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Bird on the Wire, an extract from the Tom Simpson biography

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Winner of the 2017 William Hill Sports Book of the Year, Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire, by Rouleur editor Andy McGrath, explores the feats and complexities of Simpson’s life through untold stories from those closest to him

Photographs: Offside / L'Equipe
Tom Simpson

Winning top bike races is one thing, winning the hearts of the public is quite another. Different people are moved by different traits. It can be a champion with emphatic shows of strengths, the intelligence of a crafty winner or the heart and perseverance of an underdog.

 

Most commonly, we unite in acclaiming sporting gold and its few purveyors. When Lionel Messi dribbles past four hapless defenders before chipping the goalkeeper, or Seve Ballesteros used a three-wood to get to the edge of the green from a bunker 220 yards away, we delight in both the mastery and its inconceivability. How on earth did they do that?

 

There can be joy in a certain relatability too. While Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil were veritable gods, Tom Simpson was a kid from a British mining town who worshipped at their altar like everyone else and came to compete on the same plane. He was not the greatest natural talent or a conjurer of magic, but a man who maintained an emotional transparency on and off the bike. His heart-on-the-sleeve suffering was clear to see and his outlook on life was humble.

 

Read: Vuelta 1983: How Hinault’s victory changed cycling

 

“I like to be liked and to be accepted by other people, not because I might be somebody special, but just to be able to talk and joke with folk and share a laugh,” he wrote in his autobiography Cycling is my Life.

 

During his career, Simpson won the popularity he sought, helped by his sparkling personality and the creation of an exceptional persona. Simpson’s British upbringing, and the backward nature of cycle racing in his homeland, put him at a disadvantage when it came to the complexities of Continental racing, but it was a useful quirk for column inches.

 

In his early years abroad, he became a prism through which British stereotypes were played in the press. After his 1961 Tour of Flanders victory, his manager Daniel Dousset had the idea of dressing Simpson as an English gentleman in the image of Major William Marmaduke Thompson, a popular literary creation of French writer Pierre Daninos. His smash hit book, Les Carnets du Major Thompson, included witty observations on French and British life through the eyes of this permanently befuddled retired army officer.

 

Thompson is an Oxford-educated gentleman with a white moustache and prominent teeth, who was fond of cups of tea and puffing on his pipe – a walking, talking, bowler hat-bedecked British caricature.

Tom Simpson

Naturally, he is perplexed by encountering the Tour de France, describing the scene as “two male individuals, gracelessly swaying on their bicycles, festooned with inner tubes and tyres and clad in glaring jerseys and exiguous shorts, covered with mud, altogether rather a shocking sight … getting to Paris as quickly as possible by the slowest roads, which seemed strange to me.”

 

On a subsequent photo shoot in Paris with Miroir-Sprint, Simpson went full-on Major, clad in bowler hat and sharp suit. He completed the look with a briefcase, umbrella, cup of tea and a copy of The Times spread in front of him on a café table. Even his name, a portmanteau of the eccentric major’s surname, fitted the bill. His get-up caused a minor sensation: the persona of Major Tom was born.

 

Simpson was far happier to ham it up for publicity than his British predecessor Brian Robinson. At the 1960 Tour de France, he embarked on a campaign of wearing a different hat every morning, which annoyed the fastidious race officials. Over the years, he donned berets, sombreros, a tri-corner, a Yorkshire cap and a fireman’s helmet.

 

“I’ve even seen him pick up a ukulele and play at being George Formby – with his bowler hat on. And the press loved it,” says Alan Ramsbottom, his Peugeot team-mate.

 

Read: Worlds 1927: Alfredo Binda, Nürburgring and the first rainbow jersey

 

French journalists happily took the British angle and ran with it, describing him in his early years as “having aristocratic legs” and “hanging an Eton tie on his handlebars”. Simpson’s modest upbringing in Harworth was nowhere near such noble pleasures, but it probably read well to the average Frenchman.

 

Besides, the exaggerated caricature exists both sides of the Channel: when was the last time you saw a moustachioed, beret-wearing Frenchman with a string of onions round his neck?

