On the baking hot, lunar landscape of Mount Ventoux in 1967, Tom Simpson succumbed to a lethal cocktail of ambition, sickness, ice cream, brandy and amphetamines.
In isolation none of these things would have been fatal. But as Simpson pedalled his way into oblivion, live on TV, during Stage 13 of the 1967 Tour de France a stunned audience witnessed a brutal reality.
Simpson was as much of the product of the swinging sixties as the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrik and the Doors. His death with live footage of the helicopter lifting his lifeless remains from the stony mountain echoed pictures from the Vietnam War. Just as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison hailed the end of the love generation, so Simpson’s was supposed to hail the start of drug free cycle racing.
There were protests from the riders about the new anti dopage measures. Jacques Anquetil went as far as to argue that Simpson’s death was a result of new anti dopage efforts - “to climb Ventoux in that heat, it was absolutely necessary to take something simply to breathe. Some solucamphre, for example. But with this idiotic prohibition of all injections, it’s possible that Tommy, that day used a product less proven, less understood and perhaps more dangerous product”
To be fair to the Race Organisers they had tried in 1966 to enforce effective anti dopage measures. In Bordeaux two Doctors and a Policeman visited Poulidor’s Hotel and requested a urine sample. Under protest Poulidor complied, but the next day the peloton ground to a halt en route to Bayonne. The riders dismounted and started chanting “Merde!” for three minutes before continuing the race. The threat was obvious, any more testing and the race would stop, and Poulidor’s sample was quietly forgotten.
With Simpson’s death the Tour de France organisers decided to make major changes to the race’s 1968 parcours to ensure that riders could compete cleanly and not resort to dopage. The mountain stages were reduced in length and ferocity and there were to be more bonus sprints and cobbles to keep the race competitive. For the first time between 6 to 8 riders would be tested every day. . Billed as “The Health Tour” and starting from the healthy Spa town of Vittel race Director, Jacques Goddet was confident that his efforts would see the start of a new era.
In his pre race editorial he wrote – “ Doping is no longer a mysterious sickness, hidden, uncontrollable, uncontrolled. For it really seems that there is a common determination among the riders to be rid of this scourge. Dear Tom Simpson, you will not have fallen in vain on the stony desert of the Ventoux”
The Cycling Press found the event a complete bore. With no giant mountain set pieces and no clash of big personalities they quickly grew tired of sprint finishes won by lesser (albeit clean) riders. Their complaints were countered by the Tour Organisers who said they were watching the race “with tired eyes”.
Not to be out done by the trend for revolution in 1968 France the Press went on strike, coincidentally also on the a stage between Bordeaux and Bayonne. Poulidor passed the striking journalists and gave a Communist salute in solidarity, while Dr Dumas, the man who had desperately tried to save Simpson the year before greeted the Commune of journalists by saying “ Ah, la Sorbonne des velos”.
If the 1968 Health Tour managed to establish dopage control, it also revealed what would be the trend until the present day. Some riders would still try to cheat (two riders failed tests in the 1968 Tour) and the Press would swing like a headline seeking pendulum between moral out rage against “sport cheats” and the need for epic stages contested by Giants of the Road.
Tour de France 2007
Nearly fourty years later, and the problems of dopage, if we are to believe the descendants of those “Sorbonne journalists” of 1968, would seem to be even more entrenched in the peloton than ever before.
The presentation video footage which saw the image of Floyd Landis shatter like broken glass not only drew attention to the problems of dopage, but also to, the internal conflicts within the sport, as the UCI and various race organisations and federations continue their bitterly disputed arguments over cycle racings future.
Only one man, and indeed a man who could relate to the “Sorbonne” culture of 1968, seemed to come out of the proceedings in a good light.
Ken Livingston, Lord Mayor of London, managed to focus the Tour in a positive sense. On the 40th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death the Tour will start in his Capital City.
“Red Ken” , the left wing Lord Mayor of London , has grasped the principles of capitalism, (an investment of 1.5 million which will draw a 115 million return is a project I would invest in every day), the principles of politics ( the fight against dopage is like the fight against terrorism) and one more point besides.
Livingston, who by his forethinking traffic policies, which have seen cycling in London grow by 72% in the last 5 years , intends to use the Tour de France as a springboard of cycling awareness and hope to increase that figure by 200% over the next five years.
If Tom Simpson needs another memorial, none would be better than more cyclists on the streets.