the stories recounted here very much reflect the author’s large personality and generous disposition.
Loyal, selfless and powerful, Denson added intelligence to these three qualities, and together they made him a super-domestique. Oh yes, he was well able to win races, but more often he was content to work for the star of the team – his favourite being the charismatic Jaques Anquetil, for whom he performed prodigious feats of strength and endurance so as to keep him supplied with drinks – on one occasion a bottle of wine – and protect and shield him. By the 60s, domestiques in all the major events had honed their spoiling tactics to a fine art, and Denson notes, regretfully, it is an art no longer practised.
Other things have changed: in the 1961 Tour de France – his first – he stopped to drink from a spring, came down with a tummy bug and had to pull out. In 1963, racing had earned him so little that when the season ended, he sold brushes from door-to-door.
The Full Cycle, packed with characters and colour, brings an exrtraordinary period back to life.
STB July 12