Mark Cavendish's victory in the 2011 World Championships opened the floodgates for British cycling. A year later, Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France – a victory since emulated on four occasions by Chris Froome, who has also thrown in wins in the Giro and Vuelta for good measure. Even Welshman Geraint Thomas got in on the act, with his Tour triumph in 2018.
But Wiggins – the man whose Tour-Olympic double in the heady summer of 2012 elevated him to superstardom and ensured that another cyclist would be crowned Sports Personality of the Year after Cavendish in 2011 – was under no illusions as to where the roots of Britain’s success lay.
In his 2018 book, Icons, Wiggins pays tribute to the British rider who stood tall before all others – the pioneering Yorkshireman who might not have won cycling's biggest prize, but who was the nation's first rider to don the Yellow Jersey. And, 46 years before Cavendish in Copenhagen, became the first Briton to win the Rainbow Stripes.
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"Tom Simpson is arguably the most complete British road cyclist of all time," Wiggins wrote. "Cavendish was (and still is) a better sprinter; I was a much better time triallist, and Tom couldn't climb like Robert Millar. However, none of us could have won so many big, important races and widely diverse races, and it is very unlikely that anybody from these shores ever will."
After two previous fourth-place finishes at the Worlds, Simpson headed to San Sebastian in 1965, the head of a motley crew of British riders who relied on their leader to provide them their race kit. Having crashed out of the Tour de France earlier that year and suffered a serious blood infection that could have seen his left arm amputated, Simpson was not deemed to be among the favourites to take gold that day. But the man known affectionately as ‘Mr Tom’ rode a tactical masterclass to break away with Rudi Altig and outfox the powerful German at the finish. Here is the tale of how Tom Simpson became Britain's first world champion.
The youngest of six children of a coal miner also called Tom Simpson, the man who would be king, was born in the village of Haswell in County Durham. Aged 12, Simpson and his family moved to Harworth on the Nottingham-Yorkshire border.
His first year as a pro cyclist was Fausto Coppi's last, and Simpson entered a sport dominated by the steely and suave presence of Frenchman Jacques Anquetil.
In his biography of Simpson, Bird on the Wire, Andy McGrath paints a portrait of a modest rider who always laid his cards on the table and called a spade a spade.
"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," writes McGrath. "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."
Off the bike, Simpson was a popular figure who liked to crack jokes and lift the atmosphere of any room he entered. In his autobiography, Cycling is My Life, he wrote: "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."
Evading national service, the happy-go-lucky Simpson moved to France in April 1959, arriving at the station in Saint-Brieuc in Brittany with £100 in his back pocket and the hope of launching his continental professional career. After a high-profile amateur win, he was offered a spot on the Saint-Raphaël team of fellow Brit Brian Robinson.
In his first race as a pro, the 21-year-old Simpson narrowly missed out on a medal in the World Championships in Zandvoort, finishing fourth in a select sprint as Frenchman André Darrigade took the Rainbow Jersey. In this way, he had clearly proved himself to be a citizen of the Worlds.
Happy to play up to the French press, Simpson, in an early photo shoot with Miroir-Sprint, donned a sharp suit and bowler hat. With the photographer in tow, Simpson wandered through Paris, a briefcase in one hand, an umbrella in the other, stopping for a cup of tea while perusing a copy of The Times. And so the persona of 'Major Tom' was born.
Far from a mere eccentricity, Simpson clearly saw the value of having a USP in a sport where self-promotion and marketing was important to those who wanted to earn a decent living. He soon started appearing at races in a different hat for every occasion: sombreros, berets, military tricornes, Yorkshire flat caps, firemen's helmets – you name it. On one occasion, he even did his best George Formby impression with a ukulele.
McGrath recalls a 1967 interview with Cycling magazine, where Simpson said that the object of a professional cyclist was, "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."
It's fair to assume that the charismatic Simpson would have taken to today's social media game like a duck to water. But there was another side to Simpson – a more acerbic, unforgiving aspect of his personality that would shine through when he felt uncomfortable or thought he was being taken for a ride.
As the author Chris Sidwells, Simpson's nephew, says: "Tom was very flippant with people. He was very like Bradley Wiggins. There were several tones – like there are several Bradley Wiggins. It depends which one gets up – and who you are – because if he didn't like you, he would be really flippant. And he could be quite vindictive, as well."
For all his charm, Sidwells recalls how a disgruntled Simpson once single-handedly chased down fellow British rider Barry Hoban in the break. "Barry said: 'Why did you chase me down? You had all your team to do that.' And he said: 'Because I'm the number one British cyclist in Europe, not you.'"
