Friday, May 27, 2022
HomeStoriesPhil Cheetham - Memories, Part One; Racing in France in the 60's,...

Phil Cheetham – Memories, Part One; Racing in France in the 60’s, with UVA Troyes


Often, when I’m talking to riders about those Golden Days for bike racing, the 60’s and 70’s, the name Phil Cheetham crops up.

Cheetham was a quality rider with some big results in France in the early 70’s among them a stage and GC in both the GP de Sedan and Tour de l’Aude.

I finally caught up with Phil to see if he’d like to speak to me about his career.

He’d beaten me to the punch, over those long days of Covid lockdown he’d been chronicling his career on the bike.

He very kindly agreed to share his memories with me.

In this piece he tells us about…

* * *

By Phil Cheetham

Going to France, 1967

I finish my studies in 1966 then work for three weeks in Manor Park for the Glossop Council Parks and Gardens then as a trainee for AEI (Associated Electrical Industries) in Manchester for five weeks before I move to Liverpool. 

I spend seven months there as a draughtsman and assistant designer for Guy Rogers, a furniture manufacturer. It appears that today their furniture is quite collectable. 

Then I move back to the parks in Glossop for two months. 

Phil Cheetham
A nice image of Phil Cheetham’s early style, racing his club hill climb championships on the Snake Pass in 1961. Photo©supplied

I’m now ready to go to France to try my luck there as a racing cyclist.

Although I’ve won a few races I’m far from being in the top echelon, like for example Derek Harrison, who’d abandoned his studies and left for Troyes in the Champagne region early last year. 

We’d raced together on the Manchester team. He’d dominated the Hammond’s Prize Medal Two Day event held in April 1964, winning the first stage which went five times up the notorious cobbled 1 in 3 Penny Hill, and also the second stage time trial, beating all the top northern independents riding for trade teams.

I’ve been trying to contact the club in Troyes where Derek is based but I don’t have the right telephone number. 

I know that there may be a place available as I have heard that Derek’s English flatmate has not been going well and has come back home.

I had previously written to the club in Millau (which is Glossop’s twin town) and they replied that they would accept me.

Phil Cheetham
PPhil Cheetham won five races in 1964, ranking the best as being the Anniversary Road Race where he took the bunch sprint ahead of Bernie Burns, Kenny Hill, Pete Matthews and Wes Mason. Photo©supplied

I finish work on Friday the 19th of May and on Sunday finish sixth in the Witham Valley Grand Prix won by Des Thomson from New Zealand.

On Tuesday I ride on the track at the Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester and on Wednesday the last event in the Macclesfield Criterium series where I finish second, giving me first place in the overall classification ahead of Pete Buckley from the Oldham Century Cycling Club. 

On Saturday and Sunday I take part in three 25-mile events held on the Blackpool promenade finishing third, third and second. The first race is won by Pete Ward and the two others by Baz Lycett.

* * *

On Monday the 29th of May I’m on the plane from Manchester to Paris. 

From the airport I take the bus to the magnificent Hotel des Invalides. At the tourist desk there they tell me to go to the Gare de l’Est to catch a train to Troyes. 

I speak hardly any French at all. I’d done two years at school before getting thrown out of French lessons by getting an unremarkable 5% (or 1 out of 20) at the end-of-year exams.

The taxi driver says he can’t take me, my bike and my bag, so I ride through Paris behind the taxi at full speed darting through the mad Parisian traffic, past the traffic gendarmes, perched high on their rostrums, madly waving their white-cuffed arms and generally confusing the traffic with their magic wands and shrill whistles, while the taxi takes just my bag. 

I then have to buy a one-way ticket to Troyes. This I manage OK but become extremely worried when they take my bike off me and put it in the ‘consigne.’ 

They say it will be travelling on the same train but in another wagon. In England I’ve always taken the most precious object I own on the train with me.

The train arrives in Troyes and much to my relief I recover my bike.

Now I have to find my way to M. and Mme Baudet’s. 

M. Baudet is the president of the club and that’s where the flat is located. 

I don’t have their name spelled correctly, I have written Bodet. 

I don’t have the proper address either. 

At the ‘Syndicat d’Initiatve,’ which luckily is just outside the station, I get help from the people working there. 

It’s fairly obvious to them that I am I racing cyclist and they manage to deduce that I am looking for the president of the UVA, one of the two major clubs in Troyes. They find the address for me and show me how to get there. 

