Harry Binns

The scenery of the Tour de France is every bit as dramatic as the stories which have unfolded from its one-hundred year history. Unique as a sporting spectacle, the 'Grand Boucle' has evolved with as many interwoven nuances as a literary classic. Heroes and villains pepper each and every chapter; this annual pursuit of the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) equal to the Herculean deeds necessary to chase any golden fleece. Thus the gods and demigods have been written into sporting mythology; their names forever etched onto the cobblestones of the Champs Elysées. Yet their place at the high table owes much to the forgotten foot soldiers, the domestiques, who sacrificed their own immortality in order that the race be won. The Tour's vista is littered with their names; each a vital cog; each making the journey from hometown club racing to the foothills of Mont Ventoux.

One such forgotten specimen is the Yorkshireman Harry Binns; lost in the annuls of time; his story as misty as a Cold Fell mizzle.

Born in Harrogate, in 1930, Binns spent his early years struggling to find a footing in the world. Having lost his father in a mining accident, and with no siblings, the young boy forged an isolated childhood in Crimple Valley.

A period at Harrogate Grammar School highlighted an ongoing struggle with authority; only alleviated during Physical Education lessons, where his fellow pupils frequently found themselves trailing; young Binns had a talent - "The lad could run the legs off a runty whippet," proclaimed the Games Master. Harnessing a rare physical stamina with his first bicycle allowed Harry Binns to escape the valley floor, and take off for the crags, pikes and fells which in time would fabricate a foundation for exploits to come.

Many an hour spent loitering around Baines Bros bike shop allowed the young Binns to soak up this new horizon. His first road bike was a Baines Flying Gate 'Whirlwind'. He also studied Ron Kitching's expanding cycling business, favouring dismantling frames and gears to cruising with his friends at the Montpellier Night Club; Binns was in a hurry; no room for passengers.

In 1949, aged 19, Binns joined Crimple Valley CC. During the same year Fausto Coppi would win the Tour de France. Binns read about it in Cycling and Mopeds, pasting the pages across his bedroom ceiling. From that point, he broadened an already capacious training loop, beyond Crimple Viaduct, systematically taking in one more crag; one more fell. In races he began to eclipse club members many years his senior. A raw amateur talent began to turn heads, as well as engender a degree of friction from the more seasoned riders, who would soon harden themselves to the sound of Binns' metronomic cadence, before it stretched away out of earshot. This sapling rider was often seen riding the hills in unconventional attire - sporting his father's pit helmet and a jersey fashioned from a prototype of what later became known as Crimplene.

Binns became fixated with the 'Continental' racing scene, spending hours scrutinising the pages of Cycling and Mopeds, or perusing the sacred texts of Ron Kitching's Everything Cycling catalogue. He saved up and bought a RonKit frameset. Then sampled his first bitter taste of rejection, overlooked by Kitching for a Morley Cycling Club rider, seven years his senior - Beryl Burton.

Despite being unsponsored, Binns was winning races; usually as a late-entry independent; always as an unknown. Some began to take note. Local brewery Beverley Bros Inc, of Harrison St, Wakefield seized the opportunity to boost sales with a generous sponsorship deal; Binns swapping his Milremo kit for bolder, bird-of-prey-emblazoned colours. The Golden Eagle took flight.

Racing establishments didn't like it. Often his results were omitted from race results. Or on occasion, a never-before ruling cited in order to scrub Binns victory from the records. By refusing to toe the line, and conform to standard race-entry protocol, Harry Binns found his dream of a pathway to Paris cold-shouldered by a cycle-race elite. Consequently, his palmarès is almost impossible to reconstruct. Yet Binns continued; turning up, paying his 4d entry fee, pinning on a race number, and racing; to Beverley Bros delight, often winning.

A key episode in the Binns chronicle came during his last year at Crimple Valley CC, with entry in the Knaresborough-Fifty. Among the competing clubs was Harworth and District CC, eager to show off their latest protege, a talented rider called Tom Simpson. The Haworth man won, but only narrowly, Binns making a brave solo breakaway, only to be overhauled in the last half mile. Simpson was later to be heard suggesting "If Binns goes pro, I hope he's wearing the same jersey as me."

The Golden Eagle did go pro. Yet this move proved swiftly untenable, Binns unable to function as a team player. Undeterred, he hovered in-and-around the pro-circuit for a number of seasons, making his customary brief impact in some of cycling's Spring Classics, as well as the Route de France - an amateur version of the Tour de France. It was here that the Binns name began to filter through to racing's upper echelons, albeit within hushed undertones. Years later Simpson's soigneur and spannerman Harry Hall suggested "He [Binns] could have won the Tour in 1961. Yet no team would have him. He was good enough. Maybe too good." The unambiguously masked final phrase endorsed some of the drifting rumours that Binns was among a growing list of race cyclists who took, as well as distributed, performing enhancing substances. Despite proclamation that his only pre-race stimuli consisted of "A foaming jug of Golden Eagle, half a Denby Dale pie and a slap from the Farrier's Arms landlady.." there were those who questioned the Yorkshireman's ability to ride all-comers into a standstill, should the mood take him.

