Monday, 15 July 2013

Rest Day Ramble; The Ballad of Tommy Simpson

 The Tour de France finished it's 15th stage last night on the "Giant of Provence", Mt Ventoux, the maker and breaker of cyclists and the taker of lives.

 47 years ago this Saturday past, British cyclist Tom Simpson died on the giant slag heap on which the Tour last night concluded. Full of amphetamines, strychnine, alchohol, dehydrated, in debt and desperate for the pay day which being the first Englishman to win the Tour would bring, he pushed himself past the point of no return and died near the summit of the legendary mountain in full view of the world's press and leaving the Tour de France and the sport in general with many questions to answer in regards to how it's participants prepare themselves for this infernal contest. Of course, no lessons of value were learned. The music kept playing and eyes and ears were averted from the obvious.

 All these years later Tom Simpson is still a cycling hero and in some ways this should be so. A world beating champion from the British Isles was a novelty in those days. Britain had produced it's share of handy trackmen but success on the road had eluded them to this point. Simpson was a new breed. He won the World Road Championship and finished in the top ten in the Tour and still inspires many from Great Britain today who are lucky enough to see the name in the annals of the sport and rewarded when they dig a little deeper into history and find out just how good he was.

 Tom Simpson's story has an ominous tone about it. You can't read about his success and failures without being aware of his tawdry demise on a mountain roadside in France, victim of his own ambition and the "mickey fins" which he was obviously gobbling tube by tube, without feeling the dark hand of the sport we love enveloping you and leaving one with the notion that this should not be the way it is.

 Three years after his death, Simpson's former team mate Eddy Merckx, leading the Tour, destroyed the field on Mt Ventoux, winning on the Giant wearing the yellow jersey, on his way to creating a legend and legacy that will probably never be surpassed, and once again the glory of the sport blotted out the darkness of the past and things left unsaid and undone were forgotten, only to raise their ugly head again a generation later.

 Last night, another cyclist riding under the British flag created his own little slice of history. Chris Froome, the ungainly, unlikely Kenyan born, South African raised champion riding for Team Sky, took a leaf out the Merckx handbook and destroyed his rivals on the vertical moonscape of the Ventoux, becoming the first man since the "Cannibal" himself to win there while wearing the yellow jersey.

 The fans, lining the mountain in their hundreds of thousands cheered insanely, the press, following the way of the wind lyrically described the scene as Froome left behind three former Tour winners and a swag of convicted drug cheats including the man accepted as the greatest rider of his generation and praised to the heavens the virtue of this young British lion. The show was complete. The theatre of the Tour had done it's job again and the sins of the past have been relegated to history, even as the stragglers rode past the memorial to Tommy Simpson situated near the summit of the climb.

 The story of Tommy Simpson should never be forgotten. Not just because he was a champion from a place where they were a rare commodity although his talent and determination should be admired. No, he should also be remembered as a light in the gloom, a distant reminder that behind the glamour and glitz of the greatest bike race in the world lies a dark heart hidden from view. And when Chris Froome performs his magic show in the Alps later in the week it may pay to remember it's just sport and a spectacle, it's not life. The music goes on and no one listens. Rest in peace Tommy.

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