I leave my bag with them and ride to 30, Avenue Terrenoire, La Moline, in Saint-Julien-les-Villas and there I meet Madame Baudet in the butcher’s shop they own. 

She’s a bit nonplussed by my unannounced arrival but nevertheless decides that I can stay. 

The small flat is situated in one of the outhouses in their large pebbled yard where two of the team cars are parked. These are Peugeot 403’s each with a roof rack for eight bikes and painted in the club colours with the sponsors’ names, Phitagi, Gitane and Rustines, on the side. 

When M. Baudet arrives he drives me back to the station to pick up my bag. I settle into the flat and feel quite happy. What I don’t realise is that the flat is free of charge, heating included.

Phil Cheetham
Derek Harrison was Phil Cheetham’s housemate in Troyes. Photo©supplied

They explain to me that Derek is away in Corsica riding a stage race for the Jean de Gribaldy amateur team, a stepping stone up to becoming a professional next year.

Later that day I’m sitting alone in the flat thumbing through some Miroir de Cyclisme magazines when a well-dressed man, upright, very sure of himself and smoking a Gitane cigarette barges in through the door and begins speaking to me in a loud voice, making bold, vigorous gestures. 

I have no idea who he is or what he is saying. 

When he leaves I turn over to the next page in the magazine and there is a full page photo of him. I sit back in my chair stupefied. 

It was Marcel Bidot, director of the French Tour de France team and as I learn later my Directeur Technique

At the time the Tour is ridden by national teams, the changeover to trade teams being made in 1969. 

Well, well… I also learn later that the mechanic for the French national team is William Odin, the owner of the club’s bike shop.

* * *

On Tuesday I go out on a 130 km training ride on my own. Somewhere along the way near to Saint Florentin an itinerant grocer flags me down and fills my back pockets with biscuits and other confectionary products – that had never happened to me in England. 

I’m beginning to realise how popular cycle racing is in France.

That evening the club registers me as a rider for their first category team and enters me in the races for the coming weekend. 

Every Tuesday evening there’s a club meeting in a café in the centre of Troyes owned by an ex-club rider called Gloagen where we choose (or be dictated) the races we will ride the following weekend. 

There are seven first category riders, about fifteen second category riders, over forty third and fourth category riders (they have an old bus to take them to the races which looks very impressive with all the bikes on the roof rack), and a junior team of 10 or more.

I go out training on my own on Wednesday, then with some of the lads from the club on Thursday. 

Thursdays are a sort of half-day; the schools are closed in the afternoons and that’s when most of the lower category riders go out training.

My first race is the Prix de Dijon on Saturday. 

I eat a big breakfast before we leave but I’m surprised when at around 11.30 am we stop at a restaurant in Chatillon-sur-Seine for a three course meal. 

This is the first time I see a fully-fledged cheese platter and I must say I’m impressed by the variety as the other riders fill up their plates. 

Needless to say I’m not very hungry.

I finish only 24th in the 135 km race but write in my diary “too long, too hot and too fast, but will acclimatise to all three in time“. 

The race is won by the little climber Jean Paul Gutty from Lyon who as an independent also rides with the pros. 

He notably finishes third on the Puy de Dome stage in the 1969 Tour de France just five seconds behind Eddy Merckx who drops all his main rivals including Roger Pingeon, Raymond Poulidor, Jan Janssen and Lucien Van Impe. 

What also impresses me is the way the race accelerates towards the end with the riders throwing themselves at high speed at the ultimate climb with little chance of making it to the top at that pace.

On Sunday we ride the Prix de Beaulieu and I puncture after only 10 km. 

I puncture again in the Prix de Chouilly on Monday but this time after 85 km. 

In these one-day races no team cars are allowed and you have to change your own tyre if you get a flat. Needless to say it’s almost impossible to get back to the peloton after a tyre change and I abandon both these races.

This is indeed not a good start. 

However the following weekend I finish third in the Prix de Gron behind my teammate Claude Baguet and fifth in the Prix de Amilly on Monday giving me total prize money of 275 francs – or a little more than my weekly wage at my previous jobs in England, so things are beginning to look up.

* * *

On the following Tuesday Derek arrives back in Troyes after winning the Tour of Corsica and is well on his way to his professional career. 

I don’t think he’s too pleased to have a new flatmate but we get on well and soon become good friends. 

