Tom Simpson 30 Nov 1937-13 July 1967
Yesterday was the anniversary of the Death of Tom Simpson. During this tour we all know the significance of Mont Ventoux but whilst we are getting carried away with the race spend a moment to remember Tom who died there during the 1967 tour. Most people know about Tom Simpson and whatever I have to say will not add more to his legend and myth. However below is a Biographical Sketch I have stolen from WIKI. There is a great biography of Tom written by the excellent author William Fotheringham. He is one of the best writers and cycling is lucky to have him as a fan. The book is called “Put me back on my Bike” – “In Search of Tom Simpson.
Tom Simpson (30 November 1937–13 July 1967) was an English road racing cyclist who died of exhaustion on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 13th stage of the Tour de France in 1967. The post mortem found that he had taken amphetamines and alcohol, a diuretic combination which proved fatal when combined with the heat, the hard climb of the Ventoux and a stomach complaint.
Simpson was the youngest of the six children of coalmine worker Tom Simpson senior and his wife Alice, née Cheetham, and was born in Haswell, County Durham. Tom senior worked at nearby South Hetton Colliery, while Alice ran Haswell Workingmen’s Club. After World War II, the Simpson family moved to Harworth in north Nottinghamshire, another mining village, where Simpson grew up and acquired his interest in cycling. He attended the village school and later Worksop Technical College and in 1954 was an apprentice draughtsman at an engineering company in Retford.
As a cyclist he joined Harworth and District cycling club and later Rotherham’s Scala Wheelers. In 1954, still with the Harworth club, he wrote for advice to the former Tour rider, Charles Pélissier, who was running a training camp in Monaco. Simpson wrote:
Dear Sir, I am writing to you hoping you will give me some advice on racing and training for the 1955 season. I am 16 years old, and have raced on the track and also massed start road races, competing in between, in time trials. In my first track event I gained 3rd place, in road races I have won 2 prizes and in time trials I have won 4 prizes. My positions in time trials were 11th, 8th, 15th, 7th. I have done 25 miles in 1hr 34 seconds, which is the fastest time for a 16 year old in England this year.
I would like to know, if you think it is advisable to compete in so many different events, and also what greatest mileage I should race. I have been told that if I race often, I will burn myself out, and will be no good when I get older, do you think this is true. Yours in sport, Thomas Simpson, HARWORTH & DIST. C.C..
There is no evidence of a reply from Pélissier, who didn’t speak English, although the writer Jock Wadley of Sporting Cyclist suggested in his magazine in 1965 that he may well have done.
By his late teens, Simpson was winning local time trials. He was then advised to try track cycling, and he travelled regularly to Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester to compete, winning a medal in the national 4000m individual pursuit. Still 19, he was part of the Great Britain team pursuit squad which won a bronze medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. Two years later, he won a silver medal for England in the individual pursuit at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.
In April 1959, Simpson set off to live in the Breton fishing port of Saint-Brieuc, France, hoping to win enough local amateur races to get noticed by a professional cycling team. It was in Saint-Brieuc that he met Helen Sherburn, whom he married on 3 January 1960.
Within two months, Simpson had won five races and in July 1959 was offered terms by two professional teams; he decided to join Rapha Geminiani, which already had a British cyclist, Brian Robinson. His first event as a professional was a small stage race, the Tour de l’Ouest in which he won two stages and finished 18th – a major achievement for a new pro who would normally be expected to act as a domestique to the team’s leader.
He competed in the 1959 world championship in the Netherlands in the individual pursuit and professional road race, finishing fourth in both. He turned down selection to ride the 1959 Tour de France. He did ride the following year, finishing 29th, and taking third place on stage 3. 1960 also saw him compete in his first Classic: he had top ten finishes in La Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix – he led the latter for 40km before running out of energy and being overtaken less than 10km from the finish, ending up 9th.
