Forty-five years ago, a Briton won the World Championship road race. He'd already made a name for himself in the Tour de France and was a winner of the Milan-San Remo Classic and other races. Feats enough to attain legend status. But feats overshadowed by doping and his death on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour.
Title: Cycling Is My Life
Author: Tommy Simpson (with David Saunders, introduction by David Millar)
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 1966 (updated 1968, 2009)
What it is: The autobiography of Tom Simpson, published on the back of his 1965 World Championship road race victory.
Strengths: Charming. Covers most of the races he won and nearly won up to the end of 1965, with some wonderful stories told about most of them.
Weaknesses: Charming. Plays up the Major Tommy character the French so loved him for. And despite its revelations about deals and the like, it's not nearly as revelatory as you'd wish it had been.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)
Let's begin this story at the end. No, not that end. Not that day on that mountain. Let's begin where Cycling Is My Life ends. In the Basque Country. Lasarte, near San Sebastián. The World Championship road race, 1965.
Ninety-six riders took the line and the race was run over fourteen laps of a near nineteen kilometre circuit. From the gun, the Spanish squad took charge of the race. A dozen riders went clear on the first lap, four of them Spanish, and had a lead of a minute by the end of the lap. Simpson missed the break but his compatriot, Barry Hoban, didn't. One Briton. Against four Spaniards. Two Dutchmen. Two Italians. And one rider each from Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.
Did Simpson decide that the odds against Hoban were too high? Or did he just rate himself the better rider? Whichever, he decided he had to be up there. He'd already been in with a shot on too many occasions in the Worlds. He wasn't willing to give this one up without a fight.
"[Alan] Ramsbottom and Vin Denson took me to the front of the bunch and lead me out. As I went off the front there was a bit of a dash by a few other riders, but I put my head down, kept going and, in about fifty yards, swung over. [Rudi] Altig came through with a Spaniard on his wheel but there was no one behind them. We raced away and caught the break by the time the third lap began."
Their lead over the peloton was about three minutes. This was the winning break. There'd be attempts from the bunch behind to bridge across to them, but with Ramsbottom and Denson back there, controlling the pace, disrupting the chase, the bunch never got up to them. Whoever was going to win this day and wear the rainbow jersey for the next year was in that break.
"I really only feared two men there, Altig and [Peter] Post. Altig was probably in good form, although he was on crutches when the Tour de France started. I wondered if he had the necessary miles in his legs and considered Post the more dangerous. As we came through the finishing straight to complete ten laps I was wondering if and when I should attack."
Simpson went with two and a half laps to go. "It was timed to a nicety as I attacked on the big climb near the village of Hernani. I was using my championship ring on the back wheel, the 54x14, and I kept in it as we went up the climb. In a matter of seconds I was clear, taking Altig with me."
The previous year, Altig had partnered Simpson in the Baracchi Trophy, a two-up time-trial: "he had shattered me. I was so dead he had practically pushed me over the last few miles." Simpson knew that the two could work well together and had a shout of staying away. At the top of the hill, he looked across to Altig and said to him: "'Come on Rudi, remember the Barrachi!' [...] I think that must have made him think he could win. He just smiled and nodded and we got down to the work of keeping clear."
Their lead was up to a minute as they started the penultimate lap. If Simpson's call of ‘Remember the Barrachi!' had made Altig think he could win, then the German gave the psychological advantage back to the Briton when he asked him not to go so hard as they went over the Hernani climb. Cycling is as much a psychological sport as it is a test of raw power. Form and fitness can be overcome - for better or worse - by what goes on in a rider's mind. When Altig asked him to slow down, Simpson believed he had the better legs that day.
Both riders must have been confident they had the beating of the other in them, for around the back of the circuit they reached a gentleman's agreement: "Both of us had worked hard in our little break and, therefore, we each deserved an equal chance of victory. We agreed to separate when we reached the ‘one kilometre' to got board and ride side by side. In this way there would be no tactical advantage for either of us and it would be a straight sprint for the line."
As they hit the kite, they stuck to their agreement, each taking a different side of the road. The final kilo would be a straight sprint. "I started my sprint a few hundred yards out and kept going as hard as I could. I didn't look ahead at all, I was looking down, looking for his shadow on the road as he came up on me." Even in a gentleman's agreement, Simpson had made sure he would have the advantage.
