As the Tour de France starts in London tomorrow, Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson revisits one of the race's most controversial incidents and aak if a County Durham man has been unfairly branded a drugs cheat

NEXT Friday, the world's leading cyclists will set out from Semur-en-Auxois and travel 200km to Bourg-en-Bresse on the sixth stage of the Tour de France. At the same time, some 300km to the south, a smaller band of cyclists from the Harworth and Bircotes Sports and Social Club will make the tortuous trek to the summit of Mont Ventoux in the heart of Provence.

Two very different journeys, with two very similar aims. While cycling's elite aim to show that their sport is not the drug-fuelled circus it has appeared in recent years, a hardy band of Midlanders are hoping to prove that one of cycling's most infamous drug-cheats has been similarly misunderstood.

To understand their battle is to travel back to a world in which cycling was king. Its heroes were as famous as the Beatles, its races were watched by millions, and one of its most celebrated practitioners was the son of a pitman from Co Durham.

Born and raised in the mining village of Haswell, Tom Simpson had already been crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year when he began 1967's Tour de France. By July 13, at about the halfway stage, he was dead, sprawled on the road close to the summit of Mont Ventoux.

At first, his death appeared to be an heroic mixture of bravery and defiance. Exhausted by the 35C heat, Simpson collapsed and fell off his bike as his body reached the limits of human endurance. Harry, his team mechanic, leapt from the following support car, only to be told: "Put me back on the bloody bike".

He acceded but, just 500 yards later, Simpson collapsed again and this time there was to be no second chance. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital at Avignon but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Had the story ended then, Simpson would have been lauded as one of Britain's greatest sporting heroes. Instead, the following 48 hours would tarnish his reputation forever.

A preliminary investigation at Avignon showed that Simpson's jersey pockets held three small tubes. Two were empty, but the third contained a combination of Stenamina and Tonedrin tablets, amphetamines that had first been handed out to American bomber crews in the Second World War.

Before that point, drug taking had been tacitly accepted within the cycling fraternity. Once the autopsy tests on Simpson's body were confirmed, though, Pandora's Box was opened. As recent events have proved, it has never been closed since.

The response was immediate. While the riders on the Tour closed ranks in support of a fallen colleague, the wider world condemned Simpson as a cheat. The influential Cycling magazine argued that he should be stripped of his achievements and the French authorities refused him a public burial on the mountain where he collapsed.

Even today, 40 years later, the anti-drugs lobby point to Simpson's death as the moment when cycling embarked on a drug-fuelled journey that brought the sport to its knees. Four of the Tour de France's last five winners have either been disqualified for drug taking or been implicated in one of the many crises that have turned professional cycling into a bizarre laboratory experiment. Even Lance Armstrong, seen as the sport's saviour after beating off cancer to record seven successive Tour titles, has been unable to shake off L'Equipe's allegations that he used the performance-enhancing drug EPO during the 1999 tour, a claim he continues strenuously to deny.

Simpson is repeatedly derided as the forefather of the likes of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis and Jan Ullrich, riders who have become more famous for their drug-taking than their achievements on the road. The connection is an obvious one, but to Simpson's supporters in Harworth, the Nottinghamshire pit village he called home after the family left the North-East in the 1950s, it is also disingenuous.

When today's riders choose to take drugs, they do so in the knowledge that they are breaking the rules and, as the deaths of some 20 cyclists in Belgium and Holland between 1987 and 1990 prove, also placing their life in danger. When Simpson was taking 'La Bomba' in the 1960s, he was indulging in a pursuit that, while hardly welcomed, was at worst accepted. With medical technology still at an early stage of development, it was also perceived to be no more dangerous than the glass of cognac before a particularly gruelling mountain stage.

"What a lot of people writing about drugs in sport now don't understand is that what was happening in cycling in the 1960s wasn't the same as what they see now," says Pete Ryalls, Simpson's team-mate on the 1961 Tour and one of the riders who will take part in next week's mission to Mont Ventoux.

"What you've got to realise is that there was no such thing as banned stimulants for much of that decade. Stimulants were taken by everybody. It was almost a ritual. The stimulants, generally speaking, were amphetamines of various strengths, various types. There was caffeine. And you took alcohol in the last 20 miles. It was like eating steak for breakfast. Nobody eats steak for breakfast any more, but if you went on the Tour you had it raw. Everybody did it, that's how it was.

'So, yes, I feel sad that Tom's reputation has been sullied by the new emphasis on drugs in sport. In the days we're talking about, it wasn't the same."

It is probably too late to rebuild Simpson's reputation entirely. Drug-taking has become such an issue within cycling that anyone wanting to absolve a proven cheat, even one as seemingly pardonable as Simpson, leaves themselves open to accusations of hastening the sport's demise.

Cycling's rulers do not have an agreed view on Simpson's story but, on his blog on the British Cycling website, British Cycling President Brian Cookson writes: "Tom Simpson should still be with us today, an elder statesman, an icon for the young riders we are bringing so successfully into our sport. He let us down. I understand the thought processes he went through, the moral conundrums he faced. But still, he made the wrong choice and he paid the ultimate price."

In the face of such opposition, it would be equally easy for Simpson's supporters to give up their fight. The reason they refuse is best summed up by Simpson's daughter, Joanne.

"What I want to do," she says, "is build steps in front of the memorial (on Mont Ventoux), so that everyone can access the stone and pay their respects to Britain's greatest-ever racing cyclist and my father, Tom Simpson."

Despite the weight of opposition, her dream should be closer to becoming reality by next Friday.