I have so much to learn and I have a brilliant teacher directly on hand.

My season continues along the same lines with me just about scraping through and managing to make ends meet. 

On the 2nd of July I crash quite badly on a freshly gravelled road in the Prix d’Amphilly-le-Sec and I’m taken to hospital in an ambulance with about 20 pieces of gravel in my right forearm and as many if not more in the small of my back. 

The jolting ride to the hospital is extremely uncomfortable as I’m lying on my back. 

They take out the bits of gravel and stitch me up.

On the 11th of July Derek leaves to ride the Tour de l’Avenir with the British squad and two days later my parents arrive in their Thames Anglia van for their first holiday abroad. 

Phil Cheetham
Phil Cheetham with his mum, in his earlier Glossop Velo days in 1965, celebrating the win in the Kentish Grand Prix held on the Crystal Palace motor racing circuit. Photo©supplied

And on that day the 13th of July Tom Simpson dies during the 13th stage of the Tour de France on the scorching slopes of Mont Ventoux.

I can’t believe it, it seems so unreal. 

The Eurovision ‘Te Deum’ theme tune which is played on the TV to announce his death haunts me whenever I hear it again. 

He really was my hero. I’d seen him race on the Fallowfield track in Manchester and he was spectacular.

For me amphetamines, although they played a part, were not the main cause of his death; he was dangerously ill and dehydrated and shouldn’t have been on his bike at all in the sweltering heat on the bare, rocky slopes of the Ventoux. 

The following year doping controls are put into place and it becomes possible to get a good placing, take a few primes or even win the amateur races where there is a lot of money up for grabs. 

The year before it had been impossible to get anywhere near the front of high prize money races as a good percentage of the riders were on drugs.

The next weekend it is extremely hot and I finish only one of the three races that I ride. In fact with the crash and a puncture I finish only one of my next five races.

On Tuesday I leave with my parents for a very short holiday in Switzerland and on Wednesday ride through two metre high walls of snow over the spectacular 2250-metre high Sustenpass.

* * *

On the first weekend in August our club team of Derek Harrison, Claude Baguet, Claude Chabanel, Claude Duterme (yes, they really all are called Claude, a popular name at that time) and myself ride the three day Tour de l’Yonne. 

The first two stages are 180 and 185 km long. I’ve never before raced over such distances and I’m a bit apprehensive. 

I finish 13th in the second group on Stage One won by Hiddinga, a Dutch rider. Both Derek and Claude Baguet finish in the leading group just four seconds behind the winner.

The next day I’m completely knackered and I’m dropped many times from the main bunch but manage with the help of a few other riders struggling like me to get back to the peloton each time when the pace at the front slows a little. 

But at Jussy on the banks of the River Yonne with 10 km still to go I make it to the front of the now reduced bunch and just because I’d been so frustrated bringing up the rear all day I take a flyer off the front down a slight slope. 

Pulling out all the stops with my legs crying out in pain I manage to build up a lead of 30 seconds. 

Boulard – the French road race champion who was third on the first stage – -also gets clear of the bunch and is eating steadily into my meagre lead but I somehow hold him off to cross the finishing line in Auxerre with just three seconds to spare.

I have, just by chance, won a big race! 

The coverage in the local newspaper is spectacular; a full page on the stage itself and a third of a page on just me.

Derek needs to make up 30 seconds on Boulard in the third stage Time Trial the next day. 

Although the general opinion and the press think this impossible, Derek flies round the Time Trial course, wins the stage and takes the overall classification. 

I finish only 27th in the Time Trial and 13th overall.

I win nothing more that year but near the end of September as the weather gets cooler I finish second three times in a row. 

In October Derek wins the last three races of the year before he turns pro.

I’ve not done too badly in my four months in France. 

I came over with £75 in my pocket and I’d won enough to earn my keep. 

I’m looking forward to coming back again next year.

Stay tuned for Part Two of Phil Cheetham’s Memories, coming soon!

Ed Hood
Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 47 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, a team manager, and a 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 for some of the world's top riders. 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.

Related Articles

Ross Lamb – With Swift Carbon Pro Racing for 2020

It was this time last year when we last spoke to Ross Lamb; he told us he was going to be enjoying a change of scenery in 2019, to the Toulouse suburbs to race with GSC Blagnac–Velo Sport 31. Nice, we thought – but as oor Rabbie said; 'the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley'. In modern parlance; ‘s##t happens!’

