The Tour de France climbed Mont Ventoux yesterday, and the British riders found their way to pay their respects to Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who died on the climb in 1967, a mile short of the summit, suffering from a mixture of heat exhaustion, dehydration, stomach problems (he’d been ill for several days), amphetamines and alcohol. The best account of that fateful day is in William Fotheringham’s biography Put Me Back On The Bike, which makes it clear there were other causes as well; professional insecurity and Simpson’s burning desire, which quite often pushed him beyond his physical limits.
Simpson was the first British cyclist to make a real impact on professional cycling, and is probably still Britain’s most successful racer, winning among quite a lot of others the World Championships, Paris-Nice, and classic one-day races such as the Milan-San Remo (not won by another UK rider until Cavendish’s win earlier this year). The first, too, to wear the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour, with a best finish in sixth place.
Yesterday David Millar threw an inscribed Garmin team cap to the foot of the memorial, while Charly Wegelius added a water bottle. Mark Cavendish removed his helmet. Bradley Wiggins, who had gone past at the business end of the stage about half an hour before, Twittered afterwards that he’d had a photo of Simpson taped to his bike.
Shed a tear today for Tom. I had a little extra strength today from somewhere. Had a photo of the man on my top tube.
The most exact epitaph for Simpson came earlier this year from David Millar, who’s had his own problems with drugs. In his introduction to Simpson’s recently re-published autobiography, Cycling is my Life, he described the memorial as a poignant reminder of “how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling’s very own Icarus.”