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Tomorrow, Bradley Wiggins will roll down the ramp and begin the short, 6.4km (4 mile) Prologue around the Belgian city of Liège that will signal the start of the 2012 edition of the Tour de France. Wiggins, in the form of his life after back to back victories this Spring, will be aiming to ensure that he starts the Tour de France in the manner he hopes he will end it – wearing the coveted yellow jersey of the race leader, the maillot jaune.
Should he triumph in Liège – and many expect him to do so – then he will be joining a short, but illustrious list of British cyclists who have worn the most famous article of clothing in all of sport. Sean Yates, Chris Boardman and David Millar – all phenomenal athletes, but their tenure in the maillot jaune was fleeting and none of them came even close to triumphing in Paris.
Wiggins is an avid student of cycling history, so if he is seeking motivation from the past he will no doubt cast his mind back a little further into the annals of cycling lore and draw on the spirit of his childhood inspiration and arguably the greatest British cyclist to ever ride a bike in anger – the majestic Tom Simpson.
It will not be lost on Wiggins that Simpson, who literally rode himself to death on the parched slopes of Mount Ventoux in the Tour of 1967, became the first ever British cyclist to wear the maillot jaune exactly 50 years ago. Half a century on and this might just be the year that a British rider is helped into the jersey in Paris. Tom Simpson’s name will forever be associated with the tragic events that unfolded in the fierce Provençal heat of that July afternoon. His premature and horribly public death may be the lasting image of Simpson, yet one should never forget that it was his tenacious racing style on the road and his charm and charisma off it that catapulted him to fame in Continental Europe and at home. His historic performance in the 1962 Tour was dovetailed by victories in some of the most famous cycling races in Europe and a World Championship, all of which combined to secure him lucrative contracts and lasting notoriety.
Elegant and handsome, with a ready smile, Simpson was nicknamed ‘Major Tom’ by the French Press – a name borrowed from the fictional Major Thompson – an English gentleman living in France and the hero of a series of books written by Pierre Daninos in the 1950’s. Simpson was happy to play along with this association and newsreel and newspaper photographs record him impeccably dressed in Savile Row tweed, bowler hat perched over his angular features and clutching a cane umbrella. With his love of fast cars and the finer things in life, Simpson was, in every way, the successful expat enjoying the high life in Paris.
One should not forget that the esteem and affection in which he was held was rooted firmly in his innate brilliance as a cyclist. Fast, bold and impulsive, Simpson’s instinct was always to attack. The defining characteristic of his riding style however, and one of the fundamental contributing factors to his death, was his willingness to push his body to levels of physical exhaustion that other riders would shy away from. Yet his ‘British Bulldog’ spirit was respected by his fellow professionals and his panache celebrated by his legion of fans. Simpson embraced the French public and they, in turn, loved him all the more for it and cheered his name as if he was one of their own.
Simpson grew up in Nottinghamshire in the Midlands of England, but the amateurish British road racing scene could not accommodate his precocious talent and in the Spring of 1959, at the age of only 21, he crossed the Channel in the hope of pursuing a career in the professional peloton in France. By the Summer, following several victories on the amateur French circuit, he was signed by the French Pro team Raphael Geminiani. The step up from the amateur to the professional scene can be a cruel awakening that can break even the most gifted and promising young riders. Simpson would have been expected to acquit himself well within the team in the hope that his results, performances and hunger for success would ensure his contract was renewed.
Simpson, however, had other ideas and his consistently good results in his first year as a neo-pro indicated that this was one cyclist impatient for success. His audacious solo breakaway in the 1960 edition of Paris-Roubaix signalled that intent and brought him instant fame on the Continent. Furthermore, his post race interview, confidently conducted in fluent French, demonstrated how integrated the 22 year old Simpson had become within a year of moving to France.
Simpson was soon to achieve greater notoriety in his first Tour de France a few months later. Making his debut in the premier cycling stage race, he came close to wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the second day, narrowly missing out on a time bonus that would have given him a slender lead. He was to limp into Paris, battered and bruised and well down the field in 29th place, but his performance cemented his reputation with Continental cycling fans and the international media. And, if further indication was needed, marked him out as a potential winner of the Tour.
Simpson abandoned the 1961 Tour de France due to a knee injury, but he arrived in in the French town of Nancy for the start of the 1962 edition in good condition. He was wiser and from his previous outings knew what demands the next three weeks would entail, both physically and mentally. Better still, he was newly signed to the French Gitane Leroux team, which included some very experienced and proven Tour riders. The first week of the race proved uneventful. Simpson working doggedly with his new team mates to ensure their team leader, the Frenchman André Darrigade, remained in contention for the maillot jaune. As the riders and the circus that follows them headed south-west towards the Pyrenees, no one, least of all Simpson himself, had any sense that cycling history was about to be rewritten.
