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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Death on the Ventoux

Many of the stories I’ve told in the first 10 weeks of this new column have concerned people and events that few Americans had known about. The story I’m going to tackle this week is one about which most cycling fans think they know all they want to know: The death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux at the 1967 Tour de France. “Oh, yeah,” I can hear some of you saying. “That drug cheat.” I’m not going to detail everything that led to Simpson’s collapse just before the summit of the mountain in southeast France. Whole books have been dedicated to the purpose. But in these 1500-or-so words I want

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By John Wilcockson

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Many of the stories I’ve told in the first 10 weeks of this new column have concerned people and events that few Americans had known about. The story I’m going to tackle this week is one about which most cycling fans think they know all they want to know: The death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux at the 1967 Tour de France.

“Oh, yeah,” I can hear some of you saying. “That drug cheat.”

I’m not going to detail everything that led to Simpson’s collapse just before the summit of the mountain in southeast France. Whole books have been dedicated to the purpose. But in these 1500-or-so words I want to try to put Simpson’s death into perspective.

As the sun came up on July 13, 1967, the thermometer was already hovering around 30 degrees Celsius (86 F). It was going to be one of those broiling, hazy days that Provence is famous for in mid-summer. I was intending to ride up the mythic 6263-foot-high Mont Ventoux to watch the Tour’s stage 13, but I had come down with turista. The milk I used for my youth hostel supper in Vaison-la-Romaine, just a few kilometers northwest of the Ventoux, probably caused it. Because of the nausea and diarrhea, I decided to skip the climb and head for Carpentras, the town through which the riders would pass before heading on a big loop — up the Ventoux and back for the stage finish in town.

I was still six months away from my first journalism job at a cycling magazine, so I was following the Tour by bike as a fan. I’d been following the race since stage 4 in Normandy and so I’d seen Simpson and his Great Britain national team several times before reaching Provence. One encounter was after stage 8 in northeast France. I had watched the finish on the summit of the Ballon d’Alsace in the Vosges Mountains. Simpson had a great day. He finished fifth only 19 seconds behind stage winner Lucien Aimar, the defending champion, and 1:14 ahead of the race leader, Roger Pingeon of France.

One member of the British team was Colin Lewis, a hard-working domestic-based pro from southwest England whom I’d trained with a few times when we both raced in Brittany the previous year. Colin didn’t do so well on this first mountain stage of his first Tour, finishing with veteran teammate Vin Denson 24 minutes back. After he crossed the line, Colin asked me to join him and the team for dinner that evening at their hotel in Belfort.

It was a mainly downhill 30km run into town, where I parked my bike outside the hotel. Dining with the GB team was like eating with a group of friends. Only six of the original 10 British starters were left in the race; but they were in good spirits. Michael Wright had won the previous day’s stage into Strasbourg, and Simpson was exuberant after his performance on the Ballon d’Alsace that lifted him into the top 10 on GC — he would finish fourth on the next stage and move into sixth overall.

Simpson was going for nothing less than the overall win at the ’67 Tour. At age 29, he felt that he was at the prime age. Besides his 1965 world title, his palmarès included victories at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Lombardy and Tour of Flanders. And in the spring of 1967 he won Paris-Nice and took two stage wins at the Vuelta a España. He felt that the Tour was within his grasp — especially as five-time winner Jacques Anquetil had retired and future phenomenon Eddy Merckx had yet to tackle the Tour.

Simpson wasn’t the best of climbers or the strongest of time trialists, but his combination of natural ability, aggression and will-to-win made him as strong a candidate as any to win the Tour. His biggest handicap was the Tour’s then formula of national teams: The GB lads, although good hearted and dedicated to helping Tom, couldn’t match the strength in depth of the French, Belgian and Italian national squads.

The GB team’s weaknesses were most exposed in the Alps, where Simpson didn’t have a single teammate to help him when stomach cramps on the big stage over the Galibier to Briançon made his race one of survival. I saw how much he’d dug into his reserves to hang on to seventh place overall when I saw him at Digne after the following stage: Simpson’s already lean body was emaciated and he looked more hollow-eyed than ever.

