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Memories of Mr. Tom

Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection

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It’s been more than 50 years since Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux

There are several memorial stones bordering the lonely road that climbs for 21 kilometers to the summit of Mont Ventoux, the whale-shaped massif that looms menacingly above the plains of Provence. Near its foot is one dedicated to a motor-race driver who set the Ventoux hill-climbing record; farther up, there’s another, for a humble forestry worker who had a fatal accident nearby; and on the very top is the one remembering Emile Marseille, the founder of the Circuit Ventoux, the first bike race to cross this mythic mountain in the 1930s. But the Ventoux’s most visited memorial is the one erected a half-century ago to commemorate the place where Tom Simpson turned his last pedal stroke and left a gaping hole in the heart of British cycling. It happened at the 1967 Tour de France, when Simpson, desperate to improve his top-10 placing, over-reached himself, collapsed and died from heart failure—due to a combination of dehydration, heat exhaustion, traces of alcohol and amphetamines in his blood, and unbridled ambition. The date was July 13, the stage No. 13—though 13 was his lucky number. A small cairn was assembled from the bed of stones on which he was laid after being lifted from his bike, just over a kilometer from the summit. The Simpson memorial was unveiled on the morning of October 14, 1969, two-and-a-quarter years after his death. When I rode my loaded touring bike up the bleak mountain road that rainy Tuesday and became the memorial’s first visitor, memories of Mr. Tom came flooding back….

Tom Simpson was 21 years old when, in the spring of 1958, he took a ferryboat to Brittany in western France with a road bike, track bike, backpack, small suitcase, £100 in his pocket—and the ambition to become a pro cyclist. He lived with a French family over a butcher’s shop in St. Brieuc. They didn’t understand English and he didn’t speak French, and the lack of conversation depressed the ebullient Simpson; but everyone took notice when he began winning two or three races a week. With his name constantly in the papers, an English au pair working in the town came looking for this English cyclist—the start of a romance that would end with Simpson and Helen Sherburn getting married.

On the sporting front, Simpson converted from amateur to semi-pro status and won stages at two big races to secure a pro contract with a French trade team. Amazingly, his very first one-day race as a pro was the world road championship at Zandvoort in the Netherlands. Its 292-kilometer distance didn’t deter the skinny young man from Great Britain. He jumped into the key breakaway, kept it alive with repeated surges and sprinted home in fourth place—the first time a Briton had ever finished top five in the sport’s most prestigious single-day race!

I first witnessed Simpson’s fighting spirit on a warm summer’s evening at the 1958 British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales. Coming back from a large deficit on Norman Sheil, a two-time world champion, he appeared to win the 4,000 meters pursuit, but the timekeepers (hand-held stopwatches back then!) gave the verdict to Sheil by one-hundredth of a second. Simpson was shattered and later said it was “the biggest disappointment” of his amateur career.

Like his other fans, I followed Simpson’s progress through the press and one winter even got the chance to shake hands with him at the London cycle show. He was already blazing a pioneering trail through Europe: the first Brit to win a monument (the 1961 Tour of Flanders), the first to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey (in 1962, when he finished sixth overall) and the first to win Milan–San Remo (in 1964, ahead of French star Raymond Poulidor). He inspired other British riders to try their luck on the Continent. I was among them, and when Simpson lined up for the 1965 worlds in San Sebastián, Spain, I was finishing a race in France.

Listening to a live radio commentary at the race HQ, we knew that Simpson had attacked from a breakaway group with German rival Rudi Altig—one of the peloton’s fastest finishers. Into the finish straight, they were battling side by side…before Simpson magically pulled clear. Altig was beaten. Simpson had won—the first Brit to pull on the rainbow jersey. A few weeks later, he scored an impressive solo victory in the Tour of Lombardy, his third monument. And at year’s end, he became the first cyclist to win Britain’s prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year award—a huge breakthrough for our sport.

By 1967, at age 29, Simpson was a full-fledged star of the sport, highly popular in Britain, France and his adopted Belgium—where he was honored as a freeman of the city of Ghent. He won that spring’s Paris–Nice; took two stages of the Tour of Spain in May; and in June won Britain’s Manx Trophy ahead of defending Tour champion Lucien Aimar. While they returned to the Continent, I was preparing for my fourth “follow-the-Tour-by-bike” trip.

In the ’67 Tour’s first week, I took in stage finishes at Amiens and Metz, witnessed Tom driving a 12-man breakaway across the cobbles into Roubaix, and headed into the Vosges mountains for the Ballon d’Alsace summit finish. After enduring steady rain, I sheltered in my yellow cycling cape on the mist-shrouded peak listening to updates on my taped-up transistor radio. The news was good: Tour favorites Poulidor and Felice Gimondi were losing chunks of time; French team leader Roger Pingeon was struggling; and Tom was with the leaders. Aimar took the stage win a few seconds ahead of Tom, who crossed the line with Dutch star Jan Janssen in fifth place.

That evening, I met up with the British riders at the Hotel de la Gare in Belfort. I was hoping to see Colin Lewis, who I’d raced with briefly in Brittany, but he was so weary he missed dinner. Tom though, his morale sky high from moving into the top 10 overall, was full of life, joking around and looking forward to the rest day and the climbing stages ahead.

On the first alpine stage, Tom was climbing well when I saw him near the summit of the Galibier but he flatted on the descent and lost three minutes. The next day, at the end of a sixth six-plus-hour stage in a row, the G.B. boys were exhausted. Tom’s face was drawn, his eyes sunken and he looked thinner than ever. Lewis, who said the stifling hot day had swollen his feet, removed his shoes and began riding to his hotel in sandals, despite manager Alec Taylor telling him it was all uphill.

I was also suffering. As the Tour headed to Marseille, I pedaled west in the oppressive heat through a dusty mirage of pallid vegetation and sunbaked rock. There’d been a drought for weeks and many of the village fountains had dried up. Feeling sick—probably food poisoning from drinking sour milk—I threw up at the youth hostel in Fontaine de Vaucluse. I left my bags there the next morning planning to “ride free” up Mont Ventoux. But I was feeling no better (a cockroach in the washbasin didn’t help!) and forced myself to ride the 25 flat kilometers to Carpentras, where stage 13 would end. Drained of energy, I ditched my plans to tackle the Ventoux.

Instead, I read the newspapers—Tom was second in the field sprint for sixth place in Marseille—as I waited at the feed zone. Team cars arrived first, and French directeur sportif Raphaël Geminiani, a known prankster, picked up buckets of water to “cool off” everyone in range! Tom, a wry smile on his face, was the first rider through, collecting his musette from team manager Taylor. He needed to be well placed for the upcoming battle. Even in cool weather the Ventoux is a monster climb, but on this day of 100-degree temperatures it would be even more intimidating. As I clicked off a photograph of Tom, I noted his Peugeot team cap, its peak pulled down in typical “Simmy” style. On climbing the Ventoux, he’d gradually turn that white cotton hat as the road twisted upward and the sun’s angle changed.

At the stage finish, the announcers gave us intermittent updates from the Ventoux—no live television back then. Though Tom had been at the front on the first severe grades, he was dropping back with Aimar. I hoped they might catch back on the long descent. Seven riders did regroup, and we saw Janssen out-sprint Pingeon and Gimondi to win the stage. Aimar was there too—but no Tom.

We soon realized the Englishman was missing. Had he cracked or crashed? A buzz went through the crowd when a rider in white arrived 12 minutes down…but it was Lewis. When everyone had finished, there was still no Tom. Then, on the loudspeakers (but not announced), I heard the crackle of a radio conversation in French, as you sometimes do. It went: “Where’s the helicopter?” “It’s going to Avignon.” It must be Tom. He must have crashed badly….

With that thought, I left Carpentras to ride back through the evening sunlight in even lower spirits. The hostel was a lonely place, the warden unreceptive, and even my radio had died. I left the next morning with no knowledge of what had happened to Tom. It was a hot, sultry ride before I stopped in Arles and bought the La Marseillaise newspaper. There in blue across the top was the awful headline: “Drame sur le Ventoux—Mort de Tom Simpson.”

Stunned, I rode in a daze across the Camargue marshes and past sand dunes along the coast. On reaching the Tour route, I seemed to be watching with eyes other than mine. Melancholy applause came from a small crowd on a corner. A lone figure led the race. In a white jersey with Union Jack epaulettes, black armband and dark glasses, Barry Hoban was riding to a surreal stage victory, given to the British team by the world’s top cyclists “à la memoire de Simpson.”

In the following two years, while funds were raised in England for a permanent memorial to Tom, Hoban was a frequent visitor to the Simpson home in Ghent. He and Helen Simpson were engaged before they traveled to the Ventoux in October 1969 to dedicate the monument. For me, that Tuesday began at 6:30 a.m. in Avignon. It was a dark morning. Pedestrians stood under umbrellas at bus stops, others were leaving for work on mopeds, and trucks trundled along the N.7 highway. Before putting the city walls behind me, the drizzle became a downpour and I stopped under a bridge to don my cape.

I planned to reach the Ventoux in time to see Tom’s memorial unveiled, but the wind was in the wrong quarter. At 8:15, I was only in Carpentras, where my other ride foundered the day Tom died. The rain eased before the hillside village of Bédoin, where the Ventoux emerged from the gloom over bare vineyards and ocher-tiled roofs. With my cape strapped back on the saddlebag, I set off with renewed energy, riding against the wind up the mountain’s first slopes on a 44×21 gear. When the really steep grades began my out-of-shape legs struggled to turn my lowest gear of 44×24 (only five sprockets back then), and I was forced to alternate walking with riding.

During one of my walking phases, at 10:15 a.m., a roar of engines from below broke the silence. Two motorcycle gendarmes shot past, preceding a long line of cars containing dignitaries, media and friends of Tom. I spotted Hoban’s big crimson Opel, with Helen at his side. Within moments, the autumn leaves resettled on the damp road. On reaching the spot where Tom collapsed, the visitors would step into the damp air and congregate at the memorial. As it was unveiled and flowers were laid, a whispering wind would break the minute of silence.

At 10:50, after l’d ridden a few more kilometers, the entourage came speeding back down. Hoban waved to me from his car. I knew he understood what it meant to me to be making the climb by bike, not in a car, as I could have. To do it any other way would have been disrespectful to Tom. At Chalet Reynard, a timber-built café on the edge of the forest, I ordered a ham-filled baguette and filled my water bottle from the pump outside. My final kilometers on the narrow, bumpy road (today, it’s wide and smooth) included bursts of climbing as the wind whistled over the small jagged limestone rocks that cover the mountainside.

Far below, the scrubby edge of the forest disappeared from view. At the roadside, where the rocks petered out, a yellow Alpine flower peeped out, as did a purple thistle and a tiny violet. The rain fell more heavily. Determined to ride all the way to the memorial, I was amazed how close I was coming to the summit observatory tower. After a left-hand sweep past a gully and a false flat around a spur, there it was—a stone slab standing high off the road. No wonder, after he collapsed a first time on his fatal climb, Tom asked his helpers to get him going, to pull his toe straps tight. He could see how close he was to the top…but didn’t make it.

The rocks in front of the new memorial were placed into two piles, one making a “T” the other an “S.” From above, the cleared ground was a black slash in a white desert. Tom’s silhouette is traced in bold outline on gray marble that’s polished within, hewn without. Across the front, engraved and lined in gold letters, is a simple inscription in French. The translation reads:


Rain was falling as I stood in silence before leaving the memorial. The blustery wind had picked up as I pushed my bike around a steep switchback, the last of Ventoux’s many tortures. The gale was actually blowing the running water back up the hill, while above the corner it did its best to blow me back down. My feet and head were soaking, my hands frozen, but my climb was over. I thought back to the day I took my last photograph of Tom at the foot of this terrible mountain, probably the last one of him smiling. I thought it would be my own small memorial. But my trip to the 1967 Tour was not the happiest, and as I waited at the St. Lazare station in Paris for the train back to England my saddlebag, with all the Tour films in it, was stolen. Only the memories remain.

Follow John Wilcockson on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

For really cool memorabilia, check out the Horton Collection!