A man ahead of his time
There was good reason for Simpson to think of himself as Britain's premier cyclist. In 1961, less than two years after turning professional, he won the Tour of Flanders at his first attempt. To do so, he used all his cunning to beat the faster and more experienced Nino Defilippis, a man who had seven Tour stage wins and the Giro di Lombardia to his name.
As William Fotheringham explains in his book, Put Me Back on My Bike – In Search of Tom Simpson: "Defilippis was outwitted when Simpson pretended to sprint for the finish and stuck his tongue out to give the impression that his legs were fading. Once the Italian had made his effort and overtaken him, Simpson attacked on his blind side, to win by inches."
This came after Simpson had, according to Defilippis, assured him: "Don't drop me, Nino, you can get 10 metres on me in the sprint." Such awareness and race-craft led his contemporary rider Jean Bobet to later liken Simpson to a bird of prey, with a complete understanding of his surroundings and an innate ability to spread his wings at the right moment.
Speaking on the same BBC documentary – Death on the Mountain: The Story of Tom Simpson – Bobet's fellow Frenchman Jean Stablinsky describes Simpson as a rider full of panache who gave the public what they wanted.
"He was the complete rider,” he said. “Tommy was combative. But he was also a sly, cunning rider. You wouldn't notice it, but he knew how to trick you in a race. He knew how to get into breaks – the right breaks."
Add to this a visionary outlook on nutrition, performance and power-to-weight ratio that, according to Sidwells, was a pre-echo of the marginal gains philosophy practised by his successors Wiggins and Froome, Simpson was an appealing all-round package. The French Peugeot team certainly thought so, having given the Briton a big contract in 1963.
For Simpson had built on his Flanders success, finishing sixth in the 1962 Tour de France after becoming the first Englishman to don the Maillot Jaune (albeit only for a single day). Then, once in the black-and-white of Peugeot, he outfoxed Raymond Poulidor on the via Roma in 1964 to win his second Monument at Milan-San Remo.
The apprentice years hadn't been easy – Simpson had often led a hand-to-mouth existence while making a name for himself – but come 1965, as McGrath says, Simpson had "banished British cycling's inferiority complex and established himself and the country as a force in the sport with his brilliance in its most prestigious one-day races".
All he needed now was a Rainbow Jersey to show for it.
Setting the scene for San Sebastian
Simpson's 1965 season did not go so well, starting with a skiing injury over the winter that kept him out of the early spring races. He was on course to contest for the Paris-Roubaix win until a crash saw him drop from the lead group and finish sixth. His injuries ruled him out of Flanders, while another crash in Liège-Bastogne-Liège meant he could finish only 10th in the final sprint.
Anquetil's absence made the Tour wide open, and Simpson hoped to capitalise. But during Stage 9 in the Pyrenees, he crashed on the descent of the Col d'Aubisque, injuring his hand. Simpson battled on to protect his place in the top 10, but a bout of bronchitis put paid to his efforts. More worryingly, the wound in his hand became infected. He defied doctor's orders and continued the race – only to end up on a hospital bed two days from Paris, where surgeons operated on his hand and treated him for blood poisoning.
Not finishing the Tour cost him dearly. As Sidwells, author of the books Mr Tom and Cycling Legends: Tom Simpson, explains: "He hadn't got many criterium contracts – the post-Tour criteriums were what gave them the money those days – because he hadn't had a good Tour. So he trained riding kermesse races in Belgium – three or four a week, riding to and from them. So he was getting the mileage for the Worlds. He didn't try to win them, just used them for training, hiding in the pack."
Missing the criteriums might have dented Simpson's bank balance, but it was a blessing of sorts. The showpiece races around cycling's French heartlands were hard work and usually involved eating on the hoof, drinking too much, and kipping in cars as the circus moved from one town to the next. They were, in short, form destroyers.
Simpson's poor showing as a super-domestique in Paris-Luxembourg, his last race before the Worlds, was misleading when it came to his form. Indeed, Sidwells stresses that Stablinsky had ridden some of the same kermesse races as Simpson and vouched that he was "flying". In the Frenchman's mind, at least, Simpson was one of the favourites for the Worlds.
Putting the Great into Britain
Simpson chose to drive down to San Sebastian from his home in Belgium in his brand-new BMW with the Australian rider Nev Veale. Of course he did.
As Sidwells tells Eurosport:
Tom loved his fancy cars. The first car he bought was an Aston Martin – back when he was sharing digs with Brian Robinson. Brian says there was a table, two chairs, a fridge, a bed to share – and a brand-new Aston Martin parked outside.
