Wide Eyed and Legless Revisited

words: Ian Cleverly photos: Geoff Waugh (www.waughphotos.com)

“Connor got the job because he was the only sports writer at the Daily Star who didn’t smoke.” Paul Watson

And so a national daily newspaper sent one of its journalists to France for three weeks in July, and one of the finest books ever written on cycling emerged. Wide-Eyed And Legless, Jeff Connor’s boils-and-all coverage of the fateful 1987 Tour de France undertaken by the hopelessly under-prepared ANC-Halfords team, chronicles the misfortunes of the first British squad to tackle the grand boucle in 20 years. Connor spent the entire Tour with them, initially as an observer, but before long as a helper, giving him unprecedented insight into the machinations of ANC’s adventure.

From the prologue in West Berlin, run off in searing heat without time trial bikes or aero helmets, the hapless Tour debutants were on the back foot, struggling to hold wheels on the opening stages due to the ferocious pace of an EPO-fuelled peloton. Competitors returning positive drug tests for known banned substances were effectively slapped on the wrist and fined. No surprise, then, that the 1987 Tour went off at an alarming pace that only relented once the Champs-Élysées had been reached. No surprise that only four of the ANC nine made it to Paris.

Connor had unwittingly stumbled on a brilliant story, packed full of bickering, backbiting and cock-ups: a writer’s dream. And team boss Tony Capper – a bear of a man who would, according to directeur sportif Phil Griffiths, squeeze behind the wheel of the team car surrounded by copious quantities of food for the day ahead – was a gift to a journalist looking for an angle. Connor’s remit from the Star was to cover the Tour and the (hopefully) glorious debut of this British professional team. If he could ride a stage or two himself – hence the non-smoking requirement – that would be a bonus. Both the Star and Connor clearly had a few things to learn that July.

Capper was a man in a hurry. His ANC parcel delivery company was looking to expand into the Continent, so what better way to advertise than via the vehicle of the Tour de France, with a TV audience of millions? What often reads in Wide-Eyed as a rich man’s ego trip was based on sound business principles. Another year and ANC might have been in a position to at least survive the Tour intact. As it transpired, the race finished the team off forever. ANC-Halfords crashed and burned as spectacularly as any dot-com startup at the turn of the 21st century.

Yet the squad had prepared for the main event that year with a series of European races starting in February and gained sufficiently impressive results to earn a Tour place on merit. How did events take such a calamitous turn for the worse in such a short time? Was the team’s performance actually as bad as Connor portrays in Wide-Eyed? After all, Malcolm Elliott came within a whisker of a stage win in Bordeaux, and ANC was not alone in having only four finishers: Sean Kelly’s KAS squad and two other teams were in the same boat, while Supermercati and Ryalco only managed a pair apiece. It was a brutally fast race, covering 800 kilometres more than the 2011 edition. It left grown men broken at the roadside – ANC’s Graham Jones and Adrian Timmis, for differing reasons, remain convinced that the 1987 Tour was effectively the end of their cycling careers.

The team selection for the Tour consisted of five foreign riders (Steve Swart, Shane Sutton, Kvetoslav Palov, Guy Gallopin and Bernard Chesneau) and four British (Graham Jones, Adrian Timmis, Paul Watson and Malcolm Elliott). We gathered together the British contingent, plus directeur sportif Phil Griffiths, to revisit the ’87 Tour and discuss the effect of Wide Eyed and Legless on the team.

Extract from Rouleur issue 25, on sale now

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2 Responses to “Wide Eyed and Legless Revisited”

  1. Buffalo Bill Says:

    Not sure that the peloton was EPO-fuelled in 1987. 1991 is the widely-accepted ‘EPO horizon’. Not saying that banned (or otherwise dubious) substances weren’t widely used, thought.

    Quibbles aside, this teaser post is enough to make me buy Rouleur. A great book about the Tour that hooked me on cycle sport – looking forward to reading this article!

  2. Lonewheel Says:

    Agree with the Buffalo: not sure EPO had anything to do with it (was my immediate thought when I read that statement as it was a bit early for EPO, based on what other riders and experts have said).

    Was disappointed not to see mention of Swart as he did ride a brave TDF with the team, and was my big hero down in NZ.

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