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

Great Britain’s only two world elite men’s road champions define their eras

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.

Operation Rainbow Jersey

That goal, dubbed Operation Rainbow Jersey, targeted the 2011 worlds in Denmark because of the Copenhagen circuit’s lack of climbs and a likely sprint finish that would suit Mark Cavendish — who, at 23, was fresh off a second pro season that saw him win 21 times, including four Tour de France stages.

To become world champion with the British national team, Cavendish would need to get the same excellent support he received all yearlong at Team Highroad: teammates who could keep a race together for hour after hour, and lead-out men who could keep the pace high in the closing kilometers and prepare him for the final kick to the line.

For the past five years at HTC, Cavendish has developed his sprinting skills with Germany’s all-time winningest rider Erik Zabel; he’s received superb tactical advice from sports directors Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm, Allan Peiper and Valerio Piva; and team manager Bob Stapleton has provided a calm, doping-free environment that has given Cavendish the confidence he needed to succeed.

For the Denmark worlds, Cavendish could marry this experience with the highest quality technical support that’s part of British Cycling’s national team program. Cavendish began his under-23 career as part of the national team, notably winning the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds with Rob Hayles. On the road, he was groomed by personal coach Ellingworth and confidant Max Sciandri.

British Cycling has expanded the size and quality of its back up over the past decade with funding from the National Lottery and government coffers, while Sky’s sponsorship has helped raise Brailsford’s sights even higher. The once impoverished federation now has a team of technicians that even includes a sports psychologist and a nutritionist.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

The worlds are contested by national teams, but the elite men’s gold medals won by Mark Cavendish (RR) and Tony Martin (TT) are included here as bonus wins for their HTC-Highroad squad — which continues to head the ProTeam standings only a month before it being disbands at season’s end.

1. HTC-Highroad 46 (14 riders)
2. Liquigas-Cannondale 29 (six riders)
3. Omega Pharma-Lotto 28 (five riders)
4. Team RadioShack 27 (12 riders)
5. Team Sky 26 (10 riders)
6. Rabobank 24 (nine riders)
7. Garmin-Cervélo 23 (11 riders)
8. Lampre-ISD 23 (nine riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 21 (nine riders)
10. Movistar 20 (nine riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 19 (seven riders)
12. Saxo Bank-SunGard 17 (six riders)
13. Katusha 15 (three riders)
14. Euskaltel-Euskadi 10 (five riders)
15. BMC Racing 10 (four riders)
16. Astana 7 (five riders)
17. Quick Step 6 (four riders)
18. AG2R-La Mondiale 5 (three riders)

(Individual wins in UCI .1 races and higher, including world RR and TT championships and national RR championships of major countries, through September 25)

One result of the program has been wind-tunnel technology that help produce the road skinsuit and the black aero road helmet (partly covered by a clear plastic sheath) that allowed Cavendish to save energy through Sunday’s title race and then gave him a slight aero advantage in the final sprint over runners-up Matt Goss and André Greipel (his current and former HTC teammates).

Before Operation Rainbow Jersey could be fulfilled though, Britain’s top pros had to become more successful so they could be ranked among the top 10 countries in the world. That was the key to getting a full complement of eight riders on the start line in Denmark. The men earning those necessary UCI WorldTour points were six Team Sky riders (Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome, Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh, Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas) along with Garmin-Cervélo’s David Millar and HTC-Highroad’s Cavendish.

Sky’s younger riders, Swift and Kennaugh, weren’t selected for Copenhagen as Brailsford preferred their more experienced teammates, Jeremy Hunt and Ian Stannard. And just as Simpson’s colleagues in 1965 pledged to support a unique leader 100 percent, so Wiggins, Millar and company promised to do the same for Cavendish last Sunday. And they fulfilled that mission impeccably, maintaining positions at or near the head of the peloton for the whole 260km.

Cavendish was worried about the finishing power of world No. 1 Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and needed his teammates to ride a hard tempo, especially in the finale, to prevent him from making one of his uphill charges. Back in 1965, Simpson told teammate Hoban about his concern over the Italian in the breakaway, a two-time Giro winner.

Hoban recalled: “Tom came alongside me and admitted, ‘I’m worried about Balmamion.’ This was because the Italian … had been soft-pedaling the whole time. Then Tom added, ‘If you feel like falling off, Barry, fall off in front of Balmamion.’ I didn’t fall off but understood his meaning, which was to make things difficult for the Italian.”

Neither Balmamion back then, nor Gilbert this past Sunday proved to be a problem. In Copenhagen, Froome and Cummings did most of the pacing for Great Britain in the first half of the race, respectively dropping out on the 15th and 16th laps of the 17-lap race. Hunt and Millar sat up on the final lap; Wiggins did nearly 10km at the front to close down the final-lap breaks; and Stannard and Thomas were the last GB riders to usher Cavendish into the final straightaway before the Manx rider did his magic in the uphill sprint.

That final 14km lap, with its plethora of twists and turns and short ups and downs, was raced in 16 minutes 18 seconds — a phenomenal average speed of 51.533 kph. No wonder none of the eventual attacks and breaks could stick!

Cavendish was supremely confident in Denmark. He visited the circuit at Rudersdal, 20km north of Copenhagen, a year ago to scout the course and examine the varying grades of the finishing hill. He planned his season to peak at the Tour de France (where he won his first green jersey and brought his total of stage wins to 20 in four years) and the world championships. He proved two years ago that he had the stamina, power and speed to win a long classic at Milan-San Remo, and he showed on stage 5 of this year’s Tour into Cap Fréhel that he could beat the best in an uphill sprint similar to Copenhagen’s.

Cavendish on Sunday was quick to praise all his colleagues, and he was genuinely stunned that he’d achieved what no other Brit had achieved since Tom Simpson raced a perfect race at San Sebastian 46 years ago. Perhaps the words of British Cycling’s current president Brian Cookson best captured the moment: “I’m sure that [this] success will lead to many, many more youngsters taking up our sport … as this fantastic golden era [for British cycling] continues. This has been a great day in a great week that all of us will remember for the rest of our lives.”

Indeed, last Sunday saw another “where were you when” moment for cyclists in the United Kingdom. And hopefully this golden era is here to stay.

Editor’s note: Former editor-at-large John Wilcockson is no longer a staff member at VeloNews, but he will be writing for this website as a guest columnist.