 

For all this apparent urbanity, Simpson occasionally got into slapstick scrapes more befitting his cartoon namesake, Homer. One night in Auxerre after a 1964 Paris-Nice stage, his warming embrocation dramatically burst into life as he was about to go to sleep, leading to a comical scene where his soigneur had to douse his burning legs with a mix of vinegar and water.

Tom Simpson
Tom Simpson celebrates after winning the 1965 Milan-Sanremo.

The next season, he contrived to close a car door on his foot before the Tour of Belgium, and suffered a broken leg while skiing in Saint-Gervais that winter. Even afterwards, his impulsiveness was irrepressible: according to friend and fellow British racer Vin Denson, he went riding down the towpath with his leg in plaster to keep everything ticking over.

 

There is a movie-star magnetism to Simpson in front of the camera. Almost unfailingly smiling into the lens – off the bike, at least – he exudes warmth. Armed with boyish good looks and a cheeky character, Simpson caught the attention of the press and the public.

 

“He was popular with the ladies. There was a gang of groupies that used to follow the event, they went with the managers. There were a lot of women followers, hangers-on,” Ramsbottom says.

 

While his taciturn Peugeot team-mate Roger Pingeon, for instance, kept his room number secret on Tour and rigorously controlled the length of each interview, Simpson understood the need to be generous in his dealings.

 

In a 1967 interview with Cycling, he says that the object of the professional cyclist is “to secure as much publicity as possible for his sponsors: he is an entertainer, a publicity agent and a sportsman all rolled into one, in that order. It is up to the rider to get all the publicity he can: publicity for the cyclist means publicity for the sponsor and that means that people get to know of his products and buy them, whether they be wines, refrigerators or washing machines.”

 

Simpson’s bowler hat proved an astute device for gaining attention, an unmistakable byword for both his nationality and comedy. While the headwear’s roots lie in the Victorian working class, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel wore it to good effect too.

 

“Often warming up before a criterium, he’d pop that on to amuse the crowd. He liked to be liked, to clown about and give the spectators a lot back,” Vin Denson recalls. Simpson rarely donned his bowler after early 1963, concerned that it was jinxing his results, but it nevertheless became the emblematic prop among the many he owned.

Tom Simpson

“He used to have a little bag [of hats] in his case. He had a clown’s one and a policeman’s bobby helmet on an elastic band, which he’d put over his crash hat,” Denson says, recalling one devil-take-the-hindmost track race. “He had a whistle, he’d blow at the person who was going to get eliminated, flash up the banking and nip past him. He did all his track racing from the back.”

 

The track scene was not just a decent winter payday that suited his versatility, but also a perfect arena, akin to a sporting big top, for his antics. Simpson raced Six-Day events extensively between 1963 and 1967; fellow British competitor Norman Hill recalls Simpson’s shenanigans at one Antwerp Six.

 

“Artists-singers, jazz musicians and showbiz personalities would be hired as entertainment between races. On this occasion, a circus troupe was on hand,” he says.

 

“Somehow, Tom got involved and opened the monkey cage. The monkey scrambled up into the rafters just under the roof and wouldn‘t come down for several hours. In fact, by the time the circus troupe got it down to eat, it was the early hours! During that time, the race was stopped and the track director, Theo Balemans, was furious at Tom. Mind you, the beer flowed, spectators got drunk and the riders, soigneurs and runners were happy – Six-Days back then were a 100-kilometre Madison every night and riding from noon to five in the morning.”

 

Simpson formed part of a long tradition of racers making people laugh while they suffered, which includes his old team-mate Roger Hassenforder, later rival Gerben Karstens and modern-day cult hero Jens Voigt. All developed a fan base built on outstanding charisma as well as impressive results.

 

Nowadays, Simpson’s actions might be dissected as part of a calculated construction of his personal brand. But the light-heartedness was a gentle extension of his vivacious character rather than posturing.

 

“I am never happier than when I am making people laugh,” he wrote in Cycling in 1961. And Simpson would do anything for some fun: riding a penny farthing at one Herne Hill meet, sledging with Saint-Raphaël team-mates at the ski resort of Peïra-Cava during early-season races and hamming it up on an accordion before a Tour de France stage.

Tom Simpson Herne Hill Velodrome

A bon vivant who liked to drive fast and laugh hard, Simpson crammed as many adventures and memorable moments into his 29 and a half years as some people would do in their entire lives.

