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John Atkins – Britain’s greatest ever cyclo-cross rider; 13 times a British Champion

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John Atkins
John Atkins.

The final major act of the 2014/15 cyclo-cross season was played out at the eighth and final round of the Superprestige cyclo-cross series in Middelkerke, Belgium, at the weekend.

Despite Kevin Pauwels (Napoleon Games & Belgium) taking the win, young world champion Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP & The Netherlands) held on to second spot on the day to clinch the overall series win.

But with San Luis behind us, the carryings-on in the desert in full swing and Het Nieuwsblad not far away, most of us have already lost interest in the guys on fat tyres and cantilever brakes – or should that be discs ?

It won’t be that after Lombardia and we think; ‘what are we going to rant about now?

But before you forget who Wout Van Aert is until next winter, VeloVeritas has a final ‘cross treat in store for you.

We’ve spoken to current British ‘Cross Champion Ian Field and 60’s/70’s/80’s stars Keith Mernickle, Eric Stone, Barry Davies and Chris Wreghitt, but never the ‘Daddy’; Britain’s greatest ever cyclo-cross rider; 13 times a British champion and still the nation’s best ever finisher in the Worlds (juniors and ladies apart) – and at a time when ‘cross gods, the de Vlaeminck brothers were at their zenith.

John Atkins is the man; he lives quietly in retirement in Wales, doesn’t ‘do the internet’ and isn’t a man for the ‘stats.’

He was surprised we wanted to speak to him but gave freely of his time and anecdotes.

Here’s what John had to say to VeloVeritas just after young van der Poel had won the Worlds in Tabor.

John Atkins
John rode for Carlton in 1971 and ’72..

Why ‘cross, John ?

“I followed in father’s footsteps; my dad rode the first cyclo-cross National back in ’54 [won by Olympic medallist Alan Jackson, ed.] and was in the team which won – Coventry, but he was their fourth man so didn’t get a medal!

“I was 12 years-old at the time and it just followed on from there …”

How many British titles ?

“I won it 13 times; whilst some sources say 12 it was definitely 13.

“In 18 years I rode 17 times, the year I missed I had an ulcer and of the 17 I rode I won 13, was second twice and fifth twice – so in 17 appearances I was never out of the top five.”

How many seasons did you compete and how did you manage to maintain motivation ?

“I had 20 serious seasons from 1959 to 1979; one of the big reasons I could maintain my enthusiasm was that I always had good training partners.

“In Coventry we had Tuesday and Thursday bashes with riders like Chris Dodd and Daryl Brassington – and it was always such good fun.”

Give us your ‘stats’ please, John.

“I’ve no records of wins/podiums but my wins must run to hundreds and I’m told that I once won 26 ‘crosses in one season.

“I just took at is it came, I don’t have any of my medals left, I gave them all away – usually to Belgian folks who provided us with accommodation when we’re racing over there.

“They loved them!”

What were your best Euro results ?

“I won the Gran Prix of Rotterdam in ’67, I had a win in France in ’70 and I had a second to Albert Van Damme in Belgium with Robert Vermiere third.

[Van Damme was a prolific winner of major ‘crosses including the Belgian and World Professional Championships whilst Vermeire was a multiple Belgian and World Amateur Champion, ed.]

“One fact that I’m proud of is that I beat the ‘World Champion-to-be’ on the three occasions just as the championships approached; Rene De Clerq, Robert Vermeire and Klaus Peter Thaler – who I actually defeated the week before he won the Worlds.”

John Atkins
Riding for TI-Raliegh 1973-’75.

And you still have the best ever finishes for a British rider in the Worlds at Amateur and Professional levels ?

“I believe so; I was fifth in Luxembourg as an amateur in 1968 and twice seventh as a pro – in London and in Zolder.”

Tell us about your equipment, please.

“Mostly I raced on Reynolds 531 tubing; but in my last year Harry Quinn built me a 753 frame – that was the best bike I ever had.

“Despite being professional you didn’t always have the best equipment; when I rode for Carlton for example I had to ride Huret gears and they weren’t the best – then, as now, the best gears were Campagnolo.

“I don’t think wheels have moved on that much since my day; we were on light alloy rims and the Clement Griffo tubulars we rode were comparable to today’s tyres.

“I rode a single ring with chain guards which I made myself by grinding down two 52 tooth chainrings.”