Simpson and Robinson were joined by Barry Hoban, Vin Denson, Michael Wright, Alan Ramsbottom and Keith Butler – most of the British pros based in Europe at the time. What the team lacked in size compared to the main European nations, it made up for in character and cohesion.
"The British team was small, but they were all full-time professionals," says Sidwells. "And for once, they had a plan, because Tom could win."
Image credit: Getty Images
Having come so close a year before – when Simpson bullishly took another fourth place behind Jan Janssen, Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor at Sallanches after recovering from an early crash – the British number one wanted the win dearly.
And the British team was very much Simpson's team. Not only was he the leader, he also provided soigneurs, a mechanic and some swish made-to-measure red, white and blue soft wool jerseys that he had made in Italy and paid for out of his own pocket.
"Tom wanted the British team to look as good as the Italians and the French," says Sidwells.
Lacking any support, the team reportedly obtained food and drink by pinching it from other teams. It was pouring on the day before the race, but Simpson still insisted on the team getting out early to familiarise themselves with the circuit. They did a few laps then went off for a loop in the hills. It was here that Denson joined Stablinsky in his assessment that Simpson was ‘flying’. As McGrath says in Bird on the Wire: "The small, but perfectly-formed Great Britain team was in a position to capitalise on the disarray of several bigger, stronger traditional cycling powers."
Now they just had to put their plan into action.
Pulling it off
In heavy rain, 96 riders rolled out of the small town of Lasarte-Oria on the outskirts of San Sebastian to start the 267.4km race, which was made up of 14 laps of a hilly 19.1km circuit through the Basque Country.
"The plan was to get Barry Hoban in an early break," Sidwells explains. "If some favourites got across then Tom would try and follow, using two of the British riders – Ramsbottom and Denson – to help him. And that's exactly what happened."
From the outset, the attacks came thick and fast. Hoban covered them all and found himself in a breakaway that included Roger Swerts of Belgium and Peter Post, the Dutch winner of Roubaix in 1964. When Italian duo Franco Balmamion and Bruno Mealli managed to bridge over with Karl-Heinz Kunde of Germany, the move began to look very dangerous. With Post, Balmamion and Swerts among the pre-race favourites, Simpson was wary of the gap growing too large.
"Everyone but the French had a favourite in the breakaway. So Tom worked out that there wouldn't be any teams chasing it – this was going to be it," says Sidwells. "He asked Vin and Alan to take him to the front of the peloton and each do a turn, as if they were leading out for a sprint, for a kilometre. They both did this then swung off, then Tom jumped across to the breakaway."
Image credit: Getty Images
Once Simpson made his move, Germany's Rudi Altig was alert to the danger and leapt onto the Briton's wheel. The two were close friends and had ridden together in the 1964 Trofeo Baracchi, the two-man time trial, in which they finished third, despite Simpson suffering badly. The duo combined well together and managed to catch the front group. This was Hoban's cue to stop sandbagging the escapees and to start working for his leader. The big losers at this stage, the half-way point of the race, were the French team of Anquetil, whose wardrobe contained countless Yellow Jerseys, but none featuring the rainbow bands.
"The French had missed it," Simpson's nephew continues. "Jean Stablinsky tried to get across with some others. Keith Butler told me that Anquetil was shouting at the French team – because it couldn't get organised – he did a lap on the front of the peloton to try and close the gap on his own. So Keith sat on Anquetil's wheel and did his best to shadow his every move. It was his last lap of the race because when the Frenchman swung over, Butler had to give up. He was that shattered."
Butler would be the only British rider that day not to cross the finish line; the race was far from won, but Butler had already played an instrumental role by thwarting the French five-time Tour winner. Back in the lead group, Simpson noticed that Swerts, Balmamion and a few more passengers had stopped working. This concerned him so much that he rode up alongside Hoban and suggested he did his bit for Britain by falling off in front of the Italian.
Despite this joke, Hoban later told Sidwells that he could tell Simpson was preparing to attack. Altig could, as well. "Every time Tom went to the front, the speed went up, and Altig was watching him, sat on his wheel," says Sidwells.
Simpson trusted his legs enough to be riding with a 54 chainring over the hilly course – and this extra gear paid off when he put in a big acceleration at the foot of a climb with three laps to go. Going over the summit, he looked over his shoulder and saw that the only rider who had managed to follow was his old mucker, Altig.
"Right, Rudi, come on," he said. "Let's do this – you remember the Baracchi Trophy?"
