Before Bradley Wiggins there was Tom Simpson. Chris Webber found out about the legend of the Durham coalfields who died on his bike
EVEN at the point of death, Tom Simpson willed himself onwards.
His final words, as he lay dying on a French mountain were “go on, go on”. His hands, still gripping the bike, had to be prised off the handlebars by spectators.
He never uttered the oft-repeated last words of legend, “put me back on the bike”, often attributed to him that hot 1967 day during the Tour de France. Those words were almost certainly a journalist’s invention. And yet there’s a truth in the lie. For Simpson, the lad from Haswell, east Durham, would push himself to the limit, to the very point of death, in the name of victory.
Pushing himself meant an incredibly punishing training regime, diet, dedication and making his body go past the point of exhaustion.
And pushing himself also meant drugs.
Simpson, only 29 when he died, took a limited number of pills, and there is no doubt amphetamines, and brandy, played some part in his death through heat exhaustion, although many point out he was already unwell and had not drunk enough liquid.
But the rules were clear: drug taking was illegal.
And Tom, who was British cycling’s greatest hero for many decades, remains a divisive figure. Even as British cyclists, today the best in the word, led tributes to Simpson as they passed his memorial at Mont Ventoux, during the 2009 Tour, another, foreign, cyclist spat at it.
That was witnessed by Simpson’s daughter, Joanne, who lives in Belgium. She shrugged that off, declaring herself more touched that Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s first winner of the Tour, had a photograph of his hero, her dad, taped to his bike as he rode past the memorial.
It would be a mistake to equate the sophisticated drug-taking of genuinely peformanceenhancing drugs to what Simpson and many other cyclists were doing in the 1960s.
It was an unsophisticated time of cranky diets and crass, generalised imbibing of recreational drugs such as amphetamines, the value of which was debatable. For example, one widespread theory was dehydration, fatal to Simpson, was actually beneficial to the rider.
Simpson bought into all of it. One account says he would eat two or three kilogrammes of carrots in a single sitting in the name of one dubious theory.
Other cyclists would go for six-hour rides with a Mars bar and half a bottle of water, deliberately losing water and weight. It was all a long way from the advanced scientific performance- enhancing drug scene of the modern era.
Many in the British cycle scene want to rescue Tom Simpson from the drugs controversy, a controversy again engulfing seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, and highlight his genuine, massive achievements and remember the man.
Popular with fellow cyclists, fluent in French, married with children, and mediasavvy – he would often be photographed as a French fantasy of an Englishman, complete with bowler hat and umbrella – Simpson was a star who is a hero to the modern British cyclists.
Here’s what Wiggins said before cycling Mont Ventoux: “Tom will be watching over me on the Ventoux. For me, racing up there to try and get on the podium is a kind of homage to him.”
Wiggins, our greatest cyclist of all time, was careful to name-check his great hero at the moment of his Tour triumph this year. Mark Cavendish, Charly Wegelius and David Millar have also paid tribute, often and without equivocation.
After all Simpson was world champion, an Olympic bronze medalist at only 18, winner of several Classic races and the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey.
HE had guts, too. Borrowing £100 aged 19 and heading to France to turn professional, he won £250 in races by the end of his first month. He was already one of Britain’s youngest ever medal-winning Olympians.
And yet, according to Simpson’s nephew, Chris Sidwells, who has written a book, Mr Tom, about his uncle, the man himself, 11 years old by the time he moved south, was proud of his Durham roots. “ He was close to my mother, his sister, and once he came in a big white, fancy Mercedes car,” says Mr Sidwells.
He said Simpson would sometimes earn £1,000 a week, an astonishing amount at the time. “He said, come on, we’ll go up. I was there with them as a toddler. He took us all back up the A1 to Durham to visit his older sisters, who still lived up there.”
Mr Sidwells, who strongly argues the doping issue has been exaggerated and notes that the autopsy report has gone missing, said Simpson, the youngest of six, was born near the old train station in Haswell, in 1937 just before his father, Tom, a miner, started running Haswell Workingmen’s Club. Simpson’s older brother, Harry, the more obvious sporting prodigy, played cricket for Durham Juniors.
“It would be lovely if there was a memorial to him in Haswell and an opportunity. Shane Meadows, the director is supposed to be making a film of his life, so it would a great time for Haswell to do it.”
That Tom Simpson is a controversial figure is true. But, undeniably, he is one of our region’s greatest sportsmen. At a time when British cycling is the best in the world, now would be a good time to remember the man who gave his life to his sport.