PEZ Interviews: Brit Pursuit Legend Hugh Porter
It’s 37 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday; my mum and dad had gone to bed and I was sitting alone in front of the TV. The World Track Cycling Championships were being held at Leicester on the big outdoor track, the English summer had lived-up to expectation, rain had wrecked the schedules and the racing was taking place late in the evening.
I was captivated, I knew nothing about bike racing, but this was the coolest thing; a tall, slim guy, was on this sleek bicycle, the spokes gleaming under the floodlights, it was hard to tell man and bike apart, they looked like one, his back was parallel to the track and he wore a snarl, like a tiger.
He caught this other guy who had started opposite him on the track, the gun fired and the commentator told me that; “Hugh Porter from Wolverhampton is the 1970 world professional pursuit champion!” Right there and then, I knew there would never be any other sport for me.
It’s not often you get to interview your hero, so when I saw he was at Stuttgart, commentating on the races for BBC 2 TV, there was no way he was getting away.
Pez: How old are you, Hugh?
Hugh: That’s classified!
(We both laughed, a good start, the ice was broken)
Pez: You’re a broadcaster now?
Hugh: Yes, I’m commentating on the Worlds for BBC 2 television. I started in local broadcasting in the 70’s, I did a weekly sports programme, I covered football for five years. I moved-on from there and now I get paid to talk about what I love! I did the Tour of Britain and Mountain Bike Worlds for the BBC television too. I also do a lot of “speaking”, for example I did the opening ceremony for the Tour in London. I commentate on other sports – swimming, speed skating and triathlon, but cycling is my first love.
Pez: Four world titles; seven years straight on the podium of the world pro pursuit championships?
Hugh: Yes, that’s right, plus I was third in the world amateur pursuit champs in 1963 and I won the Commonwealth title in 1966, it was 12 years before my Commonwealth record was beaten and that was by a rider on a low-profile machine. I won the pro title in ’68, ’70, ’72 and ’73. The silver medals were ’67, ’69 and the bronze was ’71.
Pez: Which title gave you most satisfaction?
Hugh: It’s hard to pick one out, but obviously the first is always special. The third one was special too; in 1969 I suffered the embarrassment of Ferdi Bracke, who was a Vuelta-winner, catching me in the final at Antwerp on the tiny track there, so when I beat him in the final in ’72 to take my third title, it was revenge! The last title was a special one too, because it meant I had set the absolute record for pro pursuit title wins. (Track racing is now ‘open’, so Porter’s record of four titles cannot be broken).
Pez: How did you compete against guys like Bracke, Ritter and Pijnen on a diet of British domestic racing, with its one hour criteriums format?
Hugh: I get asked that a lot, but if you think about it, regular short criterium racing isn’t such bad preparation for pursuiting. It’s a good way to get sharp, the tempo is high and you’re working your cardio system hard. But I enjoyed training and I was religious about my preparation. I’d do road work in the mornings then I’d be behind the motor bike in the afternoon. I guess you would say that I trained by ‘touch and feel’, listening to my body, seeing how I felt, watching how I was sleeping. Now, it’s all about laptops, but I think it’s just a different approach, the end results are similar. Despite the fact that I wasn’t riding a continental programme, I was arriving at the championship in as good shape as any of them.
Pez: Why did you never go abroad, there must have been offers?
Hugh: I did spend the winters abroad, I based myself in Belgium, near Ghent, I used to ride a full programme of winter sixes and stayed over there from the end of September to March. I did get an offer from an Italian road team, and it would have been nice to be a ‘big roadman’ but there’s the possibility you would end-up a little fish in a big pool. Plus, I was happy living my life as I did, I enjoyed my training and racing as it was.
Pez: What do you think of the track worlds date change to early in the year?
Hugh: I think it’s hard to come to terms with; the world track championships were always the pinnacle of the season and to have them coming out of the winter isn’t a good idea. It was supposed to be so that the roadmen would ride, but that hasn’t happened. The road worlds date change wasn’t good either, it’s too late in the season. It’s been cyclo-cross weather for these time trial championships.
Hugh is a now a regular fixture with the media, interviewing riders like Maggy Backstedt.
Pez: In a world of SRM cranks and pulse monitors, how do your old training plans compare?
Hugh: Like I was saying, I placed a lot of store on how I felt. I was a great believer in training on low gears, 42 x 16 usually, I only ever went as high as 50 x 15 in pursuits. I think I was doing a lot of work which they say now, would give me good ‘thresholds’, but it was all down to knowing myself, gauging how fatigued I was and training accordingly.
Pez: How about bikes?
Hugh: My wife bought me a Colnago C50 for my birthday, and it’s amazing, compared to my old bikes. The bike I won my titles on, is still hanging on the wall at Raleigh. I have this notion to get one of the top British track guys, like big Rob Hayles (former madison and team pursuit world champion and worlds individual pursuit medallist) to go for five K on that old bike; conventional position, 531 steel tubing, with the same gearing and toeclips and straps. It would be interesting to see what he would do. I used to be able to do sub-six minutes on it for five K, but there’s not many could; just me, Bracke and Faggin at that time, I think. When Chris Boardman went for the ‘Athletes Hour’, his first five K was 6-04. I remember talking to Graeme Obree and he said; ‘5-59 on an ordinary bike? That’s quick!’
Hugh: [Without hesitation] I wish had gone for the world hour record. Bracke and Ritter both broke it and I beat both of them. People said I had the speed, style and souplesse (French, meaning flexibility or lightness of pedalling style) to go for it, but it’s just such an expensive thing to organize and it’s not like you can just go out and do it.
In the ‘bible’ of the world’s greatest cyclists, ‘Gotha’, it says of Porter; “Wonderful cycling athlete with a remarkably harmonious style.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone write that about you?