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Tom Simpson
By Podofdonny
Date: 12/8/2002
Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson Memorial Ventoux

Tom Simpson was the first truly great English road professional. He turned professional in 1960 after an amateur career which included an Olympic bronze medal in the 1956 team pursuit and a silver in the individual pursuit in the 1958 Commonwealth Games. He lacked only the ability to climb strongly , which meant he was more suited to the one day classics than the major tours.

Simpson in yellow

In 1962 he became the first Britain to wear the maillot jaune in the Tour de France, although he held onto it for only one day he finished in 6th place overall. In 1965 he won the Tour of Lombardy and became World Road Race Champion, a staggering achievement when one considers he had been involved in a fall in the Tour de France and seriously injured his arm. He refused to abandon, as the doctors advised, and rode on for several days until too weak to continue. He was rushed to hospital, where it looked as though the badly infected arm might have to be amputated. Tom Simpson did not give up easily.

The 1967 Tour saw Simpson more determined than ever to do well in the Tour. Although riding with a weak British team, at least Simpson could guarantee loyalty from his team mates, and things were going to plan. Lying in 7th place overall, the 13th stage on July 13th was from Marseille to Carpentras. On the route however, was a seventy five kilometre loop which crossed the 6,200 foot summit of Mount Ventoux. Inevitably the mountain was to be the day's battle theatre. It was desperately hot and heavy (a thermometer outside a restaurant on Ventoux showed 55C) which was always going to be exaggerated on the bare, bleached mountain slopes with no trees for shade and the sun reflecting off the limestone surface.

Poulidor and Jimenez attacked early and the peloton broke. Two small groups went in pursuit of them and Simpson was in the next wave of chasers. Earlier, at the start of the climb there had been a traditional raid on a café. Uncharacteristically Simpson (who had warned his teammates earlier in the day about eating ice creams) drank a little Cognac from a bottle being passed around.

He was not going well, but kept attacking his group in a desperate effort to bridge the gap to the chasers, tantalisingly in sight. Several people from the crowd ran out to push him up the slope, but already he was beyond that sort of help.

Three kilometres from the summit he fell. "Put me back on my bike," he said to the crowd. A further kilometre on and he collapsed a second time, unconscious and, in spite of the crowds and the Tour doctor Pierre Dumas' efforts he was never to recover.

A post mortum confirmed that a certain quantity of amphetamine and methylamphetamine had been discovered in his blood. The same experts confirmed that the dosage would not have been enough, by itself, to kill him but would have permitted him to pass the limit of his endurance and therefore allow him to fall victim of to excessive exhaustion.

The shock of Simpson’s death is still etched on the minds of a generation of the British and French public. Simpson had been as much part of the 1960’s British image as the Beatles, Mary Quant and Twiggy. His presence in races guaranteed huge crowds and he had won the national Sports personality of the year (a domain usually reserved for footballers).

Tom Simpson Memorial Harworth

Still much loved in his adopted Doncaster homeland in June 1997 Helen Hoban, widow of Tom Simpson, unveiled a memorial in his honour at a ceremony at his home village of Harworth. The memorial, made from local stone, is a replica of a similar one near the summit of Mount Ventoux in France where Simpson, Britain’s most successful cyclist, died at the age of 29. It took years of effort by his family and former colleagues and fans to raise the necessary money to erect the memorial and finally bring long-due recognition to a man still revered on the Continent but almost forgotten in Britain.

In addition to the memorial stone there is a small museum at the Harworth Colliery club which was officially opened by Tour de France riders Vin Denson, Barry Hoban, Arthur Metcalfe and winner and mountains jersey record holder Lucien Van Impe on 12/08/2001. Albert Beurick, Tom's greatest supporter during his career, made the trip from Ghent and handed over to the museum some of his most treasured mementoes - including the huge portrait of Tom painted the day after he won the World Championship in 1965.

Visitors to Harworth can also pay their respects to Tom at his well kept grave in Harworth.

On the night of Simpsons death Jacques Goddet described him as "un chic garcon who was probably afraid of defeat."

The local web site Donnyonline is more pragmatic - “The World Champion cyclist Tommy Simpson came from Harworth. He died tragically while competing in the Tour de France in 1967 slogging up Mont Ventoux.”

Tom Simpson’s Resting Place

In order to read more about Tom Simpson and a great deal more, please visit this great site Pro Cycling's Hall of Fame.

Photos courtesy of Pro Cyling's Hall of Fame and Radsport.

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