Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of cyclist Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, a moment in time that still haunts the sport, as Nick Westby discovers.
The Tour de France beats a path across the Pyrenees from Pau to the ski resort of Peyragudes today but for many in the peloton, and for the millions watching back home, thoughts will inevitably turn to events half a century ago on the ascent of the ‘Giant of Provence’.
On July 13, 1967, Tom Simpson – a former world champion raised in Harworth near Doncaster – died a mile from the summit of Mont Ventoux as he chased his dream of winning the Tour de France.
It is a seminal moment in the chequered history of cycling, one that fuses one man’s bloody-minded determination with the sport’s endless war on drugs. And it is a chapter that still resonates in the sport today.
Simpson had been a pioneer for British cycling, leaving his hometown in the mining heartland of England for mainland Europe in the late 1950s to pursue his dream with “£100 in his jacket and a spare (bike) wheel in the boot of his car”.
He excelled at it as well, the crowning moment coming in 1965 when he won cycling’s world title, an honour that elevated him into the public consciousness and earned him the BBC’s Sports’ Personality of the Year award. He was the embodiment of the swashbuckling sportsman of the swinging Sixties; hugely successful with a little bit of devilment in him.
He was the Bradley Wiggins of his time. He was right out there, he was driven, ambitious, self-motivated. It is an amazing story of someone up against the odds, and it’s a poignant end.Author, Jeremy Whittle
He was a history maker, having become the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader in 1962, and five years later he was in contention again to not only wear but claim his sport’s most famous piece of clothing.
Placed sixth after the first week, Simpson had maneuvered himself into position to challenge when stomach pains and diarrhoea struck. What happened that day on the 13th stage from Marseille to Carpentras, via Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’ as it is known, has become cycling legend.
There are various accounts, but the story goes that 29-year-old Simpson was struggling on Ventoux in the 40 degree heat and fell off his bike as the summit neared.
Simpson was reported to have said ‘put me back on my bike’, though some accounts suggest they were not his exact words, even if they do sum up his unbreakable desire.
Harry Hall, his team’s chief mechanic, helped Simpson back onto his saddle but within another 500 yards, and less than a mile from the summit of Ventoux, Simpson fell again, and would not get back up.
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.
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.
What grabs the headlines is the drug use, the scourge of cycling then...and now. But 50 years on, mystery still surrounds the death of Tom Simpson.
His daughter Joanne and the Simpson family have never seen the autopsy report and never will because it was destroyed after 30 years.
That revelation was discovered by renowned cycling author Jeremy Whittle when researching his book Ventoux: Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence, the story of the legendary mountain that would not be complete without the retelling of how a miner’s son from County Durham became so synonymous with that arid landscape.
“Joanne Simpson pursued the autopsy in Avignon because she wanted to get some clarification as to what was actually found in his body,” says Whittle, who has spent more than two decades covering the Tour de France.
“Unfortunately the autopsy was destroyed after 30 years. She maintains that people don’t know what the exact cause of death was.
“All these things were reported in the papers, but her family has never seen the autopsy and now they never will. To them, this idea that he died of pills just doesn’t ring true. They say it could have been a combination of factors; heat exhaustion, dehydration, heart attack.
“I don’t dispute for a minute that he had experience of pharmaceutical assistance, whether Tom Simpson died because he was exhausted and had a heart attack, or whether he died because of drugs. Would he have got over the mountain had he not used amphetamines? He was so close, that’s the irony. If he’d have got over the top you imagine he would have been okay.”
Simpson’s death sent shockwaves through the sport because of the drug revelations, but it was not a warning that was heeded.
If anything, it made doping in the sport more sophisticated.
“In that era there were no anti-doping controls,” continues Whittle. “Riders did whatever they wanted to, they took whatever magic pills or potions they thought would help them.
“He was in the middle of that culture and you have to put it into the context of that time.
“This wasn’t a time of corporate doping or massively-funded, laboratised doping of Lance Armstrong and others of that particular generation, who had carefully contructed programmes. That is completely different to Tom Simpson being told ‘take one of these it’ll make you feel good’ which is pretty much what it was.”
As well as the drugs, the thin line between what is safe and what is hazardous is still relevant in the cycling of today, with Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte crashing out of this year’s Tour de France only on Sunday, because the slippery descent of a mountain proved too dangerous.
“Tom Simpson’s death is a flag of what could happen when the Tour goes too far,” adds Whittle.
“It was a seminal moment, a pivotal moment where people realised that you can’t act like it’s the Wild West, you have to have some duty of care and you have to have regulations and a sense of responsibility to the riders.
“Cycling is still the Wild West and it’s a shame the Tour hasn’t gone back to Ventoux for the 50th anniversary. I understand why because of the negative publicity, but you never forget, you always remember that this guy died because he pushed it too far, and it’s a great reminder to people that it’s only a bike race, it’s not life and death.”
Tour de France organisers might have turned a blind eye this year, but the family of Simpson will never forget.
They plan to be on Ventoux today, paying their respects at a memorial stone that has become a mecca for cycling professionals, amateurs and fans. Tom’s daughter Joanne will ride to the summit before unveiling 13 granite steps to the memorial.
“He was the Bradley Wiggins of his time,” concludes Whittle. “He was right out there, he was driven, ambitious, self-motivated.
“It is an amazing story of someone up against the odds, and it’s a poignant end.”
In praise of a cycling extrovert
Two of Tom Simpson’s peers pay tribute to his legacy in Cycle Yorkshire, a book charting the county’s cycling heritage by former The Yorkshire Post journalist Jonathan Brown.
Brian Robinson, the first British rider to complete the Tour de France, helped Simpson adjust to life on the continent. Mirfield’s Robinson said: “Tom was erratic, fun to be with, an extrovert. Tom had the ability to win without drugs and that’s the sad bit. But one starts and the other says ‘I need to beat him, so I’ll take this’. Tom’s fault was he had to win.”
Stanley-born Barry Hoban, the first Briton to win a mountain stage of the Tour, was one of Simpson’s team-mates during that fateful day in 1967. “He was the person who really inspired me,” said Hoban.