In April 1961, Simpson won his first Classic. After losing at Roubaix the previous year, he demonstrated his liking for cobbles by winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen after a two-man sprint at the finish. That year, he also finished fifth in the early season Paris-Nice stage race, and ninth in the world championship, but he abandoned the Tour de France on stage 3, affected by a knee injury.
In 1962, he became first Briton to wear the maillot jaune as leader of the Tour de France (after stage 12) and finished sixth overall (his highest placing and the best by a Briton until Robert Millar’s fourth in 1984), losing third spot after a crash. Earlier in the season, he again finished fifth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and sixth in Gent-Wevelgem.
In Classics, 1963 and 1965 were Simpson’s best years. Riding in the black-and-white of the Peugeot BP team in 1963, he won Bordeaux-Paris, was second in Paris-Brussels and Paris-Tours, third in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, eighth in Paris-Roubaix, and 10th in La Flèche Wallonne and the Giro di Lombardia.
Simpson won Milan-Sanremo in 1964, finished fourth again in the world championship and 10th in Paris-Roubaix. He also came close to a stage victory in the Tour de France, finishing second on stage 9, ending 14th overall.
In 1965, Simpson became first Briton to win the world professional road racing championship, outsprinting Germany’s Rudi Altig at San Sebastián in Spain after the two had broken away with 40km to go. He also won the Italian Autumn Classic, the Giro di Lombardia (the second world champion jersey also to win in Italy – the other was Alfredo Binda in the 1920s), and picked up third in Flèche Wallonne and Bordeaux-Paris, sixth in Paris-Roubaix and 10th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He partnered Peter Post to victory in the six-day race at Brussels.
Simpson ended the year by winning UK Sports Journalists’ Association’s award of Sportsman of the Year (following Reg Harris – the only other cyclist to win), and he won the 1965 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award – the only cyclist to have won this accolade until Chris Hoy won in 2008. Within UK cycling, Simpson won the Bidlake Memorial Prize in 1965.
A stage victory in the Tour de France still eluded Simpson. He twice finished second, on stages 12 and 13, of the 1966 Tour, but abandoned on stage 17: he had attacked on the Col du Galibier but crashed on the descent and was unable to hold his handlebars. 1966, overall, was a write-off for Simpson, who missed much of the season due to a skiing injury the previous winter.
Simpson looked in form in early 1967. He won Paris-Nice (taking two second places and a third place on different days) and the Tour of Sardinia. He also rode in the Vuelta a España for the first time, collecting two stage victories and 33rd place overall.
At the start of the 1967 Tour de France, Simpson was optimistic he could make an impact. After the first week he was sixth, but a stomach bug began to affect his form, and he lost time in a stage including the Col du Galibier. In Marseille, at the start of stage 13 on Thursday 13 July, he was still suffering as the race headed into Provence on a hot day, and was seen to drink brandy during the early parts of the stage. In those years, Tour organisers limited each rider to four bottles (bidons) of water, about two litres – the effects of dehydration being poorly understood. During races, riders raided roadside bars for drinks, and filled their bottles from fountains.
The day started hot. The Tour doctor, Pierre Dumas, took a stroll at dawn. Near his hotel, the Noaille at Cannebière, he met other race followers at 6:30am. “If the riders take something today, we’ll have a death on our hands,” he said.
Pierre Chany wrote:
The race was quiet until the foot of the sugar-loaf [colloquial name for Mont Ventoux] where Julio Jimenez attacked, checked by Raymond Poulidor. The heat was torrid, 45C in the shade on this eve of July 14. The followers were bare-chested or in short sleeves and the climb looked like being extremely painful. The Ventoux is 21km of stone slopes, a ramp hors mesure with no shade in its last section or even before it. Behind Jimenez and Poulidor, a group formed around Roger Pingeon, Felice Gimondi Balmanion and Jan Janssen, a group from which Simpson disappeared, suddenly weak, dropping back to a second group led by Lucien Aimar, Désiré Letort and Noël van Clooster.