 

The film director Shane Meadows, who has spoken of his intention to produce a Simpson biopic, described him as “like Keith Moon on a bike … the first rock ’n’ roll cyclist”, to Shortlist.

 

Simpson’s character feeds the myth too. Several stories are excavated during the research and interview process which nobody can corroborate. The pick of the lot has Simpson spending several nights performing on stage with Coco the Clown at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris one winter; another suggests he turned up unannounced at a Belgian hospital for hydrocephalic children with three bags of sweets for them. Unsure whether they’re true or not, his widow Helen Hoban concedes, “it’s the kind of thing he’d do.”

 

For all the tomfoolery, Simpson was dead serious about his cycling career and recognised that without significant results, the comedy might become his calling card, akin to fellow rider Roger Hassenforder, who gained the nickname “The Clown”. There was nothing particularly wrong with that, but he had higher ambitions.

 

Simpson always tried to finish highly at criteriums, alongside the larking: “Thus the public, who would come to the meeting prepared to see an entertainer, would also see and remember me as a good racing cyclist,” he explains in Cycling.

 

He had an implicit understanding of his role: “A great thing to be remembered by a top racing man is that he is not so much a public idol but rather a friend of the public – someone with whom the man on the street would like to be associated.”

 

So, he blended English humour with heroic racing. It has been suggested that Simpson possessed a superior ability to suffer than most of his peers.

Tom Simpson
Tom Simpson stands beside the team bus ahead of stage 13 and the climb up Mont Ventoux

In truth, it’s an unquantifiable trait that is particularly easy to romanticise after his death on Mont Ventoux. But anecdotally, Simpson’s exceptional grit still rises to the surface today. Vin Denson recounts a tale relating to the 1964 Trofeo Baracchi two-up time-trial, where the Briton turned himself inside out to keep up with partner Rudi Altig in the race’s second half.
Read: “Ours was a true rivalry”: Moser v Saronni

 

“Tom told me [later] ‘All my worries and pain had ended, I was drifting along as if I was in a cloud, not really interested in life at all. I’m not kidding Vin, I basically died.’ And he saw that everything was so peaceful. When you’re that far, and you’ve drifted away, you’re completely void of everything.”

 

Alan Ramsbottom also witnessed how hard Simpson could push himself. “I remember coming into Saint-Étienne in one Paris-Nice. It was the last few miles, it just dragged up and up. Tommy had been riding like a hero. And all of a sudden, I see him going backwards. He lost half an hour in about three miles. He could barely steer his bicycle properly when he got to the finish. He was completely wiped out. He was all right the day after but I’ve never seen anybody get that bad. Not many riders can do that: I never could.”

 

The Dutch star Jan Janssen felt a kinship with Simpson through his personality, as well as their racing characteristics. “He had a bit of class, but such courage. And I was a bit the same … But he was a stylist, a joy, beautiful on the bike. I wasn’t.”

 

Like Simpson, Janssen was also a world champion and a racer who stood out, distinctive in his dark shaded glasses. He achieved what his friend never managed too: the Audi sitting in his garage, with the number plate “Tour 68”, bears testament to the first Dutch Tour de France triumph.

 

In his house on a quiet road by the Belgium-Netherlands border, Janssen is a picture of hard-fought health. After running a successful bicycle business post-cycling, he fought through stomach cancer in 2015. Happily, a shock of white hair grew back after the chemotherapy and this animated raconteur is back riding his bike regularly.

Tom Simpson
Raymond Poulidor and Tom Simpson

Living only an hour apart in the mid-60s, with Simpson based in Ghent and Janssen on the Dutch border, the pair became friends and shared a car to races when it was mutually convenient. One afternoon, they were in a rush, as professional cyclists usually are, driving through the central French city of Châteauroux on the way to a criterium in Limoges.

 

“Back then, there were no motorways and we were on routes nationales. There was a big boulevard that crossed the town. Every 100 metres, there was a red light. Next to our car at one, there was a gendarme on a bicycle. As the light turned green, Tommy suddenly mooned the policeman, who wasn’t pleased to say the least. He was screaming ‘Stop!’ Then we got to another red light, it went green, we were off again. We could hear his whistle behind us, the gendarme on the bike really fought to catch us. But every 100 metres, we had to stop again. By the fifth or sixth set of lights, he was in front of the car,” Janssen says, imitating the red-faced officer draping himself over the bonnet.

