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)