Aidan Duff – Part Two; Moving from Riding to Selling to Manufacturing with Fifty One Bikes

In Part One of our interview with Irish rider Aidan Duff we heard about his six years based in Nantes, three of them riding for Jean Rene Bernadeau's top flight Vendee U squad, his experiences riding with Thomas Voeckler in the team, and his wins in the Herald Sun Tour and Tour of Brittany.  We continue our chat by asking Aidan why he stopped racing and how he moved into the business side of the game, as well as the unusual methods involved in producing his custom-sized carbon fibre frames and bike builds...

Graham Webb

The sad news came through from Belgium on Sunday morning that Graham Webb, British World road champion in 1967, had passed away. Our condolences go to his family and the many friends and fans he had in the cycling community. A great champion and a wonderful guy. Ed interviewed Graham back in 2009, and we thought that reproducing the interview now would be a good tribute to the man. In memory of Graham; his views on the sport back in 2009. 'Former World Road Race Champion,' yes, that would be nice to have that after your name!

Book Review: “I Like Alf” by Paul Jones

Paul Jones had the rather splendid idea of writing a book about the man who was British Junior Road Race Champion, British Kilometre Champion, twice British Team Pursuit Champion, six times British 25 Mile Time Trial Champion and who unearthed the Holy Grail of time testing - the 30 miles per hour 25 mile time trial ride; stopping the clock in 49 minutes and 24 seconds in August 1978; Alf Engers.

Dave Rollinson – The Road That Led to Gold

We recently ran an interview with Liverpool Mercury stalwart, Ricky Garcia; we’re sure that Ricky would agree that perhaps the best rider The Mercury ever produced never really realised his full potential. His name is Dave Rollinson; twice British Amateur Road Race Champion, Tour de L’Avenir stage winner, French amateur Classic winner and twice a Worlds top 20 finisher.

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

John Atkins is Britain’s greatest ever cyclo-cross rider; 13 times a British champion and still the nation’s best ever finisher in the Worlds – and at a time when ‘cross gods, the de Vlaeminck brothers were at their zenith. 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.

At Random

Jim Gladwell – the current Scottish Hour Record Holder who’s planning another attempt

When VeloVeritas was at the Copenhagen Six Day last month, we witnessed a successful attempt on the Danish Hour record by Martin Toft. It got us thinking; ‘is Jim Gladwell still the Scottish Hour record holder?’ And indeed he is – ‘best have a word,’ we thought to ourselves...

Tour of the Meldons 2016 – Smart and Curran Retain Their Scottish Titles

Chris Smart (GTR) put on another exemplary performance in the Tour of the Meldons hilly time trial in the Scottish Borders to retain his national title for the 'Olympic Time Trial' for the third time in a row, his 56:08 being 75 seconds faster than his time for the same course last year and 67 seconds faster than silver medallist Kyle Gordon (Sandy Wallace Cycles). Third was Jon Entwistle (Team JMC) a further 10 seconds back.

Giro d’Italia 2013 – Stage 6: Mola di Bari – Margherita di Savoia, 169km. Kit Car Cav.

There are aspects of the sprinting phenomenon which is ‘Cav’ that don’t rest easy with me. The baby and Paul Smith on the podium, mouthing off about his team, the swearing... But when I see him sprint, I could forgive him just about anything. He has the coolness under fire, the spacial awareness, the grinta and the raw speed – but most of all he wants to win so badly.

The VV View: Politics and Cycling

Politics and Cycling... I did a Vuelta preview the other day; I mentioned the Castilian (Spanish), Basque, Catalan and Galician languages.

Alejandro Valverde reaches seventh heaven

After six times finishing on the podium of the Men Elite Road World Championship, Alejandro Valverde claimed the gold medal for Spain for the first time at the age of 38. He rode away up the Höll, the gruelling climb at the end of the race, along with France’s Romain Bardet and Canada’s Michael Woods to beat them in a four-man sprint after the return of the Dutchman Tom Dumoulin. The final event crowned a wonderful week of sport in Innsbruck-Tirol.

Joe Dombrowski – Proving to be Well Rounded

'Stars of the future ?' Here's one - please just remember where you read it first. After the toughest stage of the Tour of California - traversing brutal Mount Baldy, many were asking 'who's Joe Dombrowski ?'