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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Brian and Tom

Last week, I wrote about some of the pioneer American racers who had ambitions of professional careers in Europe. One of them was Michael Hiltner, who was sampling the Italian cycling scene in the early 1960s at the same time as several cyclists from the British Isles were already breaking into the then-exclusive ranks of continental pro racing. Among the most successful were Englishmen Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson. Robinson was the first English-speaking rider to win a stage of the Tour de France (in 1958), while Simpson was the first to win a monumental classic and the first to wear the

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By John Wilcockson

Last week, I wrote about some of the pioneer American racers who had ambitions of professional careers in Europe. One of them was Michael Hiltner, who was sampling the Italian cycling scene in the early 1960s at the same time as several cyclists from the British Isles were already breaking into the then-exclusive ranks of continental pro racing.

Among the most successful were Englishmen Brian Robinson and Tom Simpson. Robinson was the first English-speaking rider to win a stage of the Tour de France (in 1958), while Simpson was the first to win a monumental classic and the first to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey (in 1962).

Both were cult heroes when I was growing up. I first saw Simpson when my dad took me to see the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales. I pedaled there on the back of dad’s tandem, while my older brother Dave rode one of dad’s bikes. Among the highlights of the Games, besides seeing Aussie runner Dave Power win the marathon, was watching the final of the 4000-meter pursuit at the big outdoor Maindy Stadium velodrome.

The two finalists were the 20-year-old Simpson, who had just won the British pursuit title, and his senior English teammate Norman Sheil, who was on target to win his second world pursuit championship the following month.

Simpson was an exciting rider to watch, his legs a blur, his head cocked to one side as he raced around the quarter-mile bowl. He had a good lead entering the final lap; but, on the other side of the track. the more experienced, steadier Sheil was gradually closing the gap.

They both sprinted for their respective finish lines. It was hard to know who had won, but after consulting their hand-held chronometers, the timekeepers gave the gold medal to Sheil by three-tenths of a second. Years later, Simpson said this defeat remained one of the most bitter setbacks in his career.

Ironically, the Commonwealth Games pursuit final between two amateur athletes garnered far more press than that summer’s break-through stage win by Robinson at the Tour. Robinson, who like Simpson grew up in the steel-making and coal-mining industrial belt of England’s Yorkshire, was already in his fourth year as a pro racer. He’d scored top-10 finishes in many of the major stage races and classics, including the Vuelta a España, and he paved the way for Simpson to join him in 1959.

Robinson’s Tour stage win came on the 170km seventh stage across northern Brittany from St. Brieuc to Brest. The race leaders were more focused on the following day’s 46km time trial than on the breakaway that took the British rider clear of the pack with Italian veteran Arrigo Padovan. In the two-man finish, Padovan was first across the line, but the judges said he had impeded Robinson in the sprint and relegated him to second place.

At the following year’s Tour, Robinson had the thrill of truly crossing the line first when he made a long solo break on the Annecy to Chalons-sur-Sâone stage two days from the end. The Brit finished the 202km stage more than 20 minutes ahead of the second-placed rider, who just happened to be Padovan.

Like many future superstar cyclists, Simpson was successful from his very first pedal strokes as a pro. After spending half of the 1959 season in Brittany as an independent (semi-professional) racer, when he won five races, Simpson was given a place as an apprentice pro on Robinson’s St. Rapha team for the big Brittany stage race, the Tour de l’Ouest.

After a couple of third places, Simpson won the fourth stage to take the race lead, and then dominated the next day’s time trial to move three minutes clear of the runner-up. Only one stage remained, but the real pros didn’t want to be beaten by an apprentice, and his own team collaborated with the other French riders by not chasing down an early breakaway. So Simpson ended the race in 18th overall; but the two stage wins showed his true class, and St. Rapha team manager Raymond Louviot offered him a pro contract for the rest of the year.

Simpson’s first race as a true professional, at age 21, was the 1959 world road championship, held on a completely flat, windswept course at Zandvoort on the Dutch coast. The young Brit wasn’t deterred by the race distance of 292km. He fought his way solo up to an early break, then worked hard to keep the field at bay. As in the Tour de l’Ouest, his rivals ganged up on him, and every time Simpson attacked in the closing stages, he was chased down by a different rider. He had nothing left for the sprint, but Simpson still came in fourth, beaten by three seasoned pros: French super-sprinter André Darrigade, Italian Michele Gismondi and Belgian Noël Foré.

Simpson’s great talent soon showed itself in the world’s top classics. In the March 1960 Milan-San Remo, he broke away before half-distance in the 288km classic. He had a two-minute lead with 100km left and held off the pack all the way to the Poggio climb 6km from the finish, where one man overtook him, with the peloton catching him on the descent. He finished 25th.

A month later, Simpson made yet another solo break, this time on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix — the last hour of which was televised live, the first time cycling had been seen live around Europe. Simpson was the man of the hour, holding his lone lead all the way to the gates of the Roubaix velodrome, where he was caught by the winner, then passed by seven others on the track itself. Even though he’d been caught, the crowd insisted that Simpson ride a lap of honor.

Simpson did win four races in his rookie season, and even finished 29th at the Tour de France, alongside the only other finisher on the Great Britain national team, Robinson, who was 26th. The following spring, 1961, Simpson made his true breakthrough, becoming the first Anglo to win a European classic. The race was Belgium’s formidable Tour of Flanders, which Simpson, after bridging to an early break and then making the decisive attack, won in a two-man sprint over Italian Nino Defilippis.

Despite his great success on the Continent, cycling was still receiving little coverage in the British media, and publicity for Simpson’s classic victory didn’t spread much beyond the small cycling community. All that changed the following year, though, when Simpson took the yellow jersey (for only a day) at the 1962 Tour de France. This was one bike race the general media did know something about.

That October, I was one of hundreds who lined up at the annual Cycle Show in London to shake hands with Simpson and get his signature. Finally, almost 60 years after the Tour was founded, we Brits had a cycling hero. It would be another two decades before a U.S. cyclist even competed at the Tour….