Aimar said: “I came back up to him after having punctured. Van Springel and Letort were with us. The heat was suffocating. I offered him a drink but he didn’t hear me. He had a totally empty look, and the extraordinary thing was that he tried to jump me! [il me flinguait la gueule!] He took 250 metres out of me. I said to him: ‘Tom, don’t play the bloody fool!’ [Tom, fais pas le con!] But he didn’t respond. A moment later, he was on my back wheel. I heard a cry, I didn’t see him fall.”
Three kilometres from the summit, in a landscape of stone, where the mountain becomes most arid, the Briton began to wobble. The drama was imminent and it came a kilometre further on. Simpson climbed in slow motion, his face blank, his head tilted towards his right shoulder in his familiar manner. He was at the end of his strength. He fell a first time. Spectators went to him, putting him back in the saddle and pushing him. He went another 300m, helped by unknown arms, then fell again. This time, nobody tried to pull him upright: he had lost consciousness.
His team manager, Alec Taylor, said in Cycling that after the first fall he feared for Simpson less for the way he was going up the mountain than for the way he would go down the other side. The rushing air would revive him but Taylor feared that Simpson, whom he described as a madcap descender, would overdo things and crash. The team mechanic, Harry Hall, said he worried the moment Simpson started to zig-zag. “He was riding like an amateur then, going from one side of the road to the other [to lessen the gradient] and sometimes he went dangerously close to the edge of the road. And there’s no barrier there. Once you go over, you go over.” He tried to persuade Simpson to stop when he fell, saying “That’s it for you, Tom.” “But he said he wanted to go on. He said ‘My straps, Harry, my straps!’ Meaning that his toe-straps were still undone. So we got him upright and we pushed him off again.”
When he fell again, his hands were locked to the handlebars. Hall shouted for the other mechanic, Ken Ryall, to prise them loose and the pair laid Simpson beside the road. A motorcycle policeman summoned Pierre Dumas, who took over team officials’ first attempts at saving Simpson, including mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Dumas massaged Simpson’s heart and gave him oxygen and an injection. Dumas found that Simpson was not breathing even in an oxygen mask. He, his deputy Macorig and nurse, took turns massaging his heart and giving mouth-to-mouth. A police helicopter took Simpson to the St-Marthe hospital at Avignon but Simpson was declared dead soon after arrival. Two tubes of amphetamines and a further empty tube were found in the rear pocket of his racing jersey. The official time of death was 5:30pm, the verdict that he had died of a heart attack.
Dumas refused to sign a burial certificate and a poisons expert from Marseille was commissioned to conduct an autopsy. It confirmed five days later that Simpson had traces of amphetamine in his body.
Simpson’s last words, as remembered by the team mechanic, Harry Hall (d. 2007), and by Alec Taylor (d. 1997), were “Go on, go on!” The words “Put me back on my bike!” were invented by Sid Saltmarsh, covering the event for The Sun and Cycling, who was not there at the time and in a reception blackspot for live accounts on Radio Tour.
The origin of the phrase is in Saltmarsh’s report in Cycling:
He slowed until he began to stagger, and as he left the comparative shelter of the forest, and reached the desert portion of the Ventoux, he was stricken by the blazing sun, which had brought the shade temperature up to nearly 100F – only there was no shade. When about a mile from the top he fell, and on being reached by mechanic Harry Hall, was still conscious enough to insist ‘Put me back on my bike.’ But he was all-in, his body a raging furnace of fever, and could not keep the machine moving, even when pushed off.
Gently, he was lifted from the bike and kiss-of-life resuscitation was tried in an effort to bring him round, but after about 40 minutes’ work he was carried away in a helicopter of the French gendarmerie.
Saltmarsh acknowledged he wasn’t present when he wrote:
We did not see him on that last day, only for a brief moment at the start, exchanging a brief hallo. According to practice, particularly on a mountain stage, we drove in front listening to the progress of the race on the Tour Radio and by chance we had one of the occasional blank spots at the time the drama was unfolding.
