I was asked to write a feature about the recent Tour de France recently for a magazine here in Asia and instead pitched them an idea about a story called ‘The Unknown Tour de France.’ The idea was to introduce readers to some of the characters from Tours gone by who are in large part forgotten, or unknown to many younger fans.
Thomas Simpson (30 November 1937 – 13 July 1967) was one of Britain’s most successful cyclists of all time, a rider whose life was tragically cut short at the age of just 29, on the slopes of the iconic Mt. Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France.
A naturally gifted cyclist, he won a bronze medal for track cycling at the 1956 Summer Olympics and a silver at the 1958 Commonwealth Games. In 1959, at age 21, Simpson decided that he must move to France if his dream to become a pro bike rider was to be realised. So many young hopefuls would follow in his footsteps, guided by the light of the star Simpson would establish.
In April of that year Simpson left for France with £100 savings. “I don’t want to be sitting here in twenty years’ time, wondering what would have happened if I’d gone to France,” his mother later remembered him saying.
Incredibly, after impressing in some local amateur races, a year later he would start his first Tour de France, riding for the French professional team Raphael-Gitane-Dunlop, but not before debuting at Paris-Roubaix. Simpson launched an attack that formed as an early breakaway, then rode alone at the front for the final 40 km but was caught just two kilometres from the finish at Roubaix Velodrome, coming in ninth – all this in his first big race. Simpson rode a lap of honour after the race at the requests of the emotional crowd. His televised effort gained him attention throughout Europe and won him a place in the hearts of European cycling fans.
In 1961 he won the Tour of Flanders, which truly announced his arrival among the top riders in the sport. Simpson then rode the 1962 Tour de France and became the first British rider to wear the Yellow Jersey, finishing sixth overall.
In 1963 Simpson moved to Peugeot – Engelbert, winning Bordeaux-Paris that year and the 1964 Milan-San Remo. In 1965 he became Britain’s first road World Champion and also won the highly coveted Giro di Lombardia. He won two stages of the 1967 Vuelta a Espana and the GC of Paris-Nice that same year.
In his biography of Simpson, Bird on the Wire, Andy McGrath points out what made the humble Yorkshire lad so popular.
“While Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil were veritable gods, Tom Simpson was a kid from a British mining town who worshipped at their altar like everyone else, and came to compete on the same plane. He was not the greatest natural talent or a conjurer of magic, but a man who maintained an emotional transparency on and off the bike. His heart-on-the-sleeve suffering was clear to see and his outlook on life was humble.”
Humble he may have been but Tom Simpson was a sharp operator too and way ahead of his generation when it came to promoting himself as more than ‘just a rider’. After his early successes in Europe, Simpson was featured in the French press projecting the idealised image of a British gent, complete with bowler hat and umbrella – and bike, of course. In another he is seen at a French cafe drinking tea and reading The Times in a suit that Bradley Wiggins could learn a thing or two from (Wiggins once described Simpson as ‘the most complete British rider ever”). After this stunt he was nicknamed “Major Tom’.
Simpson once said in an interview that it was a pro athlete’s job “to secure as much publicity as possible for his sponsors: he is an entertainer, a publicity agent and a sportsman all rolled into one, in that order. It is up to the rider to get all the publicity he can: publicity for the cyclist means publicity for the sponsor and that means that people get to know of his products and buy them, whether they be wines, refrigerators or washing machines.”
There was another side to his character though, a vindictive streak and a condescension that he reserved for a select few whom he felt were not his equal.
Chris Sidwells, Simpson’s nephew, said that “Tom was very flippant with people. He was very like Bradley Wiggins. There were several tones – like there are several Bradley Wiggins. It depends which one gets up – and who you are – because if he didn’t like you, he would be really flippant. And he could be quite vindictive, as well.”
One day Simpson single-handedly chased down fellow British rider Barry Hoban in the break. “Barry said: ‘Why did you chase me down? You had all your team to do that.’ And he said: ‘Because I’m the number one British cyclist in Europe, not you.’”
Well, that’s racing cyclists for you! (Says a former racer… *cough*.)
Simpson was a trailblazer in other ways too, with strict nutrition plans at different times of the year to be sure he stayed in top shape. He was also one of the first riders to explore thoroughly the connection between power and weight, keeping his frame so lean that he once had the nickname The Swallow.
Yet all of Simpson’s great achievements on the bike are unfortunately overshadowed by his untimely demise. On July 13, 1967, he collapsed and died a mile from the summit of Mont Ventoux as he chased his dream of winning the Tour de France.
Placed sixth after the first week, Simpson had manoeuvred himself into position to challenge for the GC when stomach pains and diarrhoea struck after Stage 12. What happened that day on the 13th stage from Marseille to Carpentras, on Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’ as it is known, has become cycling legend for all the wrong reasons.
Simpson was struggling on Ventoux in the 40 degree heat and fell off his bike as the summit neared.
Team manager Alec Taylor and Harry Hall arrived in the team car. Hall, the team mechanic, did his best to persuade Simpson to stop, imploring him: ”Come on Tom, that’s it, that’s your Tour finished”, but Simpson was having none of it. Simpson’s words were not the oft-quoted ‘Put me back on the bike”, but were, as remembered by Hall, “On, on, on.” Metronomic, just like all those pedal turns that took him from Yorkshire to the Yellow Jersey and onto Ventoux on this fateful day, just like the steely determination to become one of the greats that drove him so hard.
Taylor said, “If Tom wants to go on, he goes”. Looking down to see his toe straps were still undone, Simpson said, “Me straps, Harry, me straps!” This was to be his last known utterance.
Hall helped Simpson back onto his saddle but within another 500 yards, and less than a mile from the summit, Simpson fell again and did not get back up. He was a man dragging himself on in pursuit not just of glory but also by money, and he tortured himself in the pursuit of both. His eyes rolled back into his head. He was unconscious but still gripping the handle bars when his limp body was lifted to the roadside where mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was attempted. Simpson was declared dead later that afternoon after being airlifted to Avignon Hospital.
The next day the peloton decided to pay their respects to Major Tom by allowing his teammate Barry Hoban to ride clear of the pack to take a hugely emotional win.
According to the autopsy, Simpson had amphetamines and alcohol in his body, which, combined with the diarrhoea, the oppressive heat and the gradient of Ventoux, contributed to his death. Two empty tubes of amphetamine were found in his back pocket, and another that was half empty. It is easy to judge and to blame the cyclist, but this was an era in which the use of amphetamines in the sport was widespread. Indeed, it was a time when so little was known about the effect of long distance cycling on the body that alcohol such as whiskey and brandy were often added to the riders’ water bottles by the team managers. Other riders carried small flasks in their pockets.
How many of Simpson’s competitors at the Tour might have been thinking ‘that could have been me’?
As a result of Simpson’s death, doping tests were brought into the sport. Several factors – a wealth of natural talent, the desire to win, the need for financial success and a media and fan base that lionised those who put in superhuman performances – all contributed to his death. The very same factors lead others to dope still today. Unfortunately, the lessons his sad passing offered are still not heeded by some.
Now, a granite memorial to Simpson, with the words “Olympic medallist, world champion, British sporting ambassador”, stands on the spot where he collapsed and died on Ventoux, one kilometre east of the summit. In this year’s Tour de France, British rider Mark Cavendish rode past the monument on the stage and took off his helmet, to pay his respects to Mr Tom Simpson.
Joanne Simpson, Tom’s daughter, often visits the memorial on Ventoux. “I just like to be here, I feel my dad is here rather than buried in England,” she said.
Tom Simpson: gone, never forgotten.