So the pair combined on the following false flat as if they were riding a time trial, forming what Sidwells describes as a respectful coalition – capped with an agreement that they wouldn't play any games in the final sprint and would work together until the final kilometre.
Simpson on top of the Worlds
The leaders may have settled on an agreement, but that didn't stop Simpson using some of his trademark cunning to get a psychological upper hand over his adversary. As Fotheringham recalls in the BBC documentary on Simpson: "He pretended that he wasn't quite as strong as he actually was, and lulled Rudi Altig into a sense of security, which meant that Altig, when it came to the sprint, was taken by surprise."
Fotheringham elaborates on this tactic in Put Me Back on My Bike, in which he claims that Simpson's most important win of his career underlined his consummate sang-froid and was "taken with a glorious mix of courage and cunning".
"They came to the finish well ahead of the chasers and Simpson launched his sprint just as Altig was changing gear, in the split second when he could not readily respond," Fotheringham writes.
Altig was an accomplished sprinter with numerous wins to his name from the Tour and Vuelta. But, like Simpson, he had crashed badly in the Tour earlier that summer, fracturing his hip. He entered the Worlds short of training and competition, and the sheer effort of keeping up with Simpson when he made his decisive uphill attack must have knocked the stuffing out of him.
That said, fluffing a gear change at such a key moment is unforgivable to a cyclist. As McGrath reports Simpson saying afterwards: "I don't understand how a great champion of Rudi's class chose to use his derailleur during the sprint."
Of course, this being cycling, a conspiracy theory did the rounds well before the advent of social media, namely that Simpson had paid his German rival 100,000 French francs to let him win. Simpson's nephew is quick to discredit this theory. "You couldn't buy that race because the stakes were so high," Sidwells says, explaining how Altig stood to make much more money with post-race criteriums as the World Champion than as merely the runner-up. For his part, Fotheringham agrees that there is no evidence to suggest Simpson, who ended up winning by three bike lengths, ‘bought’ Altig.
"Unless this is proven, the world title will remain a testimony to Simpson's self-belief and lucid thinking after seven hours in the saddle. By this point in a race, clarity of thought is directly related to how much energy a cyclist has left. If you are tired, you can't think as quickly as the other man," Fotheringham writes.
Altig later revealed that Simpson had 'played dead', telling him he had no strength left and luring him into a mistaken feeling of security. Such tricks were all part of the game, and the German seemed impressed rather than aggrieved with Simpson's cleverness. He made it clear that Simpson was no fluke winner.
What happened next?
No sooner was the Rainbow Jersey on his back than Simpson was signing contracts to ride criteriums and track meetings all over Europe. After a quick glass of champagne with his British teammates, he headed to Bilbao airport for a flight to Paris for a criterium the next day.
In the rush, Simpson left both his Rainbow Jersey and gold medal in the team hotel – forcing him to wear the jersey belonging to his Dutch pal Jan Janssen, the outgoing incumbent, on his first outing as world champion. He even sewed a pair of BP logos on the sleeves during the flight to Paris to appease his trade team's co-sponsor.
With Simpson airborne, the British team went out for a celebratory meal without their star man. It was left to Hoban to drive his friend's BMW back to Paris. They met at the Gare du Nord the day after Simpson's criterium. Hoban handed over the keys then boarded a train to go home, while Simpson sped off to get to a reception near his home in Ghent.
Amid his hectic schedule, Simpson accepted a hefty fee to conduct a warts-and-all interview for The People newspaper in which he provocatively spilled the beans on the pro peloton.
"The mild revelations included offering £1,100 to rival Shay Elliott for help at the 1963 World Championships, taking a payment of £500 to help another rider, and his use of medical "tonics": indecorous behaviour, perhaps, yet common for the sport at the time," writes McGrath.
Peugeot took it badly and threatened to fire him. Anquetil and Stablinski approached him at a criterium and there was a minor scuffle. The British Cycling Federation and UCI were also not best pleased with the embarrassment caused.
It was this backdrop of mild scandal that accompanied him to Milan for the Giro di Lombardia, his first major race in the rainbow stripes, a fortnight after his victory in Spain. There was a lot of pressure on Simpson to let his legs do the talking and to pull his Rainbow Jersey out of the dirt through which he had unceremoniously dragged it. Simpson duly delivered, with an emphatic win that put him up on a pedestal with the great Alfredo Binda as the only rider in history at the time to pull off a Worlds-Lombardia double.
"Taking the race by the scruff of the neck for 200km epitomised his exciting philosophy of cycling," writes McGrath. "When it came to enterprising tactics and outlasting everyone else, there were few better than Simpson."