What was your favourite parcours ?

“Hilly but with not too much running and I could never see the point of running on the flat – I always tried to stay on the bike.

“I wasn’t a great runner but on short, steep banks I could live with the best of them.

“If there was a lot of running then Barry Davies was hard to beat because he’d been a runner.”

During your pro years were you full time ?

“No, I turned professional in 1968 and rode for 11 years but I always had another job – everyone at that time was in the same boat.”

And you rode Paris-Nice.

“Yes and was 69th and last, three-and-a-half hours down on Eddy Merckx!

“I did that one season on the road but I wasn’t up to it; they wanted me working on the front but instead I’d be hanging on at the back – but I could get up the hills not too bad.”

Who gave you the toughest opposition in the UK ?

Keith Mernickle. Keith had a long career, he started a year after me but continued longer than I did.

“And Chris Wreghitt – when he came along I realised my ‘sell-by’ had arrived – I was 36 by then and I only wanted to compete at national level if I had a chance of winning.”

And at world level ?

“Eric de Vlaeminck, he was the Eddy Merckx of cyclo-cross.

“When the Worlds were in London there was a bank which none of us could ride up, no matter what we tried – he just soared up it on the bike.

“Albeit, maybe he had some chemical help …”

Do you still follow the sport ?

“Oh yes, my son and grandson race; I was at the Nationals in Abergavenny.

“My son was third in the vets’ race – Nick Craig is hard to beat.

“I watched the Milton Keynes World Cup race where Ian Field rode really well and I enjoyed the Worlds; especially the ladies’ – I thought Nikki Harris rode a great race.”

Do you still get out on the bike ?

“Yes, I do about 100 miles per week into Snowdonia from here in Barmouth – but I usually only do one big climb; three miles is enough climbing for me, these days!”

Regrets ?

“No!

“Under the circumstances I couldn’t have done things much differently – I didn’t want to live abroad …”

John Atkins - Career History

Teams

1968 Bantel – Mercian (Great Britain)
1968 Marsh & Baxter (Great Britain)
1969 Carlton – Truwel – Campagnolo (Great Britain)
1970 Falcon (Great Britain) from 01-09
1971 TI – Carlton (Great Britain)
1972 TI – Raleigh (Great Britain)
1972 TI – Carlton (Great Britain)
1973 TI – Raleigh (Great Britain)
1974 TI – Raleigh (Great Britain)
1975 TI – Raleigh (The Netherlands)
1975 Viscount – Shimano (Great Britain)
1976 Viscount – Shimano (Great Britain)
1977 Viscount – Shimano (Great Britain)
1978 Viscount – Shimano (Great Britain)
1978 Harry Quinn – Galli (Great Britain)
1979 Viscount – Shimano (Great Britain)
1979 Harry Quinn – Galli (Great Britain)

Results

1961 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1962 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1963 2nd in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1966 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1967 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1968 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1969 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1969 1st in Three Peaks, Cyclo-cross, Great Britain
1969 16th in Drongen, Cyclo-cross, Drongen (Oost-Vlaanderen), Belgium
1969 8th in Ardooie, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1970 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1970 1st in Three Peaks, Cyclo-cross, Great Britain
1970 8th in Vladslo, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1970 6th in Zillebeke, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1970 6th in Oudenaarde, Cyclo-cross (e), Belgium
1970 5th in Stasegem – Harelbeke, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1970 6th in Eeklo, Cyclo-cross (c), Belgium
1970 3rd in Vossem, Cyclo-cross, Vossem (Brabant), Belgium
1970 3rd in Wervik, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1970 2nd in Drongen, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1970 3rd in Oostakker, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1971 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1972 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1973 1st in Harlow, Cyclo-cross, Great Britain
1973 2nd in Solbiate Olona, Cyclo-cross, Italy
1973 2nd in Dippach, Cyclo-cross, Luxemburg
1973 2nd in Langemark, Amateurs, Belgium
1973 2nd in Langemark, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1973 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham), Great Britain
1973 3rd in Middelkerke, Cyclo-cross, Belgium
1974 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1975 2nd in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Birmingham (Birmingham), Great Britain
1976 2nd in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1976 1st in Three Peaks, Cyclo-cross, Great Britain
1977 1st in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain
1978 2nd in National Championship, Cyclo-cross, Elite, Great Britain, Great Britain

 

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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