On the morning of 5 July the riders set off on Stage 12 from Pau, a town nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. The 130 mile route was the first high mountain stage of the Tour. At first, the peloton snaked its way up into the Hautes-Pyrénées as one, but as the riders hit some of the most iconic and demanding climbs in the region – the Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin and finally the Peyresourde, they became increasingly strung out. Simpson was not a dynamic climber, but his rhythm was fluid and fluent and though Darrigade dropped down the field, Simpson managed to stay with the leading group. When the exhausted riders crossed the line in Saint-Gaudens in the late afternoon, Simpson had ridden himself into the history books. His slender lead in the general classification had secured him the maillot jaune – the first ever British cyclist to do so.
The historic significance of his achievement was not lost on Simpson nor his European admirers. The former cyclist, turned journalist, Jean Bobet, was quick to remind him: “This is an historic day for cycling, even more so for English cycling!” Bobet succeeded in persuading the ever amenable Simpson to resurrect his ‘Major Tom’ persona wearing the maillot jaune on the very evening he had won the jersey. The photos, showing a beaming Simpson sipping tea with the obligatory bowler hat on his head, were soon splashed across the French newspaper, L’Equipe.
Simpson’s tenure in the yellow jersey was short-lived. The following day’s stage entailed a punishing 15 mile time trial ascent to the ski resort of Superbagnères. Simpson had told journalists prior to the stage “At least I have got the yellow jersey and I am going to fight every inch of the way to keep it.” Unfortunately, Simpson relinquished his hold on the jersey to the Belgian rider, Jef Planckaert, though he was later to claim that his bike was set up inadequately on the orders of his directeur sportif, Raymond Louviot Punishment, Simpson claimed, for not contesting the final sprint on the previous day! “I had not only the distinction of being the first British rider to wear the jersey, but also was probably the first rider to hold it for such a short time!” Simpson later recalled.
Despite this setback, Simpson rose back up the general classification, though any hopes he had of a podium finish in Paris were dashed when he suffered a spectacular crash descending the Col de Porte on the penultimate stage in the Alps. Simpson ran off the road, ending up in the branches of a tree. He survived relatively unscathed, continuing the stage once a TV cameraman had helped him disentangle his bike from the branches. The injuries he sustained, however, resulted in him loosing valuable time and he entered the Parc de Princes in Paris in 6th place overall and some way behind the legendary French cyclist and maillot jaune, Jacques Anquetil.
The emotional reception that Simpson received from the small contingent of British cycling fans and press who cheered him on his arrival in the Paris was nothing compared to the adoration he received from the French and continental public. His exploits in the 1962 Tour certainly increased his notoriety and brought him financial rewards, but for Simpson himself his exploits instilled in him a belief that he might one day stand on the podium in Paris wearing the maillot jaune.
In his 1966 autobiography, Cycling Is My Life, Simpson reflected on his achievement : “Strangely enough I did not feel so tired as I did on the other Tours, big and small, and I began to think that it was because I was getting older and had more stamina. I thought about the race and where I had made my mistakes and resolved to remember those things in the future. All in all, I suppose, it was a good ride, but with more luck and fewer mistakes, I could have had a better position, although I do not think I could have won.”
The tragedy of Tom Simpson was that one of the most fundamental traits of his riding style was also his Achilles’ heel. His impulsive, almost reckless instinct to attack and push himself to the very limits of his body’s endurance did not suit the unforgiving demands that the Tour de France places on the riders. The race is relentless – the 1962 edition was held over 22 stages totalling 2656 miles, with Anquetil’s average speed clocked at a little over 23mph. The 2012 Tour, by comparison, will be fought over a course totalling 2173 miles, though it remains the most demanding event in sport. It is a race that is won by a cyclist who can keep a metronomic, sustained and controlling pace, knowing when to attack his nearest rivals, but more importantly, when not to.
Simpson was not a rider of that ilk, but his lacklustre performances in subsequent editions of the Tour weighed heavily on his shoulders and his desire to one day triumph in Paris bordered on an obsession: ” I think it’s riding the Tour that makes a cyclist immortal ” and as many of his fellow riders have testified since his death, Simpson was prepared to risk everything to attain his goal of a podium finish in Paris.
In the 1960’s the use of amphetamines was highly prevalent in the professional peloton, though the riders, the tour organisers and the team management were complicit in their code of silence. Saying that, it was an open secret that Simpson doped: “If 10 kill you, I’ll take nine,” he is alleged to have claimed. Even on the morning of his death, he bantered with the press in Marseille, showing them the Tonedron tablets (his amphetamine of choice) that he would take before the race in order to cope with the rigours of the day ahead. Simpson believed that if he was to challenge for a podium finish in Paris – if he had any chance of realising his dream – then he had to resort to taking tonton to drive his body forward.
