1950s Biographies - Vic Sutton

by Vic Sutton, Cycling 26-Aug-1959

As an “unknown” Sutton was the sensation of the 1959 Tour de France, finishing 37th at his first attempt and climbing like a new “Angel of the Mountains”.

Since resuming publication several readers have asked if we “have ever heard of Sutton”. Here is the answer! We obtained his exclusive story immediately after the Tour de France finished, but sheer pressure on space has meant keeping the feature until today. You will, we trust, find the wait well worth while.

REST day at Bayonne! I'll not forget it, for I suppose it was the turning point for in my first ever Tour de France.

Everyone starts the race knowing that it's going to be hard, but for me it seemed to be that much harder - a head cold was really at the root of the trouble. I was going all right when I started with the rest of the 120 field from Mulhouse even with the cold, but then I crashed on wet cobbles at Nancy, 60km. from the finish - it was pretty bad, as Shay Elliott came down in the same place - and I ended up well down with cuts on my left elbow, knees, and a mammoth bruise on my left thigh. I had the same sort of luck the next day when, " flying," I punctured twice in the last 30 kilometres on dusty paths of roads. Gradually the head cold got worse until after four days I had a sort of sinus trouble which affected my breathing. This lasted until the near-coast town of Bayonne and, as you will remember, I was then 109th overall, second from last, and 49 minutes 9 seconds down. That 207 km. into Bayonne was the hardest day of the Tour for me. I normally prefer wet to real heat and that day it was really hot, sapping my strength - made worse by the breathing trouble. For 207 km. I hung on desperately. But after that rest on July 4, by which time my friend, team mate and living companion Tony Hewson had been forced to drop out with bronchitis, my cold went, my head cleared, and with the increase in all-round fitness that came as my health improved so I gained more confidence.

No Real Plan
The first mountain stage lay ahead ! When the race started I treated each day as it came with no real plan, other than the hope of getting to the mountains O.K.

Stage 10 saw the 6,973 feet climb of the Tourmalet. The field was split into about a dozen groups and I jumped from one to the other until I reached the leaders (Brian Robinson tells me that Vic rode alongside him in the leading group on that climb, said, " Right, I'm going to show these . . . ! They've given me the hammer on the flat so now I'm going to show them." And he did! - Ed.). But I lost a lot of ground on the descent and finished 35th.

Robinson's Bad Day
Stage 14 from Aurillac to Clermont Ferrand was the day Brian Robinson and Shay Elliott finished outside the time limit and I was 26th. I left them unknowingly on one of the four real climbs that day - one moment I could see them together behind, then we climbed for 2 or 3 kilometres, and after that I couldn't see them. I never thought for a moment Brian had gone to pieces and certainly didn't expect they would be outside the time limit.

The next day was the second of the three time trials - which I hate! On the first time trial (stage 6) there was a following wind on a sporting up-and-down course so it was not too bad. The second stage against the watch was the hill climb on the Puy de Dome which rises from the start at 1,323ft. to reach the summit, having climbed 3,346ft. in 12km. I didn't mind it too much and from starting off number four, according to L'Equipe, I was ninth fastest 51 seconds down on Bahamontes after 25km.; 12th at 45km. 1-39 down; 15th after 6.5km., 1-4 in arrears ; and then fourth fastest after 8.3km., 1 min. 33 sec. behind Bahamontes, with Gaul second and Anquetil third. At the finish I was 16th, 5-47 in arrears. But for an hour my time stood as best.

Gear Too High
The gear I used was too high - although one always thinks after an event that one could have done better although at the time you are going as fast as possible! Bahamontes and second fastest, Gaul, rode 48 x 26 gears of 49.8in.; I had 48 x 25, which meant I pushed a gear of 51.84 inches. (I used the same bicycle throughout, but for the other stages I rode close ratio gears). The last time trial, the 21st stage from Seurre to Dijon, was by far the worst. It was 69km, into a strong head wind and Riviere, who really is a fantastic time trialist, won in 1-39-38. I finished last but one, 19 minutes 59 seconds down.

But that last time trial came after the Alps. It was there that things really went well. Take .stage 17. That was over 197km. from St. Etienne to Grenoble and included several climbs - Col du Grand Bois (3,779ft.) and the Col de Romeyere (3,544ft.) being the main ones.  The feed came 2km. from the foot of the Romeyere climb and Brian Robinson punctured. I waited for him - and got a sharp lesson in tactics from Brian for doing so ; I didn't know that you're not supposed to wait for anyone on a climb or a descent, as they can make up time then themselves. Still, I'll remember next time!

Group to Group
Anyway, at the actual foot of the climb on a narrow road there was a "stack up" which took some sorting out, but on the mountain I moved up from group to group until I found I'd caught the leading group which included Bobet and Anglade. Ahead were Bahamontes and Gaul having a big battle, and as I'd caught the leading group I just kept going. I got to within 50 metres or so of Gaul's wheel, who was then chasing Bahamontes, and tried for 20km. to get right on! Later, other riders said they were disgusted with the Luxembourger who, they thought, should have eased to let me get on his wheel. As I was so far behind overall it would not have made any difference to him, but I suppose it was a question of his prestige being at stake.

At the top of the Romeyere I was 1-7 down on Gaul; 20km. later at Villard de Lans I was 2-20 behind Gaul, who was by then with that other terrific pedaller, Bahamontes, and 1 min. 10 seconds ahead of the main bunch led by Riviere, Anquetil and Pauwels.

When I saw it was no use trying any more, being just unable to close the gap, I eased, waited to be caught, and finished eventually in the bunch 15th, 3-42 down on stage winner Gaul.

Complete Novice!
It was the first time I'd been on hills like that - in fact the first time I'd even seen the Tour de France.

Stage 19 saw us on the St. Bernard climb of 8,160ft. soon after the start, which had the worst road surfaces imaginable. I lost ground on the descent - visibility through rain and mist was down to 15 yards, and the "road" was 2-in. deep mud! Just 57km. later, at the Farclaz climb, I was with Gaul, Bahamontes and Reitz, 2-35 down on Saint and Graf. By the finish, 134km. later, I was 9-22 behind Graf in 18th place.

Now it's all over everyone is asking me what I thought of the Tour . . . what was my greatest thrill ... what I hope to gain by it ... and so on.

A Matter of Confidence
Well, it's queer, but I have never been very envious of anybody - that's why I came over to the Continent really. I remember the boys back home tried to discourage me, but I have always had confidence in myself, believing that one chap is as good as another. It's self-confidence really. So I was not overawed by the occasion, although my greatest thrill was in coming off the top of the cols with Riviere, Baldini, Bobet and so on, and looking back to see all those other riders struggling behind!

I had an open mind about the Tour when I started. The real aim was to do a good ride to try and be noticed and so possibly be signed up by a Continental sponsor. Everyone in Rheims, where I stay, was keen on me finishing the Tour, but I knew it would not mean anything just to finish-you can even lose by it, for if you're not going well you don't pick up the all-important prize money.

A Climber's Race
Don't forget the Tour is a race all on its own, and I think it is a race for climbers. I'm not big or strong, but I got there - not being fast on flat roads or a sprinter it's a matter of hanging on to a wheel on the flat, a tactic well learned in Belgium where you can never drop a Belgian off your wheel.

But in any case, it was more than three weeks' free board and lodging!


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