He somewhat recovered by July 12th for stage 12, when he came second in the field sprint and moved back into fifth place on the old concrete velodrome in Marseille. But it was clear that the battling Englishman was in no condition to go through with the major attack he had planned on the Ventoux.

I stood in the shadiest spot I could find overlooking the feed zone in Carpentras, but with the temperature now at a painful 40 degrees C (104 F) in the shade, I was sweating from the heat and shivering from my stomach upset. I couldn’t imagine what Simpson was feeling like, racing the Tour as a contender while trying to shake off his own digestive problems. But he had that familiar never-say-die look on his face as he rode through the feed zone, hooked his canvas musette bag over his head, and started placing the contents in the rear pockets of his white team jersey with its union jack epaulettes.

We wouldn’t find out until later that also in Simpson’s jersey pockets were some high-quality amphetamine pills. The Tour did not have specific rules against performance-enhancing drugs, but some urine tests were made by French federal authorities at one stage of the 1966 Tour — tests that resulted in a protest from the riders, most of whom used stimulants of one kind or another.

A blind eye was turned on the use of drugs in continental cycling back then, and I’d seen for myself their widespread use in amateur racing in France. But a new generation of riders was already taking note. Simpson’s GB teammate Colin Lewis told me in 1966 that he turned down offers to ride for European teams because he didn’t want to take drugs. He knew that others, like Simpson, accepted that the drug culture was so ingrained that the only way to match the Europeans was to use stimulants yourself.

There were no live television images of Simpson’s ride on the Ventoux 38 years ago, so the drama that unfolded was seen by only a few people — notably the chief mechanic on the GB team, Harry Hall, an amiable bike shop owner back then. His scratchy home video, shot from the team car, captures only the latter part of Simpson’s ordeal. Hall told his story in detail to author William Fotheringham in his well-researched 2002 book, “Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson.”

Simpson was gone before anyone could offer help.

Simpson was gone before anyone could offer help.

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Like everyone else, including the entire media contingent at the ’67 Tour, I didn’t see Simpson down a couple of alcoholic drinks from a bar at the foot of the Ventoux, dive behind a derelict stone structure to take something stronger, and then try to follow the day’s major attack by climbers Julio Jimenez of Spain and Raymond Poulidor of France. We knew that something had gone wrong when he didn’t arrive at the finish line; and we only later learned that Simpson had suddenly dropped back from the group of favorites where the unrelenting climb emerges from the trees onto the bare. sun-blasted slopes across which the then very narrow road took the riders over the final 5km of the climb.

His pace slowed, he almost swerved off the road, and was apparently already in an advanced state of delirium when he fell. Hall and his team boss Alec Taylor helped Simpson to restart, but just over a kilometer from the summit, he fell again, and they carried him to the roadside to lay him on the limestone-scree banking. He was unconscious; mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was unsuccessful. Race medic Dr. Pierre Dumas later said that Simpson was clinically dead before oxygen was applied and the rider was helicoptered off the mountain.

The conclusion of Fotheringham’s book was: “The background to [Simpson’s] death and his symptoms point to an exertional heatstroke as the cause: amphetamines would have played their part along with the other factors.”

In the almost four decades that have followed his death, Simpson has been made a pariah. But he was a victim of the system, not the cause of it. He was greatly loved by his friends, colleagues and the public. The readers of Britain’s “Cycling” magazine raised enough money for a beautiful carved marble memorial to be placed on the mountainside above the point that he died.

In the fall of 1968, on a cool overcast day, I finally rode the 21km Ventoux climb. Simpson’s widow Helen and his best friend Barry Hoban (who was honored with the stage win the day after Simpson’s death and later married Helen) waved to me as they passed me in their car, on the way to unveil the monument. I felt proud to reach the memorial stone that afternoon, to stand alone in the gusting wind to remember my country’s still greatest-ever cycling champion. He wasn’t a cheat.

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