Tom Simpson – British Cycling’s Tragic Hero

Before Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish there was only one British Darling of the Tour de France. Tom Simpson, a man from humble beginnings would set so many firsts for British cyclists, he would go on to be the hero of British cycling until his tragic and untimely death at the age of just 29. So alone was he in the pantheon of British road cycling greats it would be two generations before many of his achievements would be matched by another British rider.

Tom Simpson was born in Haswell, County Durham on 30th November 1937 to his mother Alice and his father Tom, a former semi-professional sprinter turned coal miner. The youngest of six children he didn’t touch his first bicycle until he was twelve years old which belonged to his brother-in-law, sharing it with his elder brother Harry and two cousins. By the age of twelve the Simpson family had moved to Harworth in Nottinghamshire closer to Simpson’s aunt and Tom had joined the local cycling club riding time trials from the age of thirteen onwards. He delivered groceries on his bike as a child and used the time as training at one point trading his bike with that of a customer in order to get a better racing bike.

Slowly Simpson began winning time trials with the Harworth and District Cycling Club but sensed friction between him and some of the senior club members this lead him to leave the club and join up at nearby Rotherham at the age of 17. When he left school he became an apprentice draughtsman (doing technical drawings) at an engineering company in Retford some 10 miles from his home. The commute became his training route as Simpson became enamoured with the world of cycling and road cycling in particular.

Simpson was told that in order to improve his road racing chances then he needed more experience in track cycling, in particular the pursuit discipline. The pursuit is an endurance discipline in track cycling terms, raced over 4km, with many of the qualities required for road cycling. Two men on opposite sides of the track race each other race around in an attempt to catch each other. If someone is caught and over taken then they lose the race, but more often than not the race will continue until the distance is covered and the person who covers the distance in the fastest time is declared the winner. It requires drive, belief and a lot of individual pacing, often you will not be able to see your opponent you need to trust your pace and your ability in order to win, much like parts of road racing.

Simpson’s rise was rapid and he was selected as part of the 1956 Olympics Team pursuit squad, they won bronze but Simpson blamed himself for over cooking a corner from which they were unable to recover in the semi-final against Italy. In 1958 he won silver in the Commonwealth games in Cardiff in the individual pursuit but his affair with the track would only last until 1959. In Early 1959 Simpson moved to Brittany with £100 in savings and two bikes given to him by Manufacturer Carlton, 1 track bike and 1 road bike for his assistance in promoting their brand. He signed his first professional contract in that year for a whopping £80 per week with the St. Raphaël-Géminiani-Dunlop team. His progress in 1959 was good and he was moved to their first team squad Rapha-Gitane-Dunlop for the end of season classics.

In 1960 he took part in his first Tour de France, his team manager opposed his entry but as le Tour was contested by National squads at the time Simspon was invited by the British Squad to take part. He was involved in several breakaways and was placed as high as fifth after stage 2. He survived several crashes to finish 29th overall, a more than respectable performance for a rookie on the tour. Over the course of the tour Simpson had lost over 2 stones in weight.

In 1961 he accomplished one of his many firsts. After finishing 5th in one the tour of Paris-Nice he went to win the 1961 Tour of Flanders in March of that year, becoming the first and only British man to do so to date and the first British man to win one of cycling’s Monuments Classics in 65 years. The rest of the year would be a disappointment however; he was injured after being hit by a press car which was swerving to avoid a pot hole in the Paris-Roubaix whilst leading a solo attack out in front. He would injure his knee and require stitches finishing 88th. The knee injury bothered him for the rest of the year, though he was forced to enter the Tour de France that year he abandoned after stage 3.

When 1962 rolled around Simpson’s desire to lead a team resulted in his signing for Gitane-Leroux-Dunlop, his form was good going into the tour that year and he was the undisputed leader of that team. Simpson was well placed after stage 11 sitting 3rd overall as the tour moved to its first mountain stage. Simpson saw this as an opportunity to strike for the lead; he made his move over the legendary Col du Tourmalet working himself clear of his rivals for the Maillot Jaune, though he was eventually caught finishing 18th in a bunch sprint, he had put enough distance between him and his rivals to put him clear in the general classification and wear the Yellow Jersey. In accomplishing this feat he became the first ever British man to wear the Yellow Jersey and would remain the only Brit to do so for the next 32 years until the great Chris Boardman won the prologue of the 1994 tour. Despite a nasty crash in which he broke a finger in which he was only saved from disappearing over a cliff by a tree, he finished the tour in 6th place, which would remain the highest place by a British Rider until Bradley Wiggins would finish 3rd overall in the 2009 Tour followed by his and Chris Froome’s wins.

Early in 1963 Simpson won the 346 mile Bordeaux-Paris one day race attacking 22 miles from the end to win the longest race of his career. He opted against the Tour de France that year to concentrate on the world road race championship, it would finish in disappointment for him however as while he was involved in a break with plenty of quality riders, Simpson couldn’t get the other riders to work together and they were eventually caught and swollowed up into the Peloton.

Simpson’s next first would come in 1964 when he won the 55th edition of the Milan – San Remo classic, his second monuments classic and the only British rider to win until Mark Cavendish achieved the same some 44 years later. He rode the 1964 Tour de France finishing 14th overall, it was later that he discovered he’s ridden the entire tour with tapeworms!

ChampThe Rainbow Jersey, worn by the world champion would remain elusive for Simpson until 1965, after an ill-fated but heroic attempt in 1964 which saw Simpson come back from a crash to catch the leaders before being dropped towards the end finishing 6 seconds behind. In ’65 however he would achieve his goal. After being forced to abandon the Tour de France due to chronic bronchitis Simpson had a low key entry into the World Championships held in San Sebastián, Spain. The 14 lap course was set up nicely for Simpson, but the British team had little support and funding. They had to get by on what they could beg borrow and steal from other teams in order to support themselves. During the first lap a break was started by fellow brit Barry Hoban, Simpson and his team mates managed to bridge the gap to Hoban and form a strong breakaway. The pace of the break was strong and was enough to keep the other main contenders out of contention and with 2 and a half laps remaining Simpson and German rider Rudi Altig broke clear. They stayed together until the 1 kilometre mark when Simpson pounced. He held off Altig by three bike lengths to become Britain’s first ever world road race champion. It would be 46 years until there would be another Brit would wear rainbow Jersey when Mark Cavendish would win in 2011.

After his success in the world championships, Simpson won his 3rd monuments classic, the Giro di Lombardia, remaining the only Brit to win the race to this date, it was his third and last monuments classic win. To this day his 3 monuments classic wins are more than any other British Rider. Simpson began 1966 by breaking his leg in a Skiing incident; the injury hit season saw him suffer greatly leading to many retirements and disappointments throughout the year. The Rainbow Jersey would prove to curse him.

Simpson began planning his retirement in 1967 at the age of 29. He had planned to retire at the age of 33 so was gearing up for one last big contract. His contract was due to expire at the end of 1967 and as many as 10 teams were trying to sign him. He set himself the goal of winning the 1967 Tour de France, and if he couldn’t do that then at least win some stages or hold the Yellow Jersey for a period. Simpson had a verbal agreement with Italian team Salvarani who had offered him joint leadership of the team, the value of his potential contract would increase if he could achieve some or all of his goals meaning his retirement would be all the sweeter.

He began the season riding stage races as opposed the classics as he had earlier in his career, in March of ’67 he rode in the Paris-Nice stage race, which he would go on to win becoming the first British rider to achieve this, the next would be Bradley Wiggins 45 years later in his successful 2012 campaign. After the Milan-San Remo he rode the Vuelta a España as further warm up for the tour. This would be the only other one of cycling’s Grand Tours he would ride. He won Stages 5 and 16 of that tour finishing 33rd overall but there were worrying signs on that tour. On stage 11 Simpson began to lose control while out in front of the peloton and was forced to stop by his team manager until he had recovered. By the time he got going again the peloton had passed, it was unknown at the time but Simpson had visited hospital during the Vuelta.

Simpson targeted 3 key stages in the 1967 tour which he saw as key to securing his goals and in doing so his long term financial future, one of which was stage 13 over the mighty Mont Ventoux. Simpson was well placed going into the second week of the tour, placed 6th ahead of all his rivals for the Maillot Jaune. However Simpson fell ill before the tenth stage suffering sickness and diahorrea, unable to eat, and with his strength he lost time on his rivals and he dropped to 7th overall in the General Classification.

On the evening before stage 13, one which Simpson had targeted and while still desperately ill team manager Gaston Plaud pleaded with Simpson to withdraw due to illness, his manager on the other hand pushed him for better results. It was a debate won by his manager and its result would turn out to be fatal. Stage 13 from Marseille to Carpentras crossed the mighty Mont Ventoux, the weather was hot, extremely hot, with temperatures reportedly reaching as high as 54oC. Tour doctor Pierre Dumas was quoted as saying “If the boys stick their nose in a ‘topette’ [bag of drugs] today, we could have a death on our hands.“ and tragically that is exactly what happened.

During the stage, just before the of the slopes of Mont Ventoux around the base of the mountain, Simpson was seen by his team mechanic leaving a building along the route putting the lid back on his bottle. It later transpired he was adding brandy to his bottle. Towards the summit the peloton started to break up into smaller groups as the riders struggled with the climb. Simpson managed to break off into the lead group for a while before slipping back to a group about 1 minute back. Shortly after this he started to lose control of his bike weaving all over the road.

SimpsonVentouxAbout 1 kilometer from the summit Simpson fell, his team car caught up with him quickly to help. His team mechanic Harry Hall pleaded with Simpson to quit the race but Simpson insisted on continuing. Team manager Alec Taylor also in the car was told “If Tom, wants to go on, he goes.” Screaming at Hall to put the straps back on his pedals they pushed him off and off he climbed again. His last words heard by Hall were “ON ON ON”, They would be the last words anybody would hear him say. 500 yards later Simpson began to wobble again. He was caught by three spectators who tried to hold him up, before they gently lowered him to the ground. His hands still tightly gripping his handlebars as they lowered him to the ground. Hall and a tour nurse continued to give Simpson mouth to mouth before an oxygen mask was brought to the scene. 40 minutes later Simpson was airlifted to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

I wasn’t going to include the video of Simpson’s final moments in this article, after writing this article and studying Simpson for several days it was harrowing to basically watch a man die. However I did so for reasons which will hopefully become apparent.

In the pouches of Simpson’s Jersey were two empty tubes and one half empty tube of what was labelled Tonedron, an Amphetamine, which is stimulant. This stimulant, combined with brandy and the sickness diarrhea which he was struggling with formed a diuretic combination which combined with the intense heat would prove fatal. The cause was cardiac failure, at the age of 29 Tom Simpson rode to his death unknowingly riding past the limits of his body dying in his saddle with his hands tightly wrapped around his handlebars. He so high on amphetamines that he could no longer feel his body screaming at him to stop.

It is for that reason I included the video in this article. When ever people or athletes just accept that doping is just part of their sport, or when people make those silly jokes saying they’d love to see what happens when all the athletes are doped up to improve the spectacle remember that doping controls don’t just exist to ensure a fair an honest competition. Doping controls exist to save athletes from themselves, they are a different and competitive breed and will in most cases do anything to win and in many cases unwittingly risk their lives to do so.

Its important to note that Simpson broke no rules, there were no doping controls in cycling in the Tour de France at that time, and its certain Simpson was not the only on doping on that day. No safety controls existed in the tour either, In 1967 the tour was approximately 1000km (that’s not a typo) longer than its modern day counterpart.

Simpson’s death lead to the first mandatory drug tests in the 1968 Tour de France, along with the Summer Olympics and the Giro d’Italia of that year. Some in the cycling community view him as a Pariah, to others he was a hero and an inspiration to British cycling, the establishment seemingly less enthused to honour him than the flurry of riders quick to acknowledge the man.

Tom Simpson died 48 years ago today (13th July 2015), His memorial stands near the summit of Mont Ventoux and is considered a pilgrimage by cycling fans. It is often found covered in bottles, tyres, jerseys and other cycling paraphernalia left as tributes.