There is a long list of Australians who have ridden the Tour de France, from Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro and Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham as the first two in the 12th edition in 1914, to the much larger numbers in modern times.
Most of the Aussies in today’s tours have access to the best of everything or close to it – bikes and technology, support staff, accommodation, food, team buses, and so on. But it wasn’t always this way.
Back in the early years of ‘Le Tour’ the bikes and running gear were heavy and unreliable, and the roads were often rudimentary. And only the team leaders and stars enjoyed support and what little luxuries were available on and off the bike.
The Australian cyclists who rode the Tour de France prior to the 1960s did it particularly tough.
One of these riders was John Beasley from the suburb of Footscray in Melbourne, who at 83 years old is currently the oldest living Australian Tour de France cyclist. He rode in the 1952 and 1955 Tours, which was probably inevitable considering his lineage.
The Beasley name is well known in Australian cycling. John’s brother Clinton held the fastest time in the 1935 Warrnambool to Melbourne road race, and was also accomplished on the track. His other brother Vin placed in the Melbourne to Warrnambool (the race had changed direction by then) in his first attempt as a 16 year old, and went on to win it in 1952.
John’s father JJ ‘Pop’ Beasley was another ‘scratchman’ who set the 1923 world 100 mile record in the Warrnambool to Melbourne, and competed in that race in excess of 20 times. JJ Beasley was a friend and mentor to Sir Hubert Opperman, who John recalls would drop by the shop every now and then and give him and his brothers cycling advice.
John Beasley’s own journey to the Tour began in 1947 when he started his racing career as a 17-year old professional road rider. These were the days when most riders started racing as young amateurs with Olympic and Commonwealth Games dreams.
Professionals were ineligible to represent Australia in the Games back then, though this didn’t matter to Beasley. “All my family started as professionals, so I did too. That was the thing to do. I wasn’t interested in the Olympics. It never ever entered my mind. I was a professional and that was it.”
Beasley’s eyes light up at the retelling of past adventures on the roads around Melbourne and surrounds. Like the time he and a mate in their training for the ‘Warrnambool’, decided to ride from Melbourne to Warrnambool and then home again in one session. “We left in the afternoon and arrived in Warrnambool around 7pm, had a feed of steak at the roadhouse and then turned around and rode back. We got home in the early hours of the next morning”. He remembers, laughing.
The two-time Tour de France rider doesn’t brag about his cycling achievements, although he has reason to. Beasley’s race wins are too numerous to list here, but the highlights are impressive enough:
- 1950 and 1951 Melbourne to Wangaratta 187 mile
- 1950 Victorian 150 mile Champion (in the Melbourne to Warrnambool race)
- 1951 Australian Professional Road Champion
- 1951 7 day NSW Tour of the West (in the Hartley Team with Clinton Beasley, and Keith and Max Rowley)
It was Beasley’s performances during 1951 that paved the way for his first journey to Europe in 1952. The 21-year-old was selected with Dean Whitehorn, Peter Anthony, and Eddie Smith in the Australian team that went to Europe that year. A special public fundraiser by the Sporting Globe newspaper helped to send the team.
The goal was for all four Australians to ride well enough in lead up races to gain selection in that year’s Tour de France. No small feat considering the challenges they faced along the way; from the five-week sea voyage to Monte Carlo, to the different culture and food, to the style and pace of the continental riding.
Racing in Europe was an eye-opening experience for the young Beasley and his teammates. Their first race, against Oppy’s advice, was barely a week after getting off the ship. “The racing was a big shock to us because we had never ridden mass start races much here in Australia. We were more used to the handicaps. It was like a merry-go-round. It was stop-and-start racing, you know? There’d be a big jam on and everyone would be down on the handlebars and chewing the head stem to try and keep up, and then it would ease up. We found that very hard on our legs.”
It was hard going, but Beasley’s focus and determination served him well. He had a simple strategy to get a start in the Tour de France. “I just took racing where I could. Over there they were all selected fields, you couldn’t just turn up and start. I enjoyed cycling that much that I used to try and make the most out of it. Every race I entered I wanted to win it.”
This approach, and Beasley’s performances in lead up races got him noticed. He did particularly well in the 1952 Paris-Nice where, despite a number of falls, punctures and mechanicals, he placed 6th in the final stage, and finished the race 28th in the GC overall. The race contracts soon came, including the big one.
The young Australian earned his start in the 1952 Tour de France with the Luxembourg international team whose lead man was Charly Gaul. Beasley was the only one of the four-member Australian team to gain selection – an amazing achievement that he rates as one of his best, but being the lone Aussie added to the challenge.
Beasley explains, “I was over-awed by the Tour de France race, the caravan and everything around it. But I was more or less an outcast in the team because I didn’t have anyone I could call on if I was in trouble. I punctured there one day and I had to chase on my own because they didn’t send back any riders to support me.”
Tragically, a bit of bad luck and the lack of support was to cost him his place in the 1952 Tour:
“The first day he was 15 minutes on the winner but on the second day he punctured, changed his tyre and pulled single tape and all off. He hopped on his bike and fell heavily at the first sharp turn – his single rolled off, hence he had to pull the tape off his old single and rode unpaced for 80 miles to finish only 24 minutes behind the winner – but alas – he was four minutes too late and was eliminated on time with several others.” — Australian Cyclist, August 1952
So, Beasley left the Tour that year which was won by the great Italian rider Fausto Coppi – one of John’s idols and to this day his pick for the best rider he ever rode against. “I was always a fan of his before I went over. I was in awe of him because he was so famous and a great bike rider, and to race with him I felt it was a great honour.”