The Italian papers gushed at his latest exploit, claiming he had won Lombardia in the manner of the five-time champion Fausto Coppi. "This was fantastic for Tom, because Coppi was his childhood hero," says Sidwells.
Victories on the continent were followed by widespread recognition at home. Simpson was awarded The Daily Express 'Sportsman of the Year' trophy, then received the Sportswriters' Association award from Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Ever the joker, Simpson began his acceptance speech with the line: "Mr Prime Minister, we are both in the saddle, you at Number 10 and me on my bike, but I hope your bottom doesn't hurt like mine does."
The cherry on the cake was the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, which for once left Simpson speechless. He was the first cyclist to win the now-fabled gong, and the first person in history to win all three big British sports awards in the same year whereby achieving a depth of public recognition that no cyclist would emulate until the likes of Cavendish, Wiggins, Froome and Thomas more than four decades later.
The next person to win all three awards in the same year, incidentally, was Princess Anne in 1971 – putting Simpson on a par with royalty. But of course, by then, Simpson was dead.
Goodnight Mr Tom
Simpson was a non-finisher when Rudi Altig put his San Sebastian disappointment behind him to take the world title one year later, on home soil at Nürburgring. The German had already exacted revenge by denying Simpson victory in Stage 12 of the Tour de France. A day later, Simpson failed again to notch a maiden Tour stage win when finishing runner-up on Stage 13.
Determined to get the monkey off his back, Simpson entered the 1967 Tour with high hopes. After two top-five finishes in the second weekend of action, the 29-year-old started Stage 13 in seventh position in the General Classification. The focal point of the 211.5km stage from Marseille to Carpentras was the second ascent of Mont Ventoux in the Tour's history. Simpson was in the leading group near the summit when he lost contact and started zig-zagging across the road.
A kilometre from the summit, he fell off his bike. Simpson ignored the advice to call it a day and with a little help, he got back on his bike, only to collapse again. Approximately forty minutes later, a helicopter took Simpson to nearby Avignon hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:40pm. Today, a memorial stands beside the road at the point where Simpson fell.
The official cause of death was "heart failure caused by heat exhaustion", but two empty tubes of amphetamines, and one half-full tube, were found in his jersey pocket. With news of Simpson's collapse yet to reach the peloton, Jan Janssen – the man who once leant Simpson his Rainbow Jersey – took the stage win in Carpentras.
The next day, as a mark of respect, the peloton agreed to let one of Simpson's British teammates cross the line ahead of them. Although Vin Denson was reportedly meant to be the designated rider, it was Barry Hoban who rode four minutes clear of the pack to take an emotional win. Two years later, in 1969, Hoban married Simpson's widow, Helen.
It would be 46 years before Britain celebrated another Rainbow Jersey – Cavendish coming home first in Copenhagen, two years after he won Britain's first Monument since Simpson's third and final major Classics win in Lombardy, so soon after he stood on top of the world in San Sebastian.
According to his nephew, it was Simpson's ability to win across such a variety of terrains, his early successes, and the prospect of what might have been, that gives Mr Tom the edge over Cavendish. Sidwells is reluctant to put even Sean Kelly, who won four of cycling's Monuments, in the same bracket.
"With victories in three different Monuments, Tom won more than all other Brits combined," Sidwells says. "And it's not just the winning, it's the consistency. He won Flanders aged 23. Imagine that nowadays. There was one course Cavendish could win on. But it was different with Tom. He was fourth in Sallanches the year before and he was fourth in Zandvoort, aged 21, in his first full pro race. For what he did at the time he did it, and the age he did it, it was even more impressive than Sean Kelly. Kelly was 27 when he won his first Monument. Tom was 29 when he died."
Sidwells' assertion that his uncle would have won all the Monuments in his career given the chance is something we'll never know for sure. But his biographer Fotheringham agrees that Major Tom was, on his day, a cut above the rest.
"On a good day, Simpson was capable of combining leg power, cunning and killer instinct in a way that was irresistible," Fotheringham writes in Put Me Back on My Bike. "His racing was a delight to watch, and there was little the opposition could do about him. Such days were not common in the Englishman's career, but his surprising world professional road race title win, less than two years before his death, exemplified his style at its best."
What's more, there can't be many pro cyclists who inspired David Bowie to write a song about their careers. Although don't quote Re-Cycle on that…
Eurosport thanks Chris Sidwells for taking the time to talk to Felix Lowe about his uncle, Tom Simpson. For more information about Cycling Legends 01 Tom Simpson, the first of a series of illustrated books published under the Cycling Legends name, visit cyclinglegends.co.uk or click here.