40TH ANNIVERSARY OF SIMPSON'S DEATH
Today it is 40 years since Britain’s only world pro road race champion, Tom Simpson, died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France.
People say they can remember exactly where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, and for a generation of cyclists it’s the same with Tom Simpson.
In this look back at the tragic events of 40 years ago, and their impact, we talk to two riders in the British team who were there on the Ventoux with Simpson, and ask others where they were when they heard the terrible news.
I WAS THERE: Barry Hoban
“I remember vividly the start in Marseille. Tom was acting about on a boat in the harbour for the photographers; you know, normal Tom, and I was on it with him. I remember thinking, he’ll have me in the water in a minute.
“The stage, well the whole Tour, had been extremely hot, and I spent much of it riding on the front, trying to keep the pace steady. It was going to be all about a big set-to on the Ventoux, and all the favourites knew that.
“When we got to the mountain the race split straight away, there were attacks from lots of the favourites, especially from the Spaniard Julio Jimenez, and Tom went off after them. I’d done all I could for Tom, so I settled down in a group some way behind.
“I intended to take the climb at a steady pace, but even that was hard enough. As I got closer to the top I saw a line of cars parked by the side of the road at about one kilometre to go. It was because of Tom. As I drew level I saw that he’d collapsed and there were medical people around him, but I thought it would just be sunstroke, something like that. It had happened before.”
I WAS THERE: Vin Denson
“I rode alongside Tom for a lot of the early part of the stage, but he was unusually quiet and had a strained, worried look on his face. His stomach was bad and he couldn’t eat very well. I don’t think he ate very much at all before the climb.
“When we got to the Ventoux the attacks came early because Raymond Poulidor had punctured. I don’t think they would have been so early if he hadn’t. Tom of course chased after them, but I tried to shout to him, tried to get him to wait for Poulidor. The Frenchman would get back with strong team-mates and they’d take Tom up the Ventoux with them.
“If Tom had climbed with Poulidor he would have got back before the finish in Carpentras. All of the front regrouped on the descent, but Tom didn’t race like that. He would never let anybody get away.
“Anyway, I made an effort and got up to Tom just long enough to give him a big hand sling. Then I said something I’ve always felt a bit guilty about. I shouted, ‘Die, die,’ meaning it in the sense that Italians use those words when they are encouraging someone to give their all. It hit me afterwards that they were probably the last two English words Tom ever heard.
“I thought about him as I made my way up the Ventoux. I could see him in my mind, pedalling with his elbows sticking out and his head at an angle, with that determined, almost bitter look on his face.
“The heat was incredible after Châlet Reynard and, as I changed to my bottom gear I thought, Tom can’t do that, he can’t change down, he’ll still have to push on.
“Then I saw the crowd around somebody near the top. I saw our team car, so I got off and pushed through and saw Tom lying there.
“Our manager, Alec Tailor, said: ‘Don’t worry, he’s on oxygen, get back in the race.’ So I did. I thought Tom was in good hands, that he’d be out of the race but I’d see him later.”
WHERE WERE YOU?
In 1967 Dave Marsh, who now owns a bike shop, was a junior rider and a big fan of Simpson who lived just a few miles from where Simpson grew up.
“I had just won an evening circuit race at Sandal Park in Doncaster. We were gathered around a friend’s car who had his radio tuned to long wave to get the French news. We wanted to hear how Tom had done on the stage, but when the news came on they said that he was dead.
“I’ll never forget it, it was one of the few times in my life that I’ve cried.”
WHERE WERE YOU?
Another ambitious junior in 1967, Cookson is now president of British Cycling.
“It was Tom that had really got me switched on to cycling. Looking back it seemed in those days that you couldn’t pick up Cycling magazine without seeing that Simpson had won a Classic, or come very close, just failing at the end. I’d also just met him when I cycled to see him race at New Brighton, and I got my copy of his book signed.
“The day he died I heard the news in the changing rooms after the Ecclestone handicaps. We were all stunned, what could you say? You searched for answers, and later some became apparent.
“That’s one of the reasons why I will always fight to rid our sport of the scourge of drugs. Tom did wrong, he let us down, but when I think of the cynicism that is still going on today, I think of Tom and I think of shattered dreams.”
WHERE WERE YOU?
"I had just started work as a journalist on Cycling Weekly’s forerunner, Cycling and Mopeds, and was still racing. On the night Simpson died I finished second in a local race and rode straight home for a shower.
"I turned the television on at nine o’clock just in time to hear the news reader say: ‘The British cyclist Tom Simpson died today in the Tour de France.’ I just sat down and cried."
WHERE WERE YOU?
"I was sitting at home in Belgium watching the television and it just came on, a newsflash. Tom’s death was such a shock and I think you react to a shock like that by wanting to do something practical, something to help, at least I do.
"The only thing I could think of was to go to his funeral in England, so I immediately began to organise that. Tom Simpson was my team-mate in Peugeot in 1967."