We had heard that Tom was up with the leaders climbing the Ventoux, then as we accelerated ahead down the tricky descent in front of Jimenez the reports began to come through again with no mention of Tom. Only when we reached the finish to await the riders did we learn that he fallen, assuming it was a crash. Then the team car came in and we knew that he had collapsed, but still with no inkling that the end was to be so tragic, for though they had been the first to go to him, the medical staff had taken over and they had had to continue their responsibility to the rest of the team. Gradually, the rumours grew, defying belief, until we had the official announcement that despite all that had been done to revive him on the scorching stones of the Ventoux and in the helicopter he was dead when the hospital was reached.
On the next racing day the other riders were reluctant to continue racing so soon after Simpson’s death and asked the organisers for a postponement. The French rider Jean Stablinski proposed instead that the race would go on but that one of the British riders would be allowed to win the stage. This honour went to Barry Hoban.
The British team had been called in for questioning. Their baggage was searched. Two of the Belgian soigneurs who looked after riders in the team, specifically Simpson – soigneur means carer and a soigneur is akin to a second in boxing – locked themselves in their room, got drunk and would not come out. They were named as Gus Naessens, one of the highest paid soigneurs and a favourite of Simpson’s, and Rudi van der Weide.
Simpson was buried in Harworth, Nottinghamshire after a service at the 12th-century church of All Saints in the village. Cycling reported that there were 200 mourners in the church, including Eddy Merckx. The world champion Beryl Burton was among more who stood outside in rain to hear the service by loudspeaker. Alan Gayfer, the magazine’s editor, wrote:
The hour drew on and ominous black clouds drifted across as the last few comers walked past half-mile queues of parked cars from all the entrances to the village, through files of silent villagers. The village was virtually shut down, save for a few food shops wisely kept open, and for the village hall which had prepared food with wonderful miners’ hospitality for those who were come to mourn the village boy.
Timed for 3.15, the cortège was a little delayed and shortly before three the first light drops began to fall, bringing welcome coolness to the air and dampening the dust which hung in it. As we waited by the entrance to the church, a little harvest mouse played quietly underfoot, as if to emphasise that even in man’s mourning for death, life must go on. Then the rain began to fall, quietly, steadily, and we hoped against hope that the storm would not drown everything. Some voices even thought out loud that many of the onlookers would go home at the first feel of rain – ‘they’re just sightseers’ – but they were not, as the following hour proved.
For a while, nothing happened. There was no inquest in either Britain or France. Then a British reporter, J. L. Manning of the Daily Mail, broke the news:
Tommy Simpson rode to his death in the Tour de France so doped that he did not know he had reached the limit of his endurance. He died in the saddle, slowly asphyxiated by intense effort in a heatwave after taking methylamphetamine drugs and alcoholic stimulants forbidden by French law. This information was given to me at authorised interviews with senior police officers during a week’s investigation in the south of France… Police reports were that three glass tubes were found in his racing jersey satchel at Avignon, where he was taken after his death. Two were empty. The third contained tablets.
The next day, police at Sète, a port west of Marseilles, found a carton among Simpson’s luggage in the British team’s baggage car. More drugs were in it. Two of the drugs in the tubes and carton were named by the police as Stenamina and Tonedrin… My conclusion is that Simpson’s death can be attributed in part to failure to use French law to discover drugs in sports contests. There has been no official denial that the first dope tests for 15 days on the Tour de France riders were at Marseilles. It was from there that Simpson set out on his last ride. He was not tested.
