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.
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.
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.
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.
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