Monday, November 19, 2007

Tom Simpson: The Lion of Yorkshire

John Pierce of Photosport International began shooting the Tour de France 41 years ago--a record even Joop Zoetemelk would admire. His first day on the Tour was the day after Simpson died. John wrote us in response to our post Godspeed.

Everyone has their own “way” about these things. In many ways I agree with your sentiments.

Why did Britain make a hero out of a doper? In this day and age--where doping is in the blood and controlled by doctors (up to nine doctors per team)--it seems a stupid thing for a nation to select a doper as one of their greatest ambassadors.

The perception and probably correct assumption at the time was that Simpson died because he pushed himself too hard. When his body gave up on him, he asked “put me back on my bike.” Harry Hall (who died last week) did just that. Simmy was already “clinically dead,” but the brandy and the amphetamines (a la discoteque) made him think otherwise. He died.

What Simpson had in his system was nothing like what Van Looy, Anquetil, Janssens or Darrigad were alleged to have used, i.e., enough strychnine to kill a horse.

Simpson, first of all, was a “small” person from a poor mining town in Yorkshire--much like many of the French--Pingeon perhaps. Simpson, however, was a gentleman, “from the old school,” and he played on that even before James Bond was on the screens. The French loved him, and they wanted more Brits, still do.

He was BBC Personality of the Year, a presentation awarded to him personally by the Prime Minister--not just some TV guy, like these days.

No “normal” rider has the “heart” that Simpson had. In Flandres they would have called him a "lion". If you mix up the likes of Roger DeVlaeminck, Johaan Museeuw and Felice Gimondi you will have what was Tom Simpson. But unlike those riders, Simpson was of a frail body--his family was very poor in his youth; his father (I think) was a miner.

Life in Britain at that time was far from good--Simpson was born just two years into the second world war ... in 1937. The war ended in 1945, when he was 8 yrs. old; there were still rations during his teens.

Simpson didn't die from the stimulants; he rode himself to death, and he did it because it was his last chance to move up the GC. Drugs cannot do that to a rider; cycling cannot do that to a man of his health, youth and vitality. Simpson pushed and pushed; the stimulants and the "bit of brandy" used in those days to quench the thirst (I used it when I raced) combined with the tremendous heat that day allowed him to ride way beyond his means yet still stay somewhat upright on the bike. (Tom also had a stomach problem having previously had a tape worm.)

From that stage to the finish in Paris the top six on GC did not change, not even for one day for one place. Simpson died on Stage 13.

Simpson’s team manger was a guy called Alec Taylor. I met him at the TdF start in 1997. He asked me if I had photos of Tom—Yes I will send them when I get home from the start (in Rouen). It was strange becuase his room number in the hotel was 13. We spoke about how everything was adding up to 13--the time, his race number, the stage, the date, the year and so on. He said Tom's “lucky number” was 13 because no one else wanted it.

I returned home for five days before going back to the TdF--so I mailed him the pictures. They arrived on the 14th July; his wife called me crying--Alec had died the day before--same time, same date—exactly the same 30 years after.

You work it out--

Britain has another person whose death we shall never get over--Princess Diana--both are held in the same esteem.

In later years, when the peloton passed the memorial, Merckx slowed and took his cap off. Millar did the same; in fact Millar threw his cap to Joanne, Tom’s daughter, as he passed in the Tour one time. Millar and Wiggins looked for each other, so they could pass together this year when they raced up in the Dauphine.

Simpson with protege Eddy Merckx on his wheel.

Of course everyone forgets who taught Eddy Merckx how to ride a bike--everyone except Eddy that is--it was Tom. I have a small piece of lunar-like granite from where Tom fell on the Ventoux . It was given to me by Joanne Simpson.

Jacques Goddet asked to have his picture taken (by me) at the Simpson Memorial standing next to Barry Hoban. Goddet was educated in Britain (Oxford University I think). In 1987, I received the Medaille du Tour de France, but not from the race director, or press chief Claude Sudres - It was presented by Jacques Goddet. That year the race was won by an Irishman I personally, face-to-face fixed up with the ACBB a few years earlier.

Small world. We're proud of Tom. I’m happy you were so moved as to have written your article. I’m attaching two shots of Tom, perhaps you have seen them before?

Cheers for now...

John Pierce (Photographer Cyclisme)
PhotoSport International


Anonymous said...

Very informative letter. Simpson will always be remembered for the drugs, but his stature within the peloton was just below the level of a patron. Most people tend to think of him as a mid-level pro, who got noteriety for dying on a hot bleak mountain. Not so, according to those that lived it.

Anonymous said...

...padraig, i'm glad your passion compelled you to create your "godspeed" post, as it's drawn john pierce into sharing a deep & touching look into the why & wherefores of 'the lion of yorkshire'...

...there is no way i could justify the 'facts', but to me, simpson was always more than 'just another doper' knowing as i did, something of his life...the stimulants, while widely used throughout the peloton seemed so incongruous with simpsons newfound adopted lifestyle...a lifestyle i now assume was to help make up for the inequities of the war & postwar food shortages... several of us pointed out & mr pierce confirmed, the passion to be the best is what drove simpson to his death, drugs simply assured it... pierce, when i saw your photo of simpson with the young merckx at his side, mentor & student, englishman & belgian, my breath caught in my throat...eddy merckx with his storied & glorious career & yet in the beginning, here with tommy so obviously in exquisite photo...

...i can only say thank you, john pierce & padraig, this has been enriching...
...godspeed & cheers...

Il Bruce said...

My father in law Ray raced with Simpson, Hoban, and Robinson a bit as a lad in England.

He and Simpson were about the same age. (Today is my father in law's 70th birthday.)

Not at emotional type Ray was brought up in Burnley Lancashire and is a Lancashireman through and through. Ray is a kind loving man but not demonstritive in his emotions. He still gets quite upset when Simpson is discussed. He was "one of us" Ray said.

Anonymous said...'ve added a nice touch...your father-in-laws succinct comment speaks volumes about the bonding created by cycling...

Anonymous said...

Tom Simpson was a top level pro of his era and an inspiration to myself. As a Canadian born junior rider introduced to cycling with a local club of British ex-pats, Britannia CC in the Toronto, Canada area, Simpson was a huge symbol that an English speaker rider could make the pro peloton and also win some of the best pro races. I remember him for winning the Tour of Flanders, Milan San-Remo, Tour of Lombardy and the World Pro Road Championship. His book "Cycling is my Life" is a story of that struggle to make it in a cycling era that was rough and tough. A read of it is an illuminating illustration of pro cycling at that time and may provide some element of understanding of that era.

I still have the issue of British publication Cycling Weekly that announced the terribly unfortunate and tragic demise of Tom on Mont Ventoux, July 13, 1967. It contains many quotes of the people Tom Simpson touched in his sporting career. I still feel the sense of loss and pain when I pick it up and read it now.

Later on, Simpson did inspire me to go from Canada to the European continent to race my bike and it was then I truly understood what he was up against. Alone except for my bike, a suitcase, in a foreign land and language... an English speaker bike rider in the peloton was a still a rare oddity at the time. The obstacles were great. Belgium was very good to me as it was to Tom Simpson and I fondly remember the people who helped me there. Belgium was and remains truly the "Mecca of cycling".

Tom Simpson was an excellent and awesome rider.