Manning was a serious and well-respected journalist. His exposure, the first time a formal connection had been made between drugs and Simpson’s death, set off a wave of similar reporting in Britain and elsewhere. The following month, Manning went further, in a piece headed “Evidence in the case of Simpson who crossed the frontier of endurance without being able to know he had ‘had enough'”:
The question of whether Tommy Simpson’s death in the Tour de France might have been prevented has one clear answer. Yes, and it should have been. Three days after this year’s race, the French authorities announced that next October and November a French and Italian rider would be prosecuted for alleged doping offences in last year’s Tour. France had surrendered the need to rigorously prevent doping to the discreet requirement of not tackling it on a big tourist occasion until a year had safely passed. It takes two days at most to analyze samples: it took a year for France to authorize prosecutions. What devious explanation can be expected? Worse than missing the opportunity of warning this year’s riders that the law would be applied, strictly, was the failure systematically to apply it. Thus, those riders in this year’s Tour, Simpson among them, who were prepared to take drugs would not have risked doing so if prosecutions were known to be pending and random tests of at least one cyclist from every team had been arranged daily.
…Is France trying to hush up the scandals of the Tour? I say yes. The first act of hushing up is not to attempt detection, let alone waiting a year before taking action. How much husher can you get?
One consequence of Manning and those who followed was that the Tour organizers billed the following year’s Tour as the Tour of Health, starting symbolically at Vittel, a town which produced mineral water.
Simpson and drugs
Two years before his death, Simpson wrote in the British newspaper, The People, hinted at taking drugs in races, although blaming it on others. Asked about drugs by Eamonn Andrews on the BBC Home Service radio network, Simpson did not deny taking them – nor was he asked – but said that a rider who took drugs all the time might get to the top but he would not stay there.
Colin Lewis, who shared Simpson’s room during the 1967 Tour, recalled:
It had been hardish but not terribly hard. He went into the shower first, took his jersey off and put six tablets on the table. He used to keep them wrapped in foil. I’m in the bed, waiting to shower, he comes out and one has fallen on the floor. He’d lost one tablet and was accusing me of taking it. ‘Where’s my stuff? If you want stuff, ask me, don’t steal it.’ We scrabbled on the floor and it was under a table. It had dropped off and rolled underneath. He was contrite about it: ‘I’m glad you don’t need this stuff.’
William Fotheringham spoke to another British professional, Alan Ramsbottom, for his biography of Simpson, Put Me Back on My Bike. He quoted Ramsbottom as saying “Tom went on the Tour de France with one suitcase for his kit and another with his stuff, drugs and recovery things.” Fotheringham said Lewis had the same memory. Ramsbottom added: “Tom took a lot of chances. He took a lot of it. I remember him taking a course of strychnine to build up to some big event. He showed me the box, and had to take one every few days.”
Simpson’s friend and helper in Ghent, Albert Beurick, insisted: “I know he took them but he was a clever man. He didn’t just take them, take them, take them. One day I remember he was going to take some to go training and he said ‘I don’t need this… I’m getting as bad as Stablinski.'”
Harry Hall said: “He had this incredible ability to suffer. The drugs didn’t kill Tom. Tom killed himself.””
Lucien Aimar, himself caught for doping, said: “Simpson had taken, at most, 30mg [of amphetamine]. Had it not been for his anaemic state he wouldn’t have died. What killed him wasn’t the dope, nor Ventoux even though it was so hot. The true guilt lay with medical science. What pushed him into his coffin was the person who administered an intravenous drip, the thing that made it possible for him to go on restarting [each day].”
Memorial to Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux
There is a granite memorial to Simpson near the spot where he died, paid for by British cyclists. Cycling opened a memorial fund through its editor, Alan Gayfer, and the managing editor, Peter Bryan, to install a stained glass window in the church at Harworth. When that proved beyond the fund, Gayfer approached the authorities in Bédoin at the foot of Mont Ventoux for permission to erect a granite monument, sculpted by a local craftsman. Bryan said in Cycling Plus that the fund had opened so fast that legal procedures had not been followed, with the consequence that nobody now knew who owned the memorial or the land on which it stands. It fell into a poor condition even though it was occasionally swept clean by bar-owners in Bédoin. It is now in the care of British cyclists and riders who pass the memorial frequently leave tributes such as drinking bottles and caps.