Thomas “Tom” or “Tommy” Simpson (30 November 1937 – 13 July 1967) was one of Britain’s most successful professional cyclists. He was born in Haswell, County Durham and later moved to Harworth, Nottinghamshire. Simpson began road cycling as a teenager before taking up track cycling, specialising in pursuit races.
He won a bronze medal for track cycling at the 1956 Summer Olympics and a silver at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
In 1959, at age 21, Simpson was signed by the French professional road-racing team St. Raphaël-Géminiani-Dunlop. He advanced to their first team (Rapha-Gitane-Dunlop) the following year, and won the 1961 Tour of Flanders. Simpson then joined Gitane-Leroux-Dunlop; in the 1962 Tour de France he became the first British rider to wear the yellow jersey, finishing sixth overall.
In 1963 Simpson moved to Peugeot-BP-Englebert, winning Bordeaux–Paris that year and the 1964 Milan–San Remo. In 1965 he became Britain’s first world road race champion and won the Giro di Lombardia; this made him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the first cyclist to win the award.
Injuries hampered much of Simpson’s 1966 season. He won two stages of the 1967 Vuelta a España before he won the general classification of Paris–Nice that year.
In the thirteenth stage of the 1967 Tour de France, Simpson collapsed and died during the ascent of Mont Ventoux. He was 29 years old. The post-mortem examination found that he had mixed amphetamines and alcohol; this diuretic combination proved fatal when combined with the heat, the hard climb of the Ventoux and a stomach complaint. A memorial near where he died has become a place of pilgrimage for many cyclists.
Simpson was known to have taken performance-enhancing drugs during his career, when no doping controls existed. He is held in high esteem by many cyclists for his character and will to win.
Simpson was born on 30 November 1937 in Haswell, County Durham, the youngest of six children of coal miner Tom Simpson and his wife Alice (née Cheetham). His father had been a semi-professional sprinter in athletics. The family lived modestly in a small terraced house until 1943, when his parents took charge of the village’s working men’s club and lived above it.
In 1950 the Simpsons moved to Harworth on the Nottinghamshire–Yorkshire border, where young Simpson’s maternal aunt lived; new coalfields were opening, with employment opportunities for him and older brother Harry, by now, the only children left at home. Simpson rode his first bike, his brother-in-law’s, at age 12, sharing it with Harry and two cousins for time trials around Harworth. Following Harry, Tom joined Harworth and District Cycling Club aged 13.
He delivered groceries in the Bassetlaw district by bicycle and traded with a customer for a better road bike. He was often left behind in club races; members of his cycling club nicknamed him “four-stone Coppi”, after Italian rider Fausto Coppi, due to his slim physique.
Simpson began winning club time trials, but sensed resentment of his boasting from senior members. He left Harworth and District and joined Rotherham’s Scala Wheelers at the end of 1954. Simpson’s first road race was as a junior at the Forest Recreation Ground in Nottingham.
After leaving school he was an apprentice draughtsman at an engineering company in Retford, using the 10 mi (16.1 km) commute by bike as training. He placed well in half mile races on grass and cement, but decided to concentrate on road racing.
In May 1955 Simpson won the National Cyclists’ Union South Yorkshire individual pursuit track event as a junior; the same year, he won the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC) junior hill climb championship and placed third in the senior event.
Simpson immersed himself in the world of cycling, writing letters asking for advice. Naturalised Austrian rider George Berger responded, travelling from London to Harworth to help him with his riding position.
In late 1955, Simpson ran a red light in a race and was suspended from racing for six months by the BLRC. During his suspension he dabbled in motorcycle trials, nearly quitting cycling but unable to afford a new motorcycle necessary for progress in the sport.
The thirteenth stage (13 July) of the 1967 Tour de France measured 211.5 km (131.4 mi); it started in Marseille, crossing Mont Ventoux (the “Giant of Provence”) before finishing in Carpentras. At dawn Tour doctor, Pierre Dumas, met journalist, Pierre Chany, near his hotel. Dumas noted the warm temperature, “If the boys stick their nose in a ‘topette’ [bag of drugs] today, we could have a death on our hands”.
At the start line, a journalist noticed Simpson looked tired and asked him if the heat was the problem. Simpson replied, “No, it’s not the heat, it’s the Tour.” The temperature reportedly reached as high as 54 °C (129 °F) during the stage.
As the race reached the lower slopes of Ventoux, Simpsons’s team mechanic Harry Hall, witnessed Simpson, still ill, putting the lid back on his water bottle as he exited a building. Race commissaire (official), Jacques Lohmuller, later confirmed to Hall that he also saw the incident and that Simpson was putting brandy in his bottle.
Near the summit of Ventoux, the peloton began to fracture. Simpson was in the front group before slipping back to a group of chasers about a minute behind. He then began losing control of his bike, zig-zagging across the road. A kilometre from the summit, Simpson fell off his bike. Team manager Alec Taylor and Hall arrived in the team car to help him.
Hall tried to persuade Simpson to stop, saying: “Come on Tom, that’s it, that’s your Tour finished”, but Simpson said he wanted to continue. Taylor said, “If Tom wants to go on, he goes”. Noticing his toe straps were still undone, Simpson said, “Me straps, Harry, me straps!” They got him on his bike and pushed him off. Simpson’s last words, as remembered by Hall, were “On, on, on.”
Hall estimated Simpson rode a further 500 yd (457 m) before he began to wobble, and was held upright by spectators; he was unconscious, with his hands locked on the handlebars. Hall and a nurse from the Tour’s medical team took turns giving Simpson mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, before Dumas arrived with an oxygen mask.
Approximately forty minutes after his collapse, a police helicopter took Simpson to nearby Avignon hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:40 p.m. Two empty tubes and a half-full one of amphetamines, one of which was labelled “Tonedron”, were found in the rear pocket of his jersey. The official cause of death was “heart failure caused by exhaustion.”
On the next racing day, the other riders were reluctant to continue racing and asked the organisers for a postponement. France’s Stablinski suggested that the race continue, with a British rider, whose team would wear black armbands, allowed to win the stage.
Hoban won the stage, although many thought the stage winner should have been Denson, Simpson’s close friend. Media reports suggested that his death was caused by heat exhaustion, until, on 31 July 1967 British journalist J. L. Manning of the Daily Mail broke the news about a formal connection between drugs and Simpson’s death.
French authorities confirmed that Simpson had traces of amphetamine in his body, impairing his judgement and allowing him to push himself beyond his limits. His death contributed to the introduction of mandatory testing for performance-enhancing drugs in cycling, leading to tests in 1968 at the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Summer Olympics.
Simpson was buried in Harworth Cemetery, after a service at the 12th-century village church attended by an estimated 5,000 mourners,including Peugeot teammate Eddy Merckx, the only continental rider in attendance. The epitaph on Simpson’s gravestone in Harworth cemetery reads, “His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he would not give in”, taken from a card left by his brother, Harry, following his death.