Simpson’s death on Mount Ventoux on 13 July 1967 was due to a combination of factors. Firstly, amphetamines and alcohol. Vin Denson, one of Simpson’s domestiques in the British team, had given him some brandy to help him cope with an ongoing stomach complaint. Combine these with the intensity of the heat on the exposed slopes of the Ventoux and the complete state of exhaustion that Simpson had reached at this point in the race and you had a lethal cocktail. Simpson had, quite literally, been leading the weakened British team from the front and even on the night before his death, his team management suggested he withdraw. That, for Simpson, was not an option.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Simpson’s death, as tragic and premature as it was, had a certain inevitability about it. The respected French journalist Pierre Chany recalls that on the morning of the Ventoux stage the Tour doctor, Pierre Dumas, took an early morning walk from his hotel in Marseille and even at that early hour the heat of the day was apparent. Dumas remarked to colleagues, “If the riders take something today, we’ll have a death on our hands.” Prophetic words indeed from a man who had been calling for the routine drug testing of cyclists in the Tour for several years. Simpson’s death was vindication of his standpoint and if any good came out of Tom Simpson’s death it was that the riders, the team management and the Tour organisers took a long hard look at themselves over the issue of doping.
Doping has not left the professional peloton. There is no doubt, however, that Bradley Wiggins is riding clean. Like his compatriot and reformed doper, David Millar, Wiggins has been outspoken and instrumental in lifting the veil of secrecy that has characterised the professional peloton in the past. Their respective teams, Sky Procycling and Garmin, were both founded on a strong anti-doping platform. Team members have to undergo rigorous tests and have clear contractual obligations that they have to adhere to. The results of both Sky and Garmin clearly put pay to the myth that cyclists cannot compete at the very highest level without resorting to illegal practices. Only last month, for example, the Canadian Garmin-Barracuda cyclist, Ryder Hesjedal, won the Giro d’Italia.
Mount Ventoux will not feature in the Tour de France this year, so Wiggins and his compatriots will not have to pay their sad tribute as they make their way to its summit. The last time Wiggins rode past the marble memorial to Simpson was during the 2009 edition of the Tour de France and taped to his bike was a photograph of his childhood hero. Wiggins has spoken often of his respect for Simpson and the legacy and foundations he set down for future generations of British cyclists hoping to make a career in the professional peloton in Europe.
Given his own very strong stance on doping, Wiggins shows huge compassion and understanding of Simpson’ s use of amphetamines. He has argued vehemently that Simpson be remembered for his unparalleled achievements, both on and off his bike, and not for the doping that was so widespread and unsophisticated in the 1960’s. Simpson, Wiggins clearly understands, was a man of his time who encapsulated the very best, and the very worst, of a sport that has at times tested the loyalty and resolve of it many fans.
Speaking before the ascent of the Ventoux in 2009, Wiggins reflected: “For me, racing up there to try and get on the podium is a kind of homage to him . . . and if ever there’s a moment that I feel like giving up, then there’s a reason not to – out of respect to him. What he was trying to do that day is what I’m going to be trying to do, too.”
Perhaps the last words should be left to Tom Simpson himself. Writing in 1966, his words could almost apply to Wiggins in 2012 who crashed out of last year’s edition of the Tour. In a ghostly echo from the past, he closed his autobiography with some poignant words: ‘I would like to win the Tour de France, but I cannot afford to have any bad luck, such as in the past attempts. If I fail it will not have been for the want of trying. As I look back now on all the sacrifice, aches and disappointments seem worth it, although I sometimes wonder if I could go through it again. Disappointments are always hard to bear at the time but common sense tells you that there is always another day tomorrow for you have to have another go.’
Tom Simpson. The greatest British cyclist of all time? Well, for the time being, yes. World Champion in 1965, victorious in several of the most prestigious one day and stage races in professional cycling and the first British rider to pull the maillot jaune over his shoulders. Most of all, Tom Simpson was a cyclist with a rare passion and verve, who was respected and admired by his fellow riders and his adoring public. It is a lingering tragedy of sport, that Tom Simpson never did achieve his goal. He died at the ridiculously young age of 29, never again to experience the often brutal cruelty of the Tour de France.
As Saturday approaches, a little short of 50 years to the day that Tom Simpson posed for the cameras wearing that endearing smile and the maillot jaune, we can only hope that Bradley Wiggins delivers a tribute worthy of such a fine man.