Tour of Britain: 1965 cycling doping scandal remembered

Roger Pratt
Image caption Roger Pratt at the start of the Cardiff to Aberystwyth stage

As the Tour of Britain speeds through Wales on its latest stage, Cardiff cyclist Roger Pratt has vivid memories of riding in the dramatic 1965 race which provided the first doping scandal in the sport.

Featuring three tough stages through Wales, it caused a near riot among the riders and a media sensation.

The tour used to be something of an anomaly - an internationally renowned bike race in a country with no real heritage of the sport.

After a few false starts, the race thrived with sponsorship from the Milk Marketing Board, leading to it becoming widely known as the Milk Race.

Pratt was Welsh road race champion in 1965, aged 20, but was not initially picked to ride.

He got his break when the French riders dropped out at the last minute and he was included in a hastily formed Britannia team.

The race had already covered 393 miles (632km) by the time it reached Wales and Pratt was enjoying every minute of it.

"I remember getting in a break through the New Forest, it was absolutely fantastic, wide roads, the traffic was stopped, there were about six of us; Belgians, French and some English lads working together in the break, but it was just a wonderful sensation, that's one thing that sticks in my mind," he said.

Just as the Tour de France heads to the Alps or Pyrenees to spice up the racing action, so the Tour of Britain comes to Wales for its mountains.

Stage five, 99 miles (159km) between Cardiff and Aberystwyth, was by far the toughest stage of the race up to that point, with Pratt describing it as "hell on wheels".

Image caption Roger Pratt (in blue) rides with a small bunch across Epynt in mid Wales on stage five

"After Llanwrtyd Wells it got worse as we had Devil's Staircase, then another two climbs which were almost as bad, and eventually winding our weary way into Aberystwyth. Very, very hard."

Although officially an amateur race, the riders from Spain and Poland were virtually professional, as they rode for trade teams and "didn't do anything other than ride their bikes," according to Pratt.

The Spaniards tore the race apart, with Luis Pedro Santamarina and Jose Gomez breaking away and winning the stage by over eight minutes ahead of the shattered bunch, giving Santamarina the race lead.

More horror awaited in the mountains between Aberystwyth and Llandudno, with riders reduced to walking up the Bwlch-y-Groes and tackling a bruising stage finish up the Great Orme.

As the race progressed, the British riders fought back and dented Santamarina's lead, but going into the last day at Morecambe, he looked certain to take the overall win.

However, a new innovation was being trialled at that year's race - dope testing. Pratt himself was tested twice and reckoned everyone had been tested by the end of the tour.

Santamarina, the race leader and stage winner in Aberystwyth, was dramatically disqualified, along with two other Spaniards and Ken Hill from Liverpool.

"It came as a terrible shock when we got the news that four riders had had positive tests," race organiser Harry Merrell told the BBC at the time.

"We thought at one time we were going to have a riot on our hands," he said of the Spanish team's reaction to the news that three of their riders had been disqualified.

It was treated as a sensation by the media, and featured on several tabloid front pages.

The incident allowed Les West, from Stoke-on-Trent, the chance to get up the road on the last stage to Blackpool and snatch the overall win.

For Pratt, the race had a more downbeat finish. Feeling a sense of anti-climax, he wished the race had gone on for another week, disregarding how tough the previous two weeks had been.

He got the train home and rode the same bike he had just been racing around Britain to work the following Monday.

After five hard years of racing and training, he retired, feeling he was not good enough to make the jump to racing on the continent and not wanting to ride the same races year after year in Britain.

But it is clear Pratt would be lining up with the riders in Welshpool in this year's Welsh stage of the Tour of Britain if he could ride the race on pure passion alone.

"I just love road racing, it's absolutely wonderful.

"It's like a Greek or Roman epic, for hours and hours you're there, with your band of brothers, the weather is against you, the other riders are up against you, and try and ambush you whenever they can," he said.

"I was very pleased that I was able to finish the Milk Race - not everyone does."

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