Tom Simpson

From Academic Kids

Tom Simpson (30 November 1937 - 13 July 1967) was a top British road racing cyclist of the 1960s who famously died of exhaustion on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 13th stage of the Tour de France on Friday 13 July 1967. The post mortem found that he had taken amphetamines and alcohol, a diuretic combination which proved fatal when coupled with the hot conditions, the notoriously hard climb of the Ventoux and a pre-existing stomach complaint.


Early life

Simpson was the youngest of the six children of coalmine worker Tom Simpson senior and his wife Alice, and was born in Haswell, County Durham. After World War II, the Simpson family moved to Harworth in north Nottinghamshire, another mining village, where Simpson grew up and acquired his interest in cycling. He attended the village school and later Worksop Technical College and in 1954 was an apprentice draughtsman at an engineering company in Retford.

As a cyclist he joined first Harworth and District Cycling Club and later Rotherham's Scala Wheelers, and by his late teens was winning local time trials. He was then advised to try track cycling, and he travelled regularly to Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester to compete, winning medals in the national 4000m individual pursuit discipline. Still aged only 19, he was part of the Great Britain team pursuit squad which won a bronze medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. Two years later, he won a silver medal in the individual pursuit at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

In April 1959, Simpson set off to live in the Breton fishing port of Saint-Brieuc, France, hoping to win enough local amateur races to get noticed by a professional cycling team. The move abroad also meant Simpson avoided doing National Service. It was in Saint-Brieuc that he met his wife, then Helen Sherburn, who he later married (on 3 January 1960).

Professional cyclist

Within two months, Simpson had won five races and in July 1959 was offered terms by two professional teams; he decided to join the Rapha Geminiani team, which already had a British cyclist, Brian Robinson, in its squad. His first event as a professional was a small stage race, the Tour de l'Ouest (Tour of the West) in which he won two stages and finished 18th overall - a major achievement for a new pro who would normally be expected to act as a domestique to the team's leader.

He competed in the 1959 World Championships in the Netherlands in the individual pursuit and professional road race, finishing fourth in both events, just out of the medals. Believing himself not ready for the greatest cycling challenge, he turned down an invitation to ride in the 1959 Tour de France. He did, though, ride the event the following year, finