Tom Simpson, British Professional Cyclist
It’s riding the Tour that makes a cyclist immortal.
A working class boy from mining town in the East Midlands, Tom Simpson’s legacy was sealed during the baking hot summer of 1967. Five minutes away from the summit of the Mont Ventoux in the throws of a grueling Tour de France, Simpson collapsed, never to regain consciousness. His untimely death on the mountainside was a result of chronic dehydration, exhaustion and the rider’s fixation with a podium finish in Paris but, it was the drugs found in his system that have marred his name and become inextricably bound to his story. The events that took place on Mount Ventoux that July raised him up to a celestial status in cycling but, the controversy surrounding his death hangs heavy over his pioneering achievements like a dark, unforgiving crowd. Rather than being celebrated for his rock’n’roll racing style and relentless passion, he is often memorialised as “the one who died of dope.”
Joannne Simpson, Tom Simpson’s daughter, 2016
I’ve got the impression that that’s the only thing he’s remembered for : as the one who died of dope, the first one.
His latest biographer Andy McGrath, explains that “every time people go back to Ventoux, they are commemorating Simpson but also remembering his crime. People are always reminded of that that perceived transgression, the amphetamines, so he’s never really clear. He’s never really served his time.” On the 50th anniversary of that fateful day in sports history, McGrath felt that the time had come to revise the tarnished legend of the the man who gave his life to cycling. Bringing to light previously unseen photographs and untold stories from those closest to him, McGrath’s ‘Bird on the Wire’ chronicles Simpson’s extraordinary tale, from his humble beginnings to international fame. We sat down with the author to speak about the late cycling icon and why his story deserves a second look.
Andy McGrath, Authour, 'Bird on The Wire'
A professional cyclist’s career is a perpetual process of rolling ambition.
3 monument race wins. A yellow jersey. A world championship. An Olympic medal.
The most decorated British cyclist to date, Tom Simpson was the first Briton to wear the Tour’s prestigious yellow jersey and to take home the world race championship title. Often covering distances of 12,000 miles in under a month, he rode his way through some of cycling’s most notorious race courses standing head and shoulders above his rivals. In his short career, he went on to win three out of the five ‘Monuments’, the oldest, longest and most prestigious one-day races in professional cycling; the Tour de Flanders, Milan–San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia.
To understand the weight of Simpson’s achievements, it is crucial to contextualise what he did as a rider. As a lone Brit from a northern mining village, Simpson crossed the channel to face, and beat, native French, Belgian and Italian champions who were born into a heritage of road racing. Sir Bradley Wiggins, a rider who knows the 255km-long struggle of the cobbled climbs first hand, writes that the fact that Simpson won the Tour de Flanders when British cycling was in its infancy “almost defies belief”.
His former manager Raymond Louviot is quoted saying that, “Tom failed many times but, it is because he tried so much, so often that his record is so beautiful.” Although sometimes tactically naive, Simpson’s versatility and drive was unmatched on the road. A cut above the rest, he had a huge capacity for days of racing and travelling, yo-yoing between cobblestone races (not always getting the best results) to contending in the Tour de France and winning the World Championships.
McGrath explains that as the son of a mine conveyor worker, “Simpson was driven by something more than just a natural competitiveness, he had a necessity, he didn’t want to return to that place.” Steered by absolute dedication to the cause and the hope of a better life, he left for mainland Europe in the late 1950’s with “£100 in his jacket and a spare (bike) wheel in the boot of his car”. Although he often won big, professional cyclists didn’t get paid a salary in Simpson’s time and a string of bad races could lead to a decrease in earnings. Planning on leaving the racing scene in the early ‘70s, Simpson put all his efforts into winning the Tour in ‘67, carrying on through severe illness and exhaustion that would eventually take his life.
THE MAD ENGLISHMAN
Vin Denson, former teammate
He used to have a little bag (of hats) in his case. He had a clown’s one and a policeman’s bobby helmet on an elastic band, which he’d put over his crash hat.
Tom Simpson was a man of character and contradiction. Fifty years after he conquered the international cycling scene, he still captivates people around the world as a man who lived fast, playing both the gentleman and the rogue. Ahead of his time, Tom Simpson was savvy to the power of public image, he understood that the role of a professional cyclist was to be “an entertainer, a publicity agent and a sportsman all rolled into one.” Whilst Simpson wasn’t the greatest natural talent on the bike, he won the hearts of the public with his disarming charm and a persona that helped create his legend. To the press, he played on the British stereotype, posing as ‘Major Tom’, a tea-drinking, English country gent. Although the Major couldn’t have been further from his roots, at a time when English style led the world, he became a sensation.
His matinee-idol good looks, wit and heroic battles on the bike drew in a loyal fan base that would line the streets to cheer on a man who became much more cosmopolitan than the stuffy English Major. Pointing to his everyman appeal, McGrath quotes Jean Bobet, who described Simpson as “the first English Continental rider… ambitious like a Frenchman, selfish like a Spaniard, industrious like a German and versatile like a Fleming.”
A fascinating character with a penchant for a good time, Simpson was called “the first rock’n’roll cyclist” by director Shane Meadows. Scattered between the stony-faced race photography, McGrath’s book is illustrated with shots of the rider larking around in feather-topped hats and riding stocky donkeys before the Tour de France in ‘64. The post-race antics involving circus performers, monkeys and dancers serve only to add to the fantastic tale of the lone Brit on the road to unprecedented cycling greatness. During the research for his book, McGrath also unearthed stories about the late cycling icon that no-one could corroborate including a tale of “Simpson spending several nights performing on stage with Coco the Clown at Cirque d’Hiver in Paris one winter.”
Put me back on my bike
I love to see how far I can go, what risks I can get away with, which is why I always try the unexpected. But I’m never surprised when I win, I’m only surprised when I lose.
“Put me back on my bike”, although often misquoted as his last words, this phrase perfectly captures the attacking spirit Simpson bought to every race. Competing at a time when cycling was still an amateur sport in Britain, Tom Simpson’s trailblazing victories raised the country’s cycling scene out of non-existence and continue to inform the identities of British cyclists to this day.
Fanatical about gaining the upper hand on his European rivals, he trained relentlessly in treacherous conditions, paid the British World Championship team out of his own pocket and even found time to make his own saddles out of leather cut from his wife’s handbag. Although it has been said that he gave his life for cycling, McGrath’s book reminds us that we should also remember Simpson as a man who lived passionately, rode fearlessly and laughed hard.
Andy McGrath is the editor of Rouleur magazine. Having previously worked at Cycling Weekly and Cycle Sport, he has also written on cycling for The Guardian and Financial Times. He is the co-author of Official Treasures of the Tour de France and has contributed chapters to several volumes of The Cycling Anthology.
In researching Bird on the Wire, the author interviewed legendary names within cycling including Jan Janssen, Raymond Poulidor, Gianni Motta, Barry Hoban, Emile Daems, Brian Robinson, Vin Denson, Helen Hoban, Joanne Simpson, Henri Duez, Charly Wegelius, Dave Bonner, Billy Holmes, Keith Butler, Pete Ryalls and Professor Greg Whyte OBE. The book has also been awarded ‘2017 William Hill Sports Book of the Year’.
Published by Rapha Editions and produced by Bluetrain Publishing Ltd., Bird on the Wire is available at the Rapha bookstore, priced £36.
Images courtesy of Offside/L’Equipe