 

Janssen and Simpson were hauled off to the local police station. It seemed that they wouldn’t be leaving Châteauroux before dark. But then, Simpson went off on such a stirring and emotive tale about the nomadic adventures of the professional cyclist that the gendarme ended up feeling sorry for them and let the pair go with a telling-off.

 

“The gendarme said to us, it’s not honest, you mustn’t do that to a policeman. It cost us a couple of hours and a hefty fine – not to mention arriving in Limoges at midnight,” Janssen says. Simpson gave the officer a signed photograph to sweeten the deal.

 

Outside in the garden, Janssen’s two dogs jump and bark at one other, like something out of a Gainsborough painting. The Dutchman doesn’t pay attention, lost in another recollection of his friend.

 

“Occasionally, Tommy was annoying. When it was rolling along at 30 kilometres an hour – paf!” He slaps his hand down on the dark wooden dining table. “He’d attack. Oh, leave us alone! There’s still 150 kilometres to go, pipe down. But often, he wanted war.”

 

Janssen’s face creases into a frown. He rubs his temple and makes a noise like a growling throttle.

Tom Simpson

“Even in the feed zones. It’s not the law, but it’s not polite. Musettes were up in the air, there was panic and crashes. It was Simpson acting like a jerk. It didn’t happen often, occasionally I was angry at him. I’d say to him in his native English: ‘you fucking cunt!’” Janssen says, with a laugh.

 

Simpson was the loveable rogue and his charm regularly mended any lingering discord. “There were often many teams, five or six, in the same hotel together every evening. Each had their own table. And at a certain moment, Tommy walked into the restaurant like a gentleman – with a bowler hat, cane and in costume,” Janssen says, miming an aristocratic entrance.

 

“He was like a Lord in England, and the rest of us were in tracksuits. Everyone saw that, laughed and the things he had done in the race were forgotten.”

 

In an era of greater contact and camaraderie between riders, Simpson was well-liked by his peers, even those who didn’t speak the same language.

 

After a dramatic finish to the 1967 Tour of Spain in Bilbao, when saboteurs left tin-tacks and oil on the road, a host of riders travelled by train to Paris to race the Polymultiplée in the outlying town of Chanteloup. But Simpson missed the initial connection and caught a taxi over the border to intercept it in Bayonne.

 

Once on board, despite knowing no Spanish, he had the climber Julio Jimenez in stitches, explaining his palaver through mime and gesture, and how he felt incapable of putting one pedal in front of the other at the next day’s event.

Tom Simpson
Tom Simpson wins the 1965 World Championships.

“It was the golden age of cycling,” Janssen says. “Now, there are still stars but I notice there is not as much friendship between riders … During the races back then, we had enemies, the knife was on the table. But outside them, we’d drink wine or beer and we sang together. How super, quelle belle époque. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

 

Simpson’s occasional defiance of unwritten peloton rules, like attacking in the feed zone, was a reason why he earned a reputation as a bit of a rebel, though he didn’t particularly consider himself one.

 

“[It’s] because I’m outspoken. I’ve got my own ideas and I always try to stick by them,” he says in the film Something To Aim At.

 

The 1965 affair with The People newspaper, where he was punished for publicly expressing grubby truths about the peloton, exemplified that. The allegations scuppered Peugeot’s intended “Gentleman Tom” publicity campaign, although there was a certain irony that he was still getting them column inches, albeit for the wrong reasons.

 

The fee offered by the newspaper had been a big motivation for the articles, but he ended up donating it to the charity fund of the professional cyclists’ union.

 

When it came to making money, Simpson didn’t mess around. He would occasionally try to smuggle items across borders to avoid paying import duty. While moving to Ghent, he was stopped by customs officials, trying to finagle a radio through.

 

His Peugeot team-mate Henri Duez recalls a far more potent cargo. “Tom told the hunters on the team that he knew someone at the famous weapons factory of Herstal [in Belgium] and could get hold of a gun at a good price,” he says. “I was the buyer. I remember the evening of the 1963 Paris–Brussels, where he came second behind Jean Stablinski. He crossed the border afterwards with three guns on the back seat, including mine.