A further knock-back came in 1952, when Binns was overlooked for Great Britain's Helsinki Olympic Games Road Race team. Something of a bête noire for Binns was one of the team members - Brian Robinson. In 1955, Robinson formed part of a team sponsored by British cycling manufacturer Hercules. They would take on the Tour de France, with Robinson one of two riders becoming the first British cyclists to finish the race. In the same year he would declare "Indeed, when it came to selection time there were hardly enough riders available to fill the places." Binns sunk into a depression. Records show him travelling to London with his dog 'Thorncliffe'; possibly en route to northern Italy.

Three years later, an article in the CTC Gazette covered the 1958 Tour de France. Here Brian Robinson wrote himself into the history books by becoming the first Brit to win a stage (Stage 7). Paraphrasing the pseudonym of the eventual winner - Charly Gaul, aka 'The Angel of the Mountains' due to his climbing acumen - the Gazette journalist concluded the article 'With cracks now showing in the Continental dominance of the Tour, we wonder where is the former 'Demon of the Dales' Harry Binns?"

A response came the following year, in a 1959 issue of Cycling and Mopeds. Binns is quoted as saying "For a British lad to win the Tour de France, he would need to dig deeper than Grimethorpe Colliery. And have a bloody good sense of humour." Some misread the phrase as advocating the use of banned stimulants. A later profile piece in French publication Miroir Sprint suffered similar scrutiny, when his referral to 'Crinkle Crags' suffered a disastrous Cross-Channel-translation, driving then Tour Directeur Sportif Jacques Godet to suggest Binns was best consigned to his local 'décharge publique' [a play on the Binns surname with a reference to rubbish heap]. In defence, Binns issued a retort through the Harrogate Advertiser; yet fuelled the fire with "To truly be the best at something, you have to be the worst at everything else." Many agreed. Others suggesting that it was Binns who introduced banned stimulants to Tommy Simpson.

In 1960, following the death of his idol Fausto Coppi, Harry Binns swept himself up in his own self-driven voiture balai, absconding to Bagnères-de-luchon, after competing in the Bordeaux–Paris race, once more as a form of Touriste-routiers. It is rumoured he had met a young society french woman, simply referred to as Mademoiselle Gouguenheim. Other reports suggest she was a Signora Motta, from Cassolnovo, in the Lombardia region of Italy; serenaded by Binns in an effort to assume the mantel of his hero. Cycling and Mopeds Editor George Pearson may have contacted Binns, in an attempt to repatriate the maverick racer. Scant correspondence remains. It is known, possibly though a link with Pearson, that Binns was at The Royal Albert Hall in London, on November 18th 1961, having successfully entered Cycling and Mopeds 'Your chance to meet ANQUETIL' competition. Entrants were required to send in a question, which should they be chosen, allowed them to attend the R.T.T.C British Best All-rounder and Champions Concert, and put their question directly to the man who would eventually win the Tour de France a total of five times - Frenchman Jacques Anquetil. For the price of a 2 1/2d stamp, Binns found himself among a 6,000 strong audience, rubbing shoulders with the great and good, pro-riders, sponsors, record-breakers and future champions. Once again, Binns did not play by the rules - electing to drop his entry-winning question for "Some say you're quite a Jacques-the-lad. What's you secret with the lasses then?"

An aggrieved Anquetil later responded "Andouille!". Binns reply was a telegram stating he preferred pie to sausage.

In 1968 Beverley Bros Brewery ceased trading; the first Tom Simpson Memorial Race was run in Haworth; Binns was persona non grata.

There is mention of Belgian Tour legend Eddy Merckx celebrating victory on Stage 8 of the 1972 Tour de France, in a small eating establishment in Bagnères-de-luchon, which went by the name of Bistro Aigle d'Or. Here a battered mining helmet came under press scrutiny. As did a trompe l'oeil mural of Crimple Viaduct painted across the far wall. The site is now occupied by a hairdressers called Coiffure Odette.

Over the intervening years, there have been many glimpses of an individual said to hail from Harrogate. Helicopter TV viewing of the peloton charging through the french countryside has often shown a broad-winged eagle insignia painted across the tarmac, and on occasion the number '1693' - believed to be his father's coalmining lamp check number. Even as recent as July 2012, Bradley Wiggins famous post Tour-victory comment "We're just going to draw the raffle numbers," is said to have been an oblique reference to Binns, and his eclectic history of varied race numbers. One thing is certain, the runty whippet from Harrogate wouldn't miss the Grand Boucle rolling into Crimple Valley for the world.

© Sixteen Ninety-three 2014