In modern Britain, names such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are, if not quite household names, certainly well known to many people. In the Olympics and on the big tours, such as the Tour de France, British cycling is a major force.
In sixties Britain this was not the case, when there was just one man who carried British hopes on the international stage. Born in 1937, in county Durham, Tommy Simpson won a bronze medal for track cycling at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a silver at the 1958 Commonwealth Games and signed for a French professional road racing team at the age of 21. He became the first British rider to wear the yellow jersey in the 1962 Tour de France. In 1965 he was Britain’s first world road race champion and was elected BBC Sports Personality of the Year, a rare honour for a cyclist.
Simpson was renowned for riding to the absolute edge of his capability and in an age when there were no doping controls, he was known to use drugs, namely amphetamines, in his desperate quest for success. He had failed to finish the 1965 and 1966 Tours de France and he considered 1967 his ‘must do’ year. Early in 1967, on the Tour of Spain, he won two stages but was dragged from his bike by the Peugeot manager, Gaston Plaud, when zigzagging out of control on the ascent of Port d’Envalira, while ten kilometres ahead of the field. No longer his manager, Plaud described Simpson at the start of the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour de France.
‘’The face I saw was of a very tired man,” he recalled. “His features were drawn and he was very white. I knew he was not good in the heat (it was 54 degrees in the sun that day). I said he should not go up Ventoux because he was not healthy enough.” Three days earlier Simpson had suffered a very bad gastric upset, so bad that his bike had to be hosed down afterwards and he was left weakened and dehydrated.
As the race reached the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux, Simpson was seen to wash down a handful of pills with brandy. Near the summit, the peloton began to fracture and Simpson slipped back to the group of chasers. Next, he began to zigzag wildly and one kilometre from the summit fell from his bike. Team manager, Alec Taylor and mechanic, Henry Hall arrived soon afterwards in the team car.
Hall said, “Come on, Tom, that’s it, that’s your tour finished.” Simpson insisted on continuing and Taylor agreed. “If Tom wants to go on, he goes.” They got him on his bike and pushed him off. His last words appeared to be, “On, on, on.”
Pictures taken from a press motorbike just moments before his collapse show a man at the end of his tether, hollow cheeked, sunken eyes with a pale, dry, dehydrated skin.
Less than 500 metres further on, he began to wobble, before being held upright by three spectators. He was unconscious, hands locked to the handlebars and his heartbeat exceeded 200. He had gone way beyond what other cyclists know as the zone. He had entered a zone from which there was no return. Hall and a nurse gave mouth to mouth and the Tour physician arrived with an oxygen mask. Forty minutes later he was flown by police helicopter to hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5.40. Two empty tubes and a half full one of amphetamines were found in the rear pocket of his jersey. The pills had allowed him to push himself beyond his limits, eventually causing heart failure due to heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Tommy Simpson always looked for any potential advantage but almost half a century later, he is still held in high esteem by many cyclists, for his character and extraordinary will to win. His death was largely responsible for the later introduction of mandatory drug testing.