"I kept thinking, ‘He's coming! He's coming! He's coming!' And suddenly when I was ten yards from the line it dawned on me. ‘He hasn't! He hasn't made it! It's mine!' and I was over the line, grinning like a maniac, heart pounding, and tears welling in my eyes."
Victory must have seemed just reward, for the previous year in Sallanches, France, in the shadow of Mt Blanc, Simpson had ridden his heart out and only finished fourth. The press declared him the moral victor, but that was scant reward for a race which had seen Simpson spill it on a wet descent early in the race - road rash and a bent pedal were the worst of it - and then miss the break when it went away a few laps later. Their advantage was up to six minutes by the time the race reached halfway. With only nine laps to go, Simpson finally gave chase. Soloing it, he gradually pegged them back. It took him nearly seventy kilometres to get up, by which time there was only two of the original six riders left in the break, the others having faded away.
Simpson was knackered from his solo chase, and Henri Anglade and Andre Foucher - the last remnants of the break - couldn't have been in much better condition, having been out front so long. Foucher was the first to fall back. Then Jan Janssens and Vittorio Adorni bridged across to them. Raymond Poulidor got on as well. Simpson kept getting shelled out the back on the climbs but kept pulling himself back up on the descents. Anglade fared worse and lost contact. Into the final three hundred metres and there was four of them: Janssens, Adorni, Poulidor, and Simpson. And that's how they finished: "I had given everything I had and was nowhere."
Fourth was where Simpson had finished when he first rode a World Championship road race. That was back in 1959, and he'd only turned pro a few months earlier. The race was on the motor-racing circuit at Zandewoorth in the Netherlands. Simpson got away in a break of eight, finished fourth, André Darrigade winning the rainbow jersey. DeDe's victory owed something to the support he'd received from two Dutch riders in the break. Such intrigues would colour many of Simpson's rides in the Worlds.
In 1960 the race had been held in Germany, around the Saxon Ring. Four laps in and Simpson broke a shoelace, and his foot came out of his shoe. He slowed to put matters right but a team car came up on him from behind and hit him, sending him over the handlebars. He hit the ground head first. For his troubles he received five stitches and a bollocking from Raymond Louviot, his Rapha - Gitane - Dunlop trade-team manager: "[he] told me it was all my fault and I should look where I am and at what is happening. I think he was right too, he usually was, for I was not really paying attention to detail."
The next year the Worlds were in Berne, Switzerland: "It was not a very exciting event. I found it rather boring in fact, but managed to get with the important break when it went and, considering my lack of miles, rode quite well and certainly better than I anticipated." This was Van Looy's year though, when he successfully defended his title. But only just: "The most eventful happening in the whole race took place right there at the finish, for, only a few metres from the line, Van Looy's wheel began to collapse."
Then came Salo in northern Italy. "The vital break went away early in the race as had happened many times before in World Championships. With about forty miles [sixty-five kilometres] to go I attacked and got clear. I went too hard early on, again my impulsiveness driving the pedals round too quickly for my physical condition to take. I pulled back a minute in ten miles and soon had them in sight. Could I close the gap? Not on your life! It was one of the most agonising moments of my racing career, to sit there and see them about fifty yards up the road and I just could not get on." Simpson abandoned. The intrigue that year was between France's Jean Stablinski and Ireland's Shay Elliott, who finished first and second. Elliott clearly didn't chase when Stablinski broke for the line at the end of the race, admitted as much after the race. They both rode for Saint-Raphaël - Helyett - Hutchinson. Stablinski was his friend and brother-in-law.
1963 saw the race in Renaix, Belgium. This one Simpson really wanted, for he was living in Ghent at this stage, so it was practically a home race. "I asked Ramsbottom and the other British lads if they would ride for me. ‘Rams' said he wanted to have a go himself, Denson was ready to ‘have a go' but the others were a bit cagey. I was prepared to pay them for their work in much the same way that Van Looy had done to gain his own two titles. Whether they didn't believe me or just weren't interested I don't know so I tried to get the other two English-speaking riders, Irishmen Shay Elliott and Peter Crinnion, on my side too, hoping we could all ‘gang up' against he continentals and give them a taste of their own medicine."
Van Looy was paying BF50,000 a head, about £350 in those days. Three laps from the finish, Simpson was away with Elliott: "He worked a bit at the front and I said to him, ‘Come on then, Sam, we've got to work if we're going to win, one of us.' He was noncommittal about it and I had the feeling that he was only there to mark me. I offered him the same price that Van Looy was giving his team but he told me it wasn't enough. I doubled it in desperation, for I did so want to win and especially to beat the Belgian combine."
The pair weren't just bound by language. Elliott and Simpson rode on the same international team in the Tour de France, but the rest of the year rode on rival trade-teams. Elliott gave Simpson his answer: "I'm sorry Tom, after all, I don't ride for Peugeot." Simpson was pretty sanguine about the brush-off. "I knew what he meant and realised that there was would be a lot of angry men in his own [trade] team if he helped me. It might have affected his contract for the following year and I certainly did not blame him for refusing to help."
The peloton caught them with about a lap to go. Simpson contested the sprint. "I would not have won, as there were a number of much better sprinters around me but then, bang! Van Looy grabbed me by the jersey and just about brought me to a standstill!" That was just the start of it. No sooner had Simpson regained his momentum than Jan Janssens was hanging off his jersey. That was the end of Simpson's race. But the jersey pulling didn't end there. Up front, Benoni Beheyt got a hold of Van Looy's jersey, tugged him back and crossed the line first.
Simpson's pursuit of victory in the Worlds across those seven years says a lot about him, about the type of man, the type of rider, he was. He didn't just confine himself to wanting that one race. He wanted them all. Some of them he got. Some of them he only ever came close to getting. And one of them - the Tour - was always beyond him.
* * * * *
Moving a bit beyond Cycling Is My Life and looking just at those Worlds appearances affords an opportunity to see what it was that set Simpson apart from the English-speaking riders who preceded him. And continued to set him apart from the English-speaking riders who followed him, up until the arrival of riders like Sean Kelly, Greg LeMond, Phil Anderson and Robert Millar. The easiest way of showing the difference is to see how Simpson differed from Elliott.
Elliott was the older of the two, but only by a few years. They both faced the difficulty of breaking into a foreign culture, that of continental Europe. They both succeeded where so many of their compatriots just couldn't be bothered going. They had both made a name for themselves in the Route de France, Elliott being picked up by Micky Weigant's Athletic Club Boulange-Billancort (the famous ACBB, which was a nursery squad for so many members of the 1980's Foreign Legion - Jock Boyer, Paul Sherwen, Phil Anderson, Robert Millar, Allan Peiper, Stephen Roche) and Simpson had been picked up by St Rapha/VC12.
They both won important Classics - Elliott the Het Volk in 1959, Simpson the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1961. They both wore the maillot jaune in the Tour de France, Simpson for one stage in 1962, Elliott for four stages in 1963. In the Grand Tours, Elliott would be the more successful rider, according to the record books, winning stages in all three. In truth, Simpson only really shone in one edition of the Tour, despite all the years he tried and tried to overcome his own weaknesses and how indelibly that race has come to be associated with his name. But Simpson shone in the Classics and the shorter stage-races. Bordeaux-Paris in 1963. Milan-San Remo in 1964. The Giro di Lombardia in 1965. Paris-Nice 1967.
When Simpson was faced with the prospect of riding for Jacques Anquetil, the difference between the two became obvious. Simpson's response to the merger of his Gitane - Leroux - Dunlop squad with the Saint-Raphaël - Helyett - Hutchinson squad of Anquetil - to form Saint-Raphaël - Gitane - R Géminiani - VC 12ème - was to sign on for Peugeot, not wanting to get lost in Anquetil's shadow. Elliott spent most of his career riding for Anquetil.
Look at the two of them in the Worlds. They both came from weaker cycling nations and couldn't call on the sort of team support the French or the Italians or the Belgians could. But that didn't stop Simpson setting his sights on the rainbow jersey. Elliott on the other hand settled for second best, not chasing in 1962 when Stablinski broke for victory. Even the following year, when offered a chance to duke it out with Simpson and come away with at least silver, possibly gold, Elliott turned down the opportunity.
Cycling has a pecking order. Some have called it a mafia. Freddy Maertens did so in the seventies, when Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck regularly overcame their own rivalry to try and stop Maertens winning. Tyler Hamilton used the word in more recent years, when the riders he thought were his peers failed to leap to his defence after he got busted for blood doping. Allan Peiper, in the eighties, saw it more as a class system: "There is a strong class system in the peloton. With the top riders forming an upper class. Then there are the middle and lower classes, and you tend to interact only with your own class."
Elliott was, like many other riders before him and since, happy in the middle or lower classes. It wasn't a bad life, as the Irishman proved. He made good money. Got some good wins. And got to enjoy the high life. Simpson tells of being one of a group of riders invited to race in New Caledonia, a Pacific island about a thousand miles from Australia. This was November 1963. The riders included Anquetil, Anglade and a few others. Elliott was one of the others. It was a week or so of races, somewhere in between Fausto Coppi's hunting-and-racing trip to the Upper Volta and the Amstel Curaçao races the stars of today get to enjoy. The races were exhibition affairs and in between them Elliott and Simpson and the other riders got to enjoy the good life.
But the class system has strict rules. Go back to the 1961 Worlds. The year of Van Looy's collapsing wheel. Earlier in the race, a Dutch rider, Michel Stoler, was pretty much out of contention, having lost too many team-mates; "Van Looy came up to talk to me. He said he'd seen how well I was riding. But [when a rider drops a hint like that] it puts you in a difficult position. So I had to go back and talk to Jacques Anquetil [Stoler's trade-team boss] and find out whether he was going to try to win. If he'd said yes, I couldn't have ridden for Van Looy and I'd have had to have ridden for Anquetil instead."
That story shines a light on what had happened in the 1963 Worlds, Simpson and Elliott out front and Elliott - despite having sold his services in many a race throughout his career (Les Woodland, in one of his books, notes that Elliott frequently admitted in private that he made more money by arranging other people's victories than by staging his own) - refused Simpson's offer of money to help because, though they had been team-mates, they were now on rival trade-teams and Elliott didn't have permission to help Simpson.
You also have to look at the 1964 race, when Beheyt took a pull off Van Looy's and stole the rainbow jersey. Beheyt was not in Van Looy's class. And he paid dearly for that rainbow jersey. Within a couple of years he was out of the sport, the peloton having closed ranks on him. Elliott wouldn't even risk winning. Simpson would.
Elliott knew the rules, accepted them, abided by them. Simpson though was not happy living off crumbs. The coal-miner's son from the North East of England wanted his seat at the top table. And he pushed his way through to get there. And by the time he won that rainbow jersey in 1965, he'd justified his place there. No other British rider before him had made it that far. And it would be a long time before another British rider repeated the feat.
* * * * *
Getting back to Cycling Is My Life, Simpson finding gold at the end of the rainbow is where the story ends. Sort of. For there was epilogue to 1965. Simpson followed up his Worlds win with a rare double - the Worlds and the Giro Di Lombardia. Only one man had done it before him, the campionissimo Alfredo Binda. Eddy Merckx followed, in 1971. Merckx's doping bust in the 1973 Giro Di Lombardia allowed Felice Gimondi to do the double, after he inherited the Race of the Falling Leaves from the Cannibal. In more recent years, only Giueseppe Saronni (1982), Oscar Camenzind (1998) and Paolo Bettini (2006) have been able to repeat that rare double.
But of course that's not the end of the story. When Cycling Is My Life was reissued after Simpson's death, David Saunders, Simpson's ghost-writer, added a new introduction, which is notable only for the manner in which it avoids the issue of doping. Saunders' denial typifies the way many British cycling fans chose - and some still choose - to view Simpson's death. Sadly it also typifies the way many of Simpson's fellow riders saw his death. Worse, it typifies the way the cycling authorities chose to see it.
Last year, Yellow Jersey Press put Cycling Is My Life back into print, with a new introduction from the man who had, in the worst way possible, inherited Simpson's mantle as Britain's most famous - and, for some, favourite - doper, David Millar: "Tommy Simpson and I share many traits and have followed similar paths. I, like him, immersed myself completely in a world that was foreign to me in the pursuit of a dream. As with Tommy, that dream became life-consuming; as with Tommy it ended up with my doping. But I have survived where Tommy didn't."
For many years after his death, Simpson was a divisive figure among British cycling fans. The Comic or one of the other cycling magazines would run power polls, all-time rankings of British cyclists. The arguments those polls would generate were many. But they weren't over what place Simpson should occupy. They were over whether you could even include Simpson in such a poll.
In light of the sport's recent history - very recent history - those arguments highlight one of the difficulties of being a cycling fan. Simpson's doping should never be forgotten. Nor should it ever be excused. But you can't just air-brush the man from history, air-brush his achievements from history. With the air-brush being powered up again for recent cycling legends, how Simpson should be remembered is a question well worth asking.