Friday, November 16, 2007

Godspeed

In August of 2000, I had the opportunity to climb what is arguably the Tour’s most infamous climb, Mont Ventoux. Rising just shy of 2,000 meters (a little less than 6,000 feet) from the floor of Provence, climbing the Ventoux is as humbling an ascent as a cyclist might undertake. July 13, 1967, Tom Simpson suffered heart failure 1.5k from the summit as a result of amphetamine use.

Readers of BKW already know my position on doping in cycling is uncompromisingly against. When Phil Liggett or some other broadcast journalist would pay some homage to Simpson in Tour coverage, I used to talk back to the TV and shout how Simpson didn’t “give his life,” but was a pinhead for using amphetamines. They weren’t a good idea in rock and roll, and they were a terrible idea in cycling.

When I climbed Mont Ventoux, I passed Simpson’s memorial without stopping. Tour riders don’t get a chance to stop there and recover, so neither did I. While I was in no way a fan of Simpson’s, I couldn’t not stop at a memorial to such a significant event in Tour history. I recovered at the top and then rode back down.

I laid my bike down and gingerly made my way up the rocky slope, Speedplay cleats and all. What I saw stunned me. Literally littering the three steps at the foot of his monument were tiny tributes to a fallen member of cycling’s own. Hats, bottles, old tires and tubes, a flag, the odd bandana, flowers and T-shirts so covered the steps, there was no room to sit down. I made the connection with the ancient practice of leaving food, hunting items, clothes, all the things one might need in the next life. And here, at this modest memorial, cyclists from all over the world were leaving Simpson whatever they had to wish him Godspeed.

Gradually, what hit me was a feeling of loss. Not that I personally had lost anything, but what Simpson’s loss was. Here was a guy, a human being, a cyclist for whom racing and winning meant so much that he had given⎯literally⎯everything; he gave his life. Were his choices wise? Certainly not, but could I really condemn a guy for bad judgment? Who would argue that he really understood the risk he undertook--and the price he ultimately paid--to race on amphetamines? The sadness that realization provoked in me was great enough I was glad for the glasses I had on.

As I looked closer I noticed how everything left seemed worn out and used. I was struck by what an insult that seemed to be. One's burial clothes are the finest available, not a ratty old T-shirt. Seeing the threadbare casings of the old tires only compounded my sadness. After a family climbed back in their car, I, to my own surprise, knelt down and wept. What struck me was how stingy visitors were to leave their castoffs. But what had I to offer? I felt my pockets and remembered my second, unopened Powerbar. I pulled it from my jersey and slipped it under a rock on the top step. Leaving the uneaten bar seemed the only respectful acknowledgement. It was private moment, one that I have not otherwise told anyone about, and only do so now as a way to show how profoundly moved I was by the memorial, and my grasp of his frail humanity.

My views on drug use and cheating will never change, but I can’t condemn Simpson for his tragic death. I am both chastened and inspired by his example. Many of us talk about how we’d love to die doing our favorite thing in the whole world. Simpson did exactly that, even if prematurely. In as much as any of us might wish to meet our maker in the saddle, doing so while racing the Tour de France goes down as going out with true panache. Godspeed to you Tom.

12 comments:

interested reader said...

There is a similar memorial to Steve Prefontaine in Eugene, Oregon. For those that don't know, "Pre" was a brash, charismatic runner in the 70s. He died in a car crash at, arguably, the prime of his career. There is a memorial at the spot where his car flipped over and killed him. For 5 years, I lived around the corner from the memorial, and would run and bike past it almost daily.

Silimar to the memorial you describe, passionate runners leave old running shoes, jerseys, etc. Your reaction to the memorial and the castaways is intruiging. However, I always took this in a different way. I interpret the "gifts" as a sign that his spirit lives on through the runners that remembered him. In that the worn out shoe refelects the miles that he is still running.

Maybe the worn out tire is a sign that his spirit lives on through those that he inspires to ride.


Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Went up Ventoux this fall, albeit fromt Sault side. I must say the memorial looks much better these days with new concrete steps leading to the memorial, much improved over the old eroding ones pictured. We left no memento but felt sad that such a tragic event happened at that spot. We crept to the summit, the 10% grade and mistral fighting us but our sadness about the memorial lifted knowing that we trudged on in the shadows of the greats, Merckx, Bartali, Coppi, etc. Now that's something to celebrate!

Guy WR said...

Nice call, Freddy. I recall from Simpson's bio that his family and some locals had collected trash bags full of offerings from his memorial over the years. Riders feel like they need to leave a tribute, but most of it all ends up as rubbish, collected by someone else.

Colin Griffiths said...

Harry Hall passed away a couple of weeks ago. He was first to get to Simpson when he collapsed

Tim Jackson- Masi Guy said...

RF- My friend, those are amazingly eloquent words. Sometimes what we think gets challenged in ways we never expect- new doors to thinking and understanding swing open when we least expect it.

I am currently in Japan now for their very large cycling consumer show, to support my fantastic new distributor. I walked to a Buddhist temple this morning and was moved beyond words.

Sometimes it just happens that way.

Jim said...

I also was struck by how worn the items left behind by the Simpson visitors were. However, I just assumed that they were tattered because of the weather.

Anonymous said...

I heard that the local town actually comes and collects all the stuff laid at his memorial quite often and then stores all of it in boxes at an office. That way people don't feel as though their "tributes" are just thrown in the trash.

Anonymous said...

sounds like the local Starbucks in Toronto

bikesgonewild said...

...in retrospect, it's both interesting & sad to know that tom simpson was for that age in sports, at the vanguard of trying to live in a healthy intelligent manner...

...his training methods were considered advanced, his natural food selection was exemplary... his wife made him quarts of fresh carrot juice, his concern about hygiene & proper sleep habits were beyond the norm but in the end he literally sacrificed himself on the high peak of cycling w/ the use of drugs...trying to be the best by beating the best & paying w/ his life...

...as colin g metions, the first to get to simpson that day was his mechanic, harry hall who himself just passed away after a life of cycling involvement...how tragic that his friend & hero, a world champion died in his arms on those windswept barren rocks, so many years ago...

...i think august gentlemen like phil liggett still hold tommy simpson in such high regard all these years later because he represented such a hope for the future, & they still see his cycling drug use as an anomalous contrast to his lifestyle...

...maybe not well known & so very sad was that only one of simpson's team-mates bothered themselves to show up at his funeral...that man was the young eddy merckx...

joe said...

Leaving something new could be read as an offering of money. New clothing can be bought by anyone with cash, worn clothing is earned.

I think that people leave things that mean something to them, the rides that have faded them, the experiences that have been had in them. This is why grandparents give their own, old worn watches and not new Timexs.

I don't mean this as a critique of your writing, just to point out that all of that "junk" meant something special to the people that left it there. They left it with in intent to show respect. The good news is, so did you.

Thank you.

Bike_Boy said...

You can't blame Tommy, for a person whose passion, bread and butter was cycling, there'd be no hope racing without doping, with folks who did. He would be hopeless, unable to fight the fatigue of trecherous speeds on the climbs... Its surprising but back in those days, you were an outcast if you didn't, you'd never fit in with the cycling "family" if you didn't dope. Such was the vice of the times.

Anonymous said...

Simpson's biography "Put Me Back on the Bike" is a good read and helps put this in some perspective.