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Remembering Tom Simpson 50 years on

On this day in 1967 Tom Simpson collapsed on Mont Ventoux. Cyclist talks to Simpson's daughter Joanne about the man and his untimely death

Jeremy Whittle
13 Jul 2017

How much do most people know about Tom Simpson, beyond that he died one baking afternoon high on the barren slopes of Mont Ventoux in southern France?

Well, at a time when British cycling was a downtrodden backwater, Simpson was a World Champion, a winner of Paris-Nice and multiple Monuments and a BBC Sports Personality of the Year. 

He was a rival to Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi and Jacques Anquetil, and was more of a star in Belgium, his adopted country, than he was at home. He dreamed of victory in the Tour.

After years of near misses, he was determined to succeed in 1967 and so, despite being ill, he drove himself to race onwards… until his fatal collapse on the Giant of Provence.

Simpson’s death shocked and appalled cycling, and the wider sporting community. He had been suffering from heat exhaustion, fatigue and dehydration.

All the reports of the time, and since, emphasised the pill-popping culture of the era and point to amphetamine use as the ultimate cause of death.

Which is why, for all his achievements on the bike, the 50th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death is going almost unnoticed by the Tour de France organisation and by much of the British mainstream media. 

Even now, Simpson’s name is still associated with cycling’s ongoing battle to distance itself from its ethical demons. Only in Belgium, where his daughter Joanne is the driving force keeping the flame burning, is his career still celebrated, his victories remembered. 

Whatever the definitive details of his death, Joanne Simpson will never allow her father’s achievements to be swept under the carpet.

There was much more to Tom Simpson than the media soundbite of death on a hot afternoon and the Tour’s fight against doping. 

Simpson’s achievements, at a time when football was the nation’s headline sport, remain under-recognised, particularly in Britain.

They are many: victory in a brutal Tour of Flanders, in Milan-San Remo, Bordeaux-Paris, the Tour of Lombardy; against Merckx in Paris-Nice and for Great Britain in the World Championships Road Race. There was even a spell in the yellow jersey in the Tour itself. 

Racing in the Tour a year after England had won the 1966 World Cup, and two years after becoming BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Tom Simpson knew that victory, with the Union flag on the shoulders of his jersey, would crown his success back home. 

He was agonisingly close to the top of Ventoux when he collapsed, just below the Col des Tempêtes, a little over a kilometre away from the exposed summit.

Five minutes away at most, it has been estimated. On another day, on another year, he would probably have got over the top and been able to recover on the descent. 

Joanne Simpson was on a beach in Corsica with her mum, Helen, when her father died on the Ventoux. She was just four.

Joanne doesn’t remember much, apart from leaving the beach and walking back through the village near Bonifacio that her father was so fond of, and noticing that ‘everybody was crying’.

The next day there was an obituary in the Yorkshire Post. Simpson’s teammate, Brian Robinson, was quoted: ‘I know the place well where Tom died. It is a hill of death.’

In the name of the father

It’s uncharacteristically hot, nudging 30°C, on the late May afternoon that we arrive at Joanne’s house just outside Ghent. On the nearby main road, groups of Belgian cyclists on high-end bikes pedal past in the warm sunshine. 

Joanne rides a lot too, sometimes over 300km a week. She’s in training for a series of events marking the 50th anniversary of her dad’s death, including a family gathering on the Ventoux on 13th July. 

She is immediately likable, warm and friendly, and has the same mischievous glint in her eye that characterised her father. Joanne has a picture of Tom, crouching in the grass in full Peugeot kit, picking flowers and larking around for the photographers the morning before he died. 

She offers us coffee and then takes us into her garage, which doubles as a museum to her father’s career. His racing saddle is mounted on the wall, as is a worn shoe cleat, a pair of forks and some team publicity postcards.

There are two plastic bidons from the 1962 Tour de France, clearly marked ‘TOM SIMPSON’. She opens a drawer and pulls out a tin of tiny circles of cork. We’re flummoxed until she explains that they were used by her dad to protect the tubs on his wheels from being punctured by spoke ends. 

Joanne’s own Pinarello, her spare wheels, a recumbent and a bag of golf clubs are also on show, but it’s clear that this is also a living, breathing, fully tooled-up workshop.

