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By John Wilcockson
It was a showery day in much of western Europe on September 5, 1965. It was particularly wet in Spain’s Basque Country, where the men’s pro road race was being held at the UCI world championships on a 19km circuit at Lasarte, in the hills south of San Sebastian. A few hundred miles to the north, in another maritime region, Brittany, France, I was racing in a two-day stage race. That humid Sunday, our schedule was a time trial followed by the concluding circuit road race. The two protagonists in that amateur race were future French ace Cyrille Guimard and an English colleague on my French team, Peter Head. I was his domestique for the weekend.
We were all interested in what was happening in Spain, particularly the French riders, who were convinced that one of their big stars, Jacques Anquetil or Raymond Poulidor, would win the world title. There was no live TV coverage of the world’s in Europe 40 years ago, so we had to follow the race by radio at the event HQ — before the start, in between stages, and after our race.
I was listening to the French radio commentary before my time trial. There had been a break on the first lap of the 267km race. A dozen riders were already going clear. Four Spaniards, headed by crowd favorite Francisco Gabica, powered the break. With them were two dangerous Dutchmen, Peter Post and Arie Den Hartog; two Italian strongmen, Franco Balmamion and Bruno Mealli; Barry Hoban of Britain; little Karl-Heinz Kunde of Germany; and Belgium’s Roger Swerts — a teammate of the rookie Eddy Merckx and their team leader Rik Van Looy, the two-time world champion.
Merckx, Van Looy, Anquetil, Poulidor and the other potential winners like Britain’s Tom Simpson, Germany’s Rudi Altig, Ireland’s Shay Elliott and another former champ, Jean Stablinski of France, remained in the peloton. The French commentator said it was too early for any of the favorites to make a move in a race that would last almost seven hours.
I couldn’t wait to learn what was going to develop, but it was time for my start. I gave my spare wheels to the people in the vehicle that would follow me, and asked them if they would update me about the world’s over the loudspeaker on top of their van. But they said it was rigged up to just play music and advertising for them (I think) carpet company they represented. I’d done a few time trials in England in my first season of racing the previous year, but they were all early-morning affairs, “alone and unassisted.” It was fun having a follow car, but its presence wasn’t as inspirational as I’d hoped — particularly the annoying jingle that kept on repeating itself on the closed-reel tape! At least I could look forward to the world’s commentary back at the finish.
Down in Spain, there was some exciting news. When the early break had a one-minute lead, Altig and Simpson began a pursuit, marked by a fifth Spaniard, Sebastian Elorza. They had already bridged to the 12 leaders, and now the gap was two minutes. I was thrilled that the two best Brits, Hoban and Simpson, were in the break, but with more than five hours of racing still to go it seemed certain that the pack would soon start to chase — especially the powerful French team, which had no one in front.
After hearing the good news about Simpson, I went outside to see my teammate Pete come thundering down the finish straight to set the best time so far. Even the young, flashy Guimard — who was winning most of the Brittany races that season — couldn’t match him, so Pete was only a few seconds behind the race leader going into the final stage. I would have some work to do for him that hot afternoon.
Before we set off, we heard from Spain that there had finally been a reaction from the main group on the sixth of the 14 laps. About a dozen men were chasing, including Stablinski, two more Belgians (sprinters Ward Sels and Bernard Van de Kerkhove), another Italian (Italo Zilioli) and yet another Spaniard (Fernando Manzaneque). Apparently the thousands of fans under their umbrellas were urging the home team to untold heights — the closest Spain had ever been to the rainbow jersey was the second place by Luciano Montero back in 1935. Surely, one of their five men in the break would get a chance at gold….
Our last stage was about three hours long. Pete made a strong solo attack to get away from Guimard, while I did my best to block any chase attempts. That was more exhausting than being in a break, and I was dropped before the finish. So, on finishing, it was great to find out that Pete had stayed away and won the race. We’d have trophies and some cash to take with us in Pete’s Austin Mini on the drive back to our base in Vannes.
But what was happening in Spain? The last two laps were approaching, less than an hour to go. The French were upset that Stablinski didn’t make it up to the break, while Anquetil and the rest in the 30-strong bunch were more than 10 minutes back. But when Simpson attacked on the Hernani hill, the longest of the circuit’s four climbs, they let out a cheer — Simpson had began his pro career in Brittany and he raced for a French team (Peugeot), and so he was a popular figure in French racing.
Simpson’s attack was matched by the rock-like Altig, but it was too strong for Post, Gabica, Balmamion and the rest of the break. The Englishman and the German were powering clear together through heavy rain. Altig was a rider with a renowned sprint finish, so we expected “our Tom” to make a move on the hill that final lap; he did go hard up the main climb, but just hard enough to test Altig. The two would sprint it out for the world title almost four minutes ahead of their former companions.
It was a long finishing straight, slightly uphill. The two men, former teammates on Anquetil’s St. Raphaël squad, agreed to a fair sprint. They were side by side, slowly accelerating, the French commentator said. He was sure that Altig would win, but Simpson had kept a little something in reserve, and when Altig began shifting gears, the 27-year-old British rider jumped hard, took a couple of lengths’ lead and crossed the line the winner, a huge smile on his lean, tan face. I wasn’t there, but it felt like I was. What a day!
Tom Simpson was the first English-speaking rider to win the world pro men’s road championship — a feat that has since been repeated by only three men: Greg LeMond (1983 and 1989); Stephen Roche (1987); and Lance Armstrong (1993). That’s pretty heady company, as those three have won 10 Tours de France among them. That fact perhaps puts into perspective Simpson’s remarkable achievement — especially at a time when the sport was still dominated by the French, Belgians and Italians.
Little did we know that less than two years later, Simpson, our Mr. Tom, would be dead.