|Tommy Simpson, 1937-1966|
Today is a holy day in cycling, for all the cycling nations and not just in Britain - it would have been the birthday of legendary, tragic Tom Simpson. Born in Haswell, Co. Durham in 1937, Simpson seemed for many years to have been Britain's best ever hope for a Tour de France overall General Classification winner and was the only British rider to win the men's World Road Racing Championship until Mark Cavendish took the title in 2011.
Tom died on the 13th of July in 1967, during the 13th stage of the Tour de France. There were 22 stages that year and they covered a total of 4,708km; for the first time there was also a prologue, and the race had been designed to be the hardest Tour ever. It cannot, therefore, have been an uneventful race all the way until it reached Mont Ventoux that day - but because of what happened there, everything else has been forgotten.
Simpson was rated by many as the finest rider Britain had ever produced and, thanks largely to him, the Tour was increasingly popular on the English side of the Channel. He was also intelligent and funny, making him popular with the other riders; those that might not have liked him (and not one surviving rider from his era will admit to that) learned to respect him, because he had the legs to go with it. Many believed that he could win.
It was hellishly hot when the riders woke up that morning and forecasters warned it would get worse, reaching as high as 45C. That worried official race doctor Pierre Dumas - when he went for a walk at 06:30, he met some friends. "If the riders take something today, we'll have a death on our hands," he told them. They may have shared his concerns, but Dumas - who had come to cycling almost by chance, with no previous background in the sport - was well known for taking doping far more seriously than anybody else; needlessly so, it was commonly thought, as many people accepted it a simply a part of the sport - and something that was better not discussed..
It seems odd that, only 45 years ago, medical science believed that drinking the amount of water now recommended during athletic activity was actually harmful; but that was the case and, as a result, race organisers permitted riders no more than four standard bidons (about two litres) of water per stage. The riders, meanwhile, knew that they got thirsty and mounted cafe raids in which they would descend en masse upon rural bars and shops and guzzle down any fluids they could find, not caring about the large bills that showed up on their managers' desks months later. The riders hadn't long started the stage when the first raids took place, and one of Tom's domestiques had obtained a bottle of brandy. Tom had been seen gulping it down.
He'd been up Ventoux before and was well aware, as Raphaël Géminiani had tried to warn Ferdinand Kübler more than a decade earlier, that the unearthly summit is "not like any other col." Kübler thought he could prove himself greater than the mountain, so Ventoux ended his career to prove him wrong. Tom knew all this - he described an earlier ascent thus:
He knew, then, that Ventoux demanded respect. At Chalet Reynard, near the point where riders emerge from the weird and airless forests of the lower slopes and come out into the blast furnace of a road that leads to the top, the heat and alcohol was already giving his problems and several riders passed him. Team manager Alec Taylor wondered briefly if this might be a psychological trick designed to make his rivals think he couldn't cope, but when he drew close to Tom he could see that it wasn't. A little further up he was even worse, unable to concentrate and wondering about all over the road in a place without barriers to prevent a plunge over the side. At this point, Taylor and team mechanic Harry Hall still didn't doubt Tom would make it up the mountain and were far more concerned about what he might do to try to make up the time he was losing once he was over the summit - he'd long ago earned a reputation for being a lunatic descender, apparently relishing the thrill of high-speed corners that would have had most other riders reducing their speed by half. Then he crashed.
Hall was the first one to reach him. "That's it for you, Tom," he said, preparing himself for the emotional outpouring that was sure to come when the rider sat out the remainder of the stage in the team car, following his comrades. But Tom wanted to go on. Both men wished later that they'd stopped him.
For a man suffering as Tom was, he made it a very long way - it's 5.35km along the road and not far from 400m upward (which is an average gradient of 7.5%, not too bad for a professional cyclist - but as Géminiani knew and so many have found out, Ventoux is different) to the place where he fell for the second time. This time he wasn't going on, though he didn't know it because he was already unconscious, his hands locked in a deathgrip to the bars and his legs still trying to pedal. Hall was first to him again and said later that he knew it was too late as soon as he got there. With the help of another mechanic, Ken Ryall, they prised his hands loose and laid him down at the side of the road. One of the Tour's police outriders summoned Dr. Dumas, who was there in moments. He, his deputy and a nurse took turns administering heart massage, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and oxygen until the helicopter arrived and took him to hospital, where he was declared dead. His last words, spoken as Hall reached him, were not "Put me back on my bike!" - that was made up by a journalist who wasn't there. Hall and Taylor say they were "Go on! Go on!" What he meant by that we'll never know, but the most obvious explanation is that he thought he was still riding.
|The Simpson memorial, Mont Ventoux|
When Cavendish was awarded an MBE by the Queen following his World Championship victory, Tom was remembered also - the honour was bestowed on the 74th anniversary of his birth.
Laurent Jalabert, born in Mazamet on this day in 1968, is a retired French cyclist and one of the few to have become a well-known character among the non-cycling public outside the cycling nations of France, Italy, Spain and the Benelux. As a result, it frequently comes as a surprise to many when they learn that Jaja never won cycling's most famous race, the Tour de France. However, stage wins on Bastille Day in 1995 and 2001 earned him the thanks of French fans, restoring to them some of the pride lost during the long years since Bernard Hinault last took overall Tour victory.
|The outcome of The Policeman's Crash|
Sylvie, Jalabert's wife to whom he is still married, was understandably concerned that her husband had been so badly hurt in such an unpredictable accident. He promised her that he would find a way to continue racing that didn't require him to be in the high-speed tussle of a final sprint. Thus began his transformation into one of the finest all-rounders of his generation, a change that turned him from a sprinter able to grab glory in individual sprints to a rider who had a real chance at topping general classifications. Just a year later, he proved his new status at the Vuelta a Espana when he won the Points classification, the King of the Mountains and the General Classification - the trifecta, the only man to have done so in the Vuelta and an honour he shares in the Grand Tours with only Tony Rominger and the legendary Eddy Merckx. In that same Vuelta, he cemented his popularity among fans by allowing a little-known German rider named Bert Dietz to win the sought-after summit finish at Sierra Nevada: Dietz had ridden much of the race in a solo break but, after chasing for many kilometres, Jalabert caught him on the mountain. The outcome of the stage was, apparently, settled - but then Jaja was seen to hold back, refusing to overtake. "I never thought we'd catch him, and when I saw he was ready to drop I felt sorry for him," he later told reporters.
(image credit: Cycling Art)
|Maurice Garin in 1897|
On this day in 1904, four months after the end of the race, the Union Velocipedique de France announced that it would be stripping Maurice Garin of his Tour de France win and banning him for two years as part of its disciplinary action against 30 riders found to have cheated. Second place Lucien Pothier was also disqualified, as were several other riders, allowing Henri Cornet (real name Henri Jardry) to become the youngest winner in Tour history at 19 (Henri Paret, at 50 the oldest rider to have completed a Tour, also rode that year). Such were the severity of the punishments that some historians have suggested that riders were not banned for taking trains, as is the official reason, but due to a major scandal that was covered up; this theory has been fueled by research carried out by Jason Jellick, who argues that riders would not have been able to take trains and finish when and where they did (but does not suggest that any scandal took place) and by the fact that official records have vanished.
Garin had also won the first Tour in 1903, but spectators claimed to have seen him take a train rather than ride one stage the following year - he denied doing so at the time, but admitted it in old age according to a man who had once run errands for his garage and later ended up working as the gravedigger and attendant at the Cimetiere Est where Garin was buried in 1957. The organisers, despite suspicions that they had permitted Garin to cheat because his personal sponsor was also a race sponsor, appear to have had grounds to have banned him immediately and would have been keen to do so had not angry spectators been likely to turn into a lynch mob if they'd done so.
In fact, aggression and cheating by spectators had been rife throughout the race that year - they'd felled trees to block riders they disliked and at one point Garin was savagely beaten by a crowd thgat had to be dispersed with pistol shots. This, combined with cheating among the entrants, was sufficient for Henri Desgrange to announce that the 1904 Tour would be the last. Thankfully, he was convinced to run the event again the following year with different, stricter rules.
Knud Enemark Jensen
Knud Enemark Jensen, born in Århus, Denmark on this day in 1930, achieved cycling fame in the very worst way possible - he was one of the earliest cyclists whose death was connected to doping when he collapsed in the 42C heat and fractured his skull during the team time trial event on the 26th of August at the 1960 Olympics. He went into a coma and died a few hours later in hospital.
Witnesses claimed that Jensen had swallowed eight pills believed to be phenylisopropylamine, an amphetamine-like drug, and another fifteen containing amphetamine and caffeine in the run-up to the race. His trainer initially said that he had administered Roniacol (nicotynol alcohol), a vasodilator, to the team but formally retracted his statement soon after. An autopsy confirmed the presence of both Roniacol and amphetamines in his body, but doctors concluded that his collapse had been caused by the heat rather than the drugs and his family were awarded one million lire compensation.
There are obvious comparisons between the deaths of Jensen and the British rider Tom Simpson, with whom he shared his birthday. Jensen's death encouraged the International Olympic Committee to accept that there was a problem with doping in sport and to establish a medical council in 1967, the year that Simpson died. Anti-doping controls would be put into place the following year, paving the way for similar controls to be introduced at the Tour de France and other races.
Born in Rabat, Morroco on this day in 1922, Custodio Dos Reis had Portuguese nationality but became a French citizen at the age of nine - and turned out to be a worthwhile catch by France, because he won Stage 14 of the Tour de France in 1950.
Charles Henry Bartlett died on this day in 1968 in Enfield, London. In 1908, he rode 100km in 2h41'48.6" on the track at the Olympics in London and won a gold medal for his achievement. He was born on the 6th of February 1885 in Bermondsey, also in London, making him 85 when he died.
Other cyclists born on this day: Domenico Pozzovivo (Italy, 1982); Arthur Griffiths (Great Britain, 1881); Martin Hvastija (Slovenia, 1969); István Liszkay (Hungary, 1912); Armand Putzeyse (Belgium, 1916, died 2003); Franck Perque (France, 1974); Kyriaki Konstantinidou (Greece, 1984); Andrés Torres (Guatemala, 1966); Álvaro Pachón (Colombia, 1945).