‘I used to play golf a bit, but,’ she says hesitantly, ‘it’s not really active enough for me.’

Some of that energetic nature is down to the characteristic Simpson family dynamism. Faced with a €25,000 estimate for the installation of a new kitchen, Joanne decided to become a furniture maker herself. 

‘I went to school, evening classes for four years,’ she says, showing the straightforward, get-on-with-it attitude that she inherited from her dad. ‘Now I’m a furniture maker.’

Tom was a grafter too. His father was a miner but he was determined to make the grade as a cyclist, despite being nicknamed ‘Four-stone Coppi’ by his training partners.

Pictures of Hugo Koblet, winner of the 1951 Tour – the first Tour to climb the Ventoux – took pride of place on his bedroom wall. 

Simpson broke into European racing the hard way, leaving home with a few quid in his jacket, spare wheels, a French dictionary and a vague hope of digs in northern France. But he was resilient and stuck at it. Fuelled by his ambition, he turned professional in 1959. 

Largely ignored in his home country, at least by the non-cycling media, Simpson’s name has greater resonance in Europe. Joanne shows us a portrait of her father by James Straffon, unveiled as a mural in Luxembourg this May by the Duchess of Cambridge.

She also plans to fix a version of Straffon’s portrait to the Simpson monument on Mont Ventoux on the anniversary of his death. 

‘I’ve made a little cover to protect it,’ she says. ‘But I know it won’t last long, not with the weather up there.’

There’s always memorabilia on the monument – racing caps, flowers, water bottles, even dedicated flags, almost all with personal written dedications. On one visit, Joanne found an urn filled with ashes.

Not sure what to do, she ended up scattering the contents across the sea of white rocks behind the monument.

Yet not all of the Simpson family is as much at ease with revisiting the past. Tom’s widow, Helen, who subsequently remarried to Simpson’s Great Britain teammate Barry Hoban, is less comfortable with the media attention surrounding the 50th anniversary of her husband’s death. 

‘It’s hard for her,’ Joanne says. ‘If it was up to her there would be nothing. She doesn’t want anything to do with the media or the journalists. I have to coach her a little and make sure that the journalists are respectful. Otherwise she shuts down.’

That tension stems from the remembered pain of that day but also the ambiguity over the cause of Simpson’s death. His collapse was repeatedly attributed to a penchant for amphetamines, mixed on the day with cognac. It was cited as a wake-up call for cycling’s ethical issues. 

Other factors – his depleted reserves, heat exhaustion, his previous frailties in the mountains – have been swept to one side. It became the received wisdom: amphetamines were de rigeur so Tom Simpson died from doping. 

Joanne, like her mother, remains defiant. And even those who were close to him, family and his former teammates themselves, seem conflicted.

Simpson’s nephew, Chris Sidwells, in his book Mr Tom, says of his uncle, ‘Like many before him and since, he began to use drugs – stimulants, because that’s what they used then. Not often, but use them he did and I can’t change that.’

Talking to The Guardian’s William Fotheringham for his biography, Put Me Back On My Bike, former teammates openly discussed Simpson’s use of ‘stuff’, and of him having two suitcases, one for his clothes and kit, the other for his range of tonics and products.

But Joanne, unflinching in seeking out the truth about her father, wants proof. She is unconvinced that drugs were to blame for his death. So unconvinced, in fact, that she has recently pursued a copy of the autopsy report from Avignon. 

‘I can live with the truth,’ she says. ‘If that’s the truth, that Daddy took amphetamines, then so be it.’

Sadly, though, her search for the definitive truth has reached a dead end. The autopsy records were destroyed before the end of the 1990s. As none of the family had ever before seen or requested a copy of the report, Joanne will now never know. 

She shows me the letter from the Centre Hospitalier Henri Truffaut in Avignon. ‘French law authorises the destruction of medical records 25 years after death,’ it reads, ‘or 30 years in some case. The dossier for Monsieur Thomas Simpson has thus been destroyed at some point between 1992 and 1997…’

As I take in the letter’s stark meaning, Joanne carefully places the saddle, shoe cleat and old bidons back in position and closes the door to the garage.

