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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: From Tom Simpson to Mark Cavendish

Tom Simpson wins the 1965 world road championships
Tom Simpson celebrates his 1965 world road championship

On the surface, there’s not much similarity between Mark Cavendish, who became cycling’s supreme world champion on Sunday, and Tom Simpson, the only other British rider to win the elite men’s world road title, 46 years ago.

Simpson was one of six working-class kids, the son of a coalminer in the gritty northeast of England. Cavendish comes from a bourgeois background, growing up on the scenic Isle of Man; his father’s a computer consultant for accountancy firms; and his only brother’s in jail for possessing illegal drugs with intent to sell.

Simpson was built like an athlete, slim and tall, and had a beautiful pedaling style. He was an apprentice draftsman before discovering cycling. Cavendish is short with a tendency to be pudgy. He was a ballroom dancer and worked in a bank — when his weight ballooned to 180 pounds — before he devoted his life to bike racing.

But they both have a winning instinct imprinted on their DNA. Especially when the stakes are down. Like they were for Cavendish last Sunday … and as they were for Simpson on September 5, 1965.

The day that Simpson became the first British rider to win the world professional road race title was one those “where were you when” moments for cyclists in the United Kingdom. I was racing that Sunday in western France with my English teammate Peter Head in a stage race at Machecoul, near Nantes.

After a road stage in the morning, most of the riders gathered at the race headquarters to listen to a radio commentary from the world championships in San Sebastian, northern Spain. We heard there’d been an early break that included Britain’s Barry Hoban and a bunch of Spanish and Portuguese riders in the men’s 267.4km title race. And, on the fourth lap, Simpson was bridging up to that lead group after a strong lead-out from his GB teammates Vin Denson and Alan Ramsbottom.

Chasing with Simpson was his German rival Rudi Altig, along with Italian Franco Balmamion, Belgian Roger Swerts and Dutchman Peter Post; but the French, including race favorite Jacques Anquetil and 1962 world champion Jean Stablinski, missed the move.

While rain was pouring down in Spain, there was bright sunshine for our afternoon stage in France, a 20km time trial. This was my first season racing in Brittany, hoping I could one day follow in the footsteps of Simpson, who began his continental career in the same French region six years earlier. As a fan, I’d first seen Simpson race in 1958 when he took a silver medal in the track pursuit at the British Empire & Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales; I chatted with him when I got his autograph at the 1961 London bike show; and I saw him again when I followed the Tour de France by bike in 1964 and ’65.

And, knowing that Simpson’s career already included victories at the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo classics, I was willing him on to win the worlds as I pedaled hard in that French stage race. After finishing my time trial — egged on by the driver of a follow vehicle that had a rooftop loudspeaker blasting out an advertising ditty — I watched my teammate Peter win the stage (ahead of future French pro Cyrille Guimard) and then went back to listen to the French radio commentary from Spain.

The French riders were disappointed that Stablinski didn’t make it up to the leaders before Simpson attacked on the circuit’s main climb on the 12th of 14 laps with about 45km remaining. Only Altig could follow the Englishman’s top-gear charge, and they soon left the others far behind; so we knew that Mr. Tom was sure to be the first rider from the UK to take a medal in cycling’s most prestigious world championship. But could he win?

Even the French commentator got excited about the eventual two-man sprint, which Altig was expected to take. So Peter and I could barely believe it when Simpson led out the sprint in the rain, and kept on gaining to win by several bike lengths, crossing the line with his hands still gripping the bars — and a huge smile on his face. Like all those Brits following the worlds that day, we were in disbelief that a Brit had actually won.

Sportsman of the Year

It seemed at the time that British cycling had arrived as a major force in world cycling, especially when Simpson went on to win that October’s Tour of Lombardy in a solo break, which along with his rainbow jersey earned this coalminer’s son from the Northeast England the highest recognition at year’s end. He won the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, along with being named Sportsman of the Year by the Daily Express newspaper and the Sports Journalists’ Association.

Tom Simpson on the cover of February 1966 Sporting Cyclist
Simpson on the cover of Sporting Cyclist

In his acceptance speech at the SJA ceremony in London, after being presented with his award by British prime minister Harold Wilson, Simpson said, “I hope one day that British commerce and industry will wake up to the fact that the sponsorship of a British team on the Continent could be useful to them and useful to the country as a whole in gaining acceptance and entry into the [European] Common Market.”

Like Simpson, we believed that the trickle of UK riders trying their luck on the Continent would soon become a flood. It didn’t happen partly because, less than two years after his stunning world championship triumph, Simpson collapsed and died on the burning slopes of Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France. His drugs-tainted death didn’t end our dreams — especially when Hoban went on to win seven stages of subsequent Tours and Scotsman Robert Millar came close to winning the Vuelta a España (runner-up in 1985 and ’86) and Giro d’Italia (second in 1987) — but in the 45 years between 1965 and 2010 no British pro even took a medal in the world road championship.

Cycling’s reemergence as a major sport in Britain only came after the Olympic medals haul in 2008 when track sprinter Chris Hoy’s three Beijing golds helped him become the first British cyclist since Simpson to sweep the BBC and Sports Journalists’ top awards. That success also sparked British Cycling’s performance director Dave Brailsford — who was 18 months old when Simpson won the worlds! — to reveal that Sky TV was going to extend its lucrative partnership with the cycling federation to sponsor a full-blown pro road team on the Continent, just like Simpson envisioned all those decades ago. But none of us could have imagined a British company committing to a four-year, near-$50 million sponsorship.

At the 1965 worlds, the British Cycling Federation gave virtually zero support to the pro team headed by Simpson and Hoban. Their team manager for the day, former world pursuit champ Norman Sheil, was being helped by Simpson’s Belgian friend and huge fan, Albert Buerick. Sheil remembered a few years ago: “We had nothing for the riders from the BCF, no bottles, no race food, nothing. As soon as we got the riders started, me and Albert took a walk down the pits. He would get the team personnel talking — Albert knew everybody — and I’d nick their bottles and fill my pockets with … peaches, bananas, anything I could get hold of.”

Even if their support was meager, the six British riders had an ambitious plan to overcome the much-strong European nations. When I interviewed Hoban for a 1981 book, he told me, “Tom said to us: ‘Look, I’ve trained specially for the world championships and I’ve got a pretty good chance of winning. If you’re prepared to work for me 100 percent, then I’m prepared to pay you for working for me.’

“We agreed to his plan as there is only one place that counts in the worlds, and that is first place. It was the first time that the British national team had agreed to ride for just one man, and as Tom was in really good condition it was a plan that had a good chance of success.”

Similar thoughts were voiced at the end of 2008 by British Cycling’s Brailsford when he talked about his plan to launch Team Sky. His most-publicized goal was to groom a British winner of the Tour within five years; there was far less ink given to another goal, proposed by the federation’s road coach Rod Ellingworth, to produce a world elite men’s champion to succeed Simpson.

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