Tom Simpson

“The customs officials, having seen cycling kit, casquettes and photographs on the car seats, quickly recognised it was Simpson, whose exploits they had been following on the radio. So there was an autograph-signing session and the guns got through undetected. The car hadn’t even been searched.” Over 50 years later, Duez still has the elegant, wooden-handled weapon on display in his hallway.

 

Despite showing his streetwise nature, Simpson could be naïve in other scenarios, especially in his early days on the Continent. It only took him a few hours abroad before getting fleeced, fittingly on April Fools’ Day 1959.

 

Stumbling around with two bicycles, two suitcases and a haversack, this innocent abroad was charged an excessive 40 francs taxi fare to get between two train stations in Paris. Years later, he also discovered that Vins Santa Rosa, the Breton company that backed him during his whistle-stop rise in 1959, had paid him well below the odds.

 

In his autobiography, Simpson acknowledged his gullibility: “I have had and still have too much confidence in people. I’m the most easily duped person in the world.”

 

His good faith led to problems. In 1965, he invested in the construction of two apartment blocks in the east Ghent suburb of Sint-Amandsberg. According to his former Great Britain team-mate Barry Hoban, as construction costs rocketed, the builders made necessary cuts to the original plans.

 

Yet, taking bad advice from the notary who oversaw the transaction, Simpson still agreed to advertise the apartments alongside the original layouts, when they ought to have been sold as seen. The various owners later formed a syndicate and took the Hobans to court when they realised the error. “Tom believed in people. He believed they would do right. And they didn’t,” Barry Hoban says.

 

Several team-mates attest to his good-heartedness. André Desvages, a first-year professional with Peugeot in 1967, was stunned at how much this champion cared about him. “When I had Belgian races, he came to welcome me at the train station in Ghent or found me a hotel,” he says. At Paris-Nice, Simpson gave him advice about getting in the breakaway and was delighted to later discover that Desvages had won the stage.

Tom Simpson

 

Vin Denson remembers another act of kindness. “[My wife] Vi and I opened a café in Ghent, I had all these sporting kits in a net [on the ceiling], football shirts, bike riders’ jerseys, Anquetil’s one,” he says.

 

“The only thing missing was a yellow jersey. Tom came into the pub one night with Helen, we were having a chat and a meal. He said ‘hang on, I’ve got something for you.’ And he pulled out the yellow jersey [from 1962] and said: ‘I’m keeping one for my daughters and here’s one for you.’”

 

With so many dimensions to his character, Simpson left the Major Tom persona behind and blew away the dusty stereotypes of the composed, traditional Englishman.

 

He could play the Lord and the larrikin, the committed star and the clown, the underdog and the champion, be cold-blooded or clumsy, stoic or lachrymose. Take your pick from times he cried: at the 1956 Olympic closing ceremony, on his 1962 Tour lap of honour after finishing sixth and his abandon three years later, after losing Liège-Bastogne-Liège, winning Bordeaux-Paris in 1963 and a narrow defeat in the 1964 World Champ­ionships.

 

Simpson became far more cosmopolitan than the Major he had started out mimicking. The journalist Jean Bobet described him as “the first English Continental rider … ambitious like a Frenchman, selfish like a Spaniard, industrious like a German, talkative like an Italian and versatile like a Fleming”. It was this everyman appeal which helped him to win over such a broad cross-section of people.

 

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While his world-beating results got him an invitation to the proverbial party of top riders, his magnetic personality made him the life and soul of it, and helps to sustain his memory today. As Larkin wrote, “what will survive of us is love” and there’s an abundance left for Simpson. Vin Denson, Henri Duez and Jan Janssen all use the same words to describe their bond: “We were like brothers.”

 

The anti-hero trait that sticks to Tom Simpson is the one he could never rectify: that of being a cheat, following the discovery of amphetamine pills in his pockets on Mont Ventoux after his death. To most of his peers, that transgression is irrelevant to their perception of Simpson. “Nobody had a bad word to say for him,” his old Olympic team-mate Billy Holmes says. “I’m anti-drugs, but I wasn’t anti-Tommy. I was never anti-Tommy.”

 

This book extract appeared in Rouleur 17.5

 

Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire by Andy McGrath is published by Rapha Editions.