Beasley eventually left Europe for home in early August 1952, after fulfilling his remaining riding contracts. He was disappointed to not finish the Tour but he vowed to return again for another attempt a little older and a lot wiser.
And so it was three short years later, after a preparation which included 4th in the 1954 Sun Tour, Beasley went to Europe again intending to get a start in the 1955 Tour de France (the 42nd edition).
This time around John’s trained and raced with the Australian legend Russell Mockridge who was living in Europe. Training rides took them from Nice into the mountains to Cannes and along the Cote d’Azur – an exotic world away for a working class boy from Footscray in Melbourne.
Beasley joined Mockridge and other Australian riders racing with the Vampire Cycles team. His races in 1955 included the eight-day Tour de Dauphine Libere, a key form guide for the Tour de France.
Beasley had a horror run of bad luck in that race, again with crashes, punctures and mechanicals. At the end of day six he was still 15th in the GC, but in the last stage he snapped a brake cable on a mountain descent and lost 15 minutes getting it repaired. There were no spare bikes for the Australian riders in those days.
Regardless, both Beasley and Mockridge had done enough to earn a start in the 1955 Tour de France. They joined the Luxembourg international team, led again by Charly Gaul who would go on to win the 1958 Tour, and managed by 1927-28 Tour de France winner Nicolas Frantz.
The Australians were in good company, but they still struggled with the language and cultural differences, and felt on the outer. Unfortunately, both Mockridge and Beasley came down with a bout of food poisoning prior to the start of the 1955 Tour at Le Havre.
Beasley was worst affected and, despite the charcoal tablets he was taking to treat the illness, it took its toll and he withdrew in stage 3. Mockridge continued as the lone Australian and finished the Tour a creditable 64th overall behind Louison Bobet who won for the third time in a row.
It was a blow for Beasley, who acknowledges, “I was a bit downcast then, and my cycling suffered because of it. I didn’t train near as hard as I should have.”
After that, Beasley’s path took him to England where he spent the winter of 1955 working in a gas company, with plans to return to the continent for the 1956 road season. But again bad luck intervened with a training fall and broken wrist which put an end to those hopes.
So John Beasley once again boarded the ship RMS Orcades for the five-week journey home to Melbourne in August of 1956. He would not ride the Tour de France again.
Beasley may not have finished his 1952 and 1955 Tour de France attempts. But he held his own on the world stage remarkably well considering the challenges he faced. During Beasley’s time in Europe his impressive list of races included the 1952 and 1955 World Road Championships, Tour of Luxembourg, Tour of Austria, Tour of Italy, Tour of Vaucluse, Vals les Baines, Tour de L’Ouest, Tour de Dauphine Libere, and many other minor races.
Back at home in Melbourne he was married in 1959, and eventually retired in 1961 after winning the Wonthaggi 140 mile Handicap Race (including fastest time) from second scratch (also known as the “chopping block”). In that same year John’s father JJ Beasley died, leaving him to run Beasley Cycles in Footscray which is stilll located at 127 Buckley Street where it opened in 1931.
John continued to ride and race infrequently after that. He won the Geelong Open 75 mile Road Race in July 1969. But with young children on the scene and responsibilities with the family business he had entered into a new phase of life.
John’s time in cycling had not ended however. Beyond his own career as a rider, Beasley also gave back to his beloved sport. His contributions to Australian cycling included working as the Australian cycling team mechanic for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982, the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, and the European lead up races to the Olympics.
John also guided his sons, John Jnr and Russell Beasley (named after Russell Mockridge) who both made names for themselves in Australian cycling and beyond. But those stories are from a different era and for another day.
Australian cycling promoter and journalist, Bill Long, once said about Beasley “During his hey-day John was really aggressive, he hated peace and was always prepared to have a go. Today’s riders lack this qualification” (Australian Cyclist, Aug 1969). And the great French champion Louison Bobet, after riding against Beasley in 1952, was reported to have said the Australian was world class and could win almost anything.
Such descriptions seem at odds with the man John Beasley in person, who is calm and modest about his cycling achievements. And looking at the wide smile beaming out of many photos of Beasley as a young man he looks too innocent to turn the pedals in anger. But turn the pedals he did, and he was clearly very good at it.
Despite the hardships John Beasley encountered as a young Australian cyclist trying his luck in Europe, and his disappointments along the way, you get the sense he has few regrets about any of it. Not even the time when a promoter offered him a race near the Spanish border, but failed to pay him after he had ridden 100s of miles to the start line and completed the race.
John beams like the 22-year-old adventurer again: “So I rode from the race as far as I could until the daylight gave out. I had a bit of money on me but I slept in a train station toilet block, and fed myself on oranges and other fruit from the nearby orchards.”
Those are John Beasley’s memories from his time in and around the Tour de France. Tough days remembered fondly.
For an excellent interview with John Beasley in 2011 with Alan Brough of ABC radio, listen here.