Here is the first part of Brendan Gallagher’s interview with Tour Race Director Mick Bennett, looking back on his career as a rider.

STRANGE but true. Mick Bennett – double Olympic bronze medallist, Tour of Britain ringmaster and much else besides – first discovered he might be a cyclist after spending two-months in plaster from hip to toe and being dragged along to the physiotherapy department of Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham.

The young Bennett suffered from a chronic case of Osgood Schlatters disease in both legs – that’s when the shin bone is growing out of alignment with the knee cap – and the recommended treatment back in the ‘60s was two-months incarceration in special plaster-casts which point the errant bone in the right direction. Not cool when you are a teenager but a necessary evil.

When the plaster-casts were sawn off Bennett was booked into the physio department and to the surprise of all concerned proceeded to ride the static bike in the corner off the Richter scale. "You ought to become a cyclist young man" was the specialist’s verdict. Which is exactly what he did.

"It was ridiculous really. I had absolutely no aptitude for sport and team games and there I was suffering from two-month muscle wastage in the legs and still breaking all their records on this old machine," recalls Bennett, not without a small smile of satisfaction.

"Then a couple of weeks later, as if by some divine hand, a neighbour in Sparkbrook – which where they film Peaky Blinders by the way – donated me their old BSA bike. They literally presented it to me having probably heard of my possible interest after the physio bike. It was a Damascus, life changing, moment and after stripping the paint off, cleaning every square inch of the bike and then doing a repaint job I was on my way with scarcely a backward look. I immediately joined the Solihull club and bikes quickly became my life.

"I also discovered that a big strong guy who used to ride his bike around Sparkbrook in a proper tracksuit was Graham who was soon to become the world junior champion. He was a beast of a rider and lived in a nearby street. I called around one day bold as brass to talk cycling and he showed me all his medals which he kept in a sort of swag bag. That was very inspiring as well.

"I had been blessed with a good turn of speed and could sprint well enough but British cycling in those days was built around time-trialling so I also became pretty proficient at that as well and of course that led the Team Pursuiting on the track. GB might have been a bit of a maverick cycling nation but somehow, despite very little formal coaching and organisation, we produced a succession of very decent squads. It was what we did.”

Indeed. For seven or eight years Bennett devoted himself to Team Pursuiting and won two Olympic medals – in Munich and Montreal – and twice missed out on a World title as well as garnering a whole load of heartache in the process. He was also presented with the sporting world's most prestigious fair play award along with Sir Bobby Charlton, of which much more anon.

""During much of that period, he also honed his road skills and endurance by living and racing in Holland where he lodged in a village called Philippina, Zeeland, with a remarkable 80-year-old lady – Mev Rogiest Van Steenburgen – who treated him like a long lost son. Indeed he was quickly calling her mother.

"It seems like many in Holland she had a traumatic war in all sorts of ways and the family house had been occupied before the British Army arrived just in the nick of time and saved the day. Somehow she seemed to transfer all the gratitude to this young impoverished Brit trying to make his way. Times were still pretty hard, she lived in a little house on a canal polder and it was absolutely brutal in the winter and wore all the traditional Dutch costume. Like most of the Dutch she knew her cycling and devoted herself to keeping me as fit and healthy as possible.

"I would go out for an early morning training ride and she would wash dry and iron all my gear as soon as I got back so I could ride again in the early afternoon and then she would repeat the exercise if I was riding on the track that evening. She would turn my bed every morning and put lavender on the pillows to help me sleep. Sometimes she would collect well water or rain water and wash my hair in it because it’s meant to be nutritional I suppose.

"I paid her 25 Guilders a week which was nothing at all really but she used to save it all and regularly buy me socks and pants and vests. I used to give her all the flowers if I ever won and she had them around the house and pictures of me up on the wall, I suppose there might have been a little bit of kudos among her friends in having one of the foreign riders lodging who occasionally won a race. A very remarkable lady who when I left took me to the local jewellers and presented me a ring with her name engraved on the inside. Alas she died just before the Montreal Olympics

"They were hard days but what an apprenticeship. I would cycle off to races in the freezing cold or rain with a spare tyre around my shoulders and I would cycle back in the evening dead to the world but deep down very happy. Every cyclist will know what I mean.”

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All the while Bennett was trying to combine a road apprenticeship in Holland with Team Sprinting for Great Britain where he had teamed up with kindred spirits in Ian Hallam, Ron Keeble and Willie Moore. There was no British system as such, they rode different bikes and shorts and were united only by their GB jerseys – which they all had to buy – and a burning desire to defy the broken system and do something special.

Munich was probably the Gold medal that got away. GB were flying in qualifying – there were four rounds in those days – but in the semi-final race to determine who reached the final they suffered a tyre blow out and had to make do with the Bronze medal ride-off in which they recorded a faster time than the eventual winners West Germany. Four years later Ian Banbury and Robin Croker had replaced Moore and Keeble and again GB were just off the gold standard with West Germany again taking the title. In between times however there were two World championships to savour.

In 1973 a quartet of Hallam, Bennett, Moore and Rick Evans reached the World Championship final at San Sebastian but were well down on the West Germans on the last lap when the Germans lead rider crashed into an official who was trying to replace one of those sponges that indicated the inside of the track. Carnage resulted with Great Britain, down to three riders, comfortably crossing the finishing line first while just two of the Germans dragged themselves across the line with their colleagues in tatters just down the track. What happened is best told in the official report of the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair play awards which were presented in Paris that summer

"On the 27th August 1973 cyclists from Great Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany met in the final of the world team pursuit championships over 4-km on the track of the San Sebastian Velodrome. The German team could not be beaten until at the last bend, 80m from the winning post, they fell and injured themselves, some seriously, through the fault of a track official. According to the regulations Ian Hallam, Willy Moore, Mick Bennett and Rick Evans were awarded the world title which they however turned down, and at their request the FIAC proclaimed their unlucky opponents the World Champions.”

 

For this magnificent example of sporting loyalty the International Fair Play Committee awarded the 1973 trophy to the four British cyclists. It also conferred the same distinction upon the famous English footballer Bobby Charlton for his whole career. The winners were awarded their trophies on 7th June in Paris by Mr René Maheu, Director of UNESCO, at a ceremony attended by Mr Jean Borotra, founder president of the International Fair Play Committee, several UNESCO personalities, and the British Ambassador to Paris. The IOC was represented by its Director. The Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Committee was jointly created in 1964 by the International Sportswriters’ Association and the International Council for Physical Education and Sport at the instigation of Jean Borotra, the marvellous tennis champion. With UNESCO’s unlimited support, the Committee has since pursued its efforts for the defence and promotion of fair play.

Bennett strokes his chin thoughtfully as he recalls the events of 40-years ago: "It was a strange one. In fairness to Ian and Willie, and it is eternally to their credit, they immediately insisted that we should not accept the Gold medal even though we had already officially been declared winners. If I am totally honest I had mixed feelings about that. Some of the tough guys from the Continent who I used to race against in Holland most weeks came up and said ‘Listen Mick you get enough bad luck and kicks in the teeth from this bloody sport why don't you just count your blessings and accept the win. You British guys were a bit unlucky at the Munich Olympics and a world title, with those rainbow bands to wear for a year, can really be a career-changer.’ I had a lot of sympathy with that view but we were so close as a team that I went along with the lads and the outcome was the award which was a rather wonderful occasion.

"There is a lovely postscript to this story. Fast forward what 27-years and I was heavily involved in staging the World track Championships at the then new Manchester Velodrome and I was up to my armpits being the busy organiser when I was approached by the German team manager who asked me if I had a spare minute. Then he and the German Team Pursuit lads presented me with a replica world championship Gold medal at a little presentation ceremony. I was incredibly touched.

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"They were great days on the Pursuit circuit. We should definitely have won a title the ‘75 Worlds in Montreal, we were flying and under world record schedule when Ian's back wheel collapsed on him. These things kept happening to us. It was a different world back then, we had to buy our own shorts and tyres and cadge lifts here and there. I seemed to always be changing in and out of gear behind hedges and dustbins.

"We did everything on a shoe-string but the one thing we had in abundance was team spirit. You hear a lot of old twaddle talked in sporting circles sometimes but one of the sporting maxims which really does apply to the Team Pursuit is that you are only as strong as your weakest member. You have to look after each other, recognise when somebody is struggling for whatever reason and support them. As everybody knows you can only record a time when the third rider passes the finish line. All for one and one for all and that was a massive lesson for me when I ventured into the big wide world and ended up running the PruTour and the Kelloggs and finally The Tour of Britain. But that as they say is another story.” 

For the second part of Brendan's interview with Mick, check back to TheTour.co.uk next week for his reflections on The Tour of Britain, past, present and future.

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