Return to the mountain

According to the local tourist board, close to 130,000 cyclists climbed Mont Ventoux in 2016. The mountain’s popularity as a bucket list climb – the Everest of cycling – is mushrooming by the year, partly fuelled by the legend of Tom Simpson.

For Joanne, it’s a mountain that has become something of a touchstone to her life. 

She has become a regular visitor to the spot where her father died. She will be back on 13th July, accompanied by many of her close and extended family, plus some other luminaries and peers, including Eddy Merckx. 

Despite her family tragedy, Joanne has never been scared of the Ventoux. Yet for a long time the Ventoux was a family taboo, until the 30th anniversary of her father’s death, when Joanne decided to climb it. 

‘When I told my mum she said, “Oh, you don’t have to prove anything – it’s the Ventoux, please don’t.”’ 

But Joanne trained hard and made the pilgrimage. ‘I was riding up Ventoux thinking, “Bloody hell, Dad, this isn’t easy,” but then as I got higher up, I thought, “You did choose a beautiful place to die. What a view!”’

On 13th July, Joanne and her group of family and friends will climb to the top of the mountain and then descend back down to the Simpson monument, just 1.3km from the summit, to pay their respects.

The Tour de France itself, whether by accident or design, will be hundreds of kilometres away, heading into the Pyrenees. 

The absence of any visit to Mont Ventoux or tribute has been explained away by ASO, the Tour’s parent company, as down to a lack of ‘candidature’ for a stage by the mountain’s local authority.

Joanne, however, is dismissive: ‘It proves what I have always known all these years. They’re ashamed. The Simpson name is a blemish.’

We climb the stairs to Joanne’s attic, where, boxed up and carefully labelled, she has a painstakingly compiled archive of memorabilia. She opens up several folders of letters to the Tom Simpson fan club, which was based in Ghent.

Then she pulls out a homemade flag dedicated to her father that she found being draped over the monument by a group of Brits as she rode up the mountain one day. 

‘They were stunned when I told them who I was, but I’ve kept it and will be taking it down there on 13th July.’

Then come the jerseys, including her dad’s Peugeot example and his Paris-Nice winner’s jersey. She also has a musette, a cap and her stepfather Hoban’s Mercier racing jersey.

Joanne then pulls out a Garmin racing cap tossed towards the monument as he passed by former pro David Millar, with the message ‘To Tommy, RIP’.

Incredibly, Joanne, watching the Tour go past, caught it. ‘I don’t think he knows I have it,’ Joanne smiles. I take a picture of Joanne with the cap and message Millar. 

‘That’s amazing…!’ he replies a few minutes later.

Then there are the magazines, in English, French, Flemish and Italian, with images of her father in kit, on podiums and off the bike, posing in what became his trademark bowler hat and umbrella. 

He’s on many covers and features inside too, pictured racing on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, the hills of Lombardy and the climbs of the French Pyrenees, rubbing shoulders with Anquetil, Gimondi and Merckx.

Joanne has been training with Eddy Merckx, on and off, in preparation for his own birthday event on the Ventoux this June. Even though the Belgian legend was her father’s teammate and attended his funeral, relations were distant until fairly recently.

But Joanne says she and Merckx have struck up a friendship and ridden together a few times. 

‘Ride at the front, Simpson!’ is what Merckx says to her. ‘Ride where I can see you. I don’t want to get flicked again,’ he says, referencing the famous feud between Simpson and Merckx, both Peugeot teammates, at Paris-Nice in 1967. 

It’s ironic, then, that five-time Tour champion Merckx – who also tested positive three times during his illustrious career – is being honoured by the Tour de France with a 2019 Grand Départ in Brussels, while Simpson’s memory remains in the shadows.

But with the autopsy long gone and his death dominated by allegations of amphetamine use, Joanne has had to accept that her father’s achievements, and most of all his death, will always be controversial. 

Joanne begins boxing up the caps, jerseys and flags. Like Merckx, Tom Simpson was more than just a bike rider, defined by more than just his palmarès.

He was a human being, driven and ambitious, yes, but flawed and imperfect too. And he was also somebody’s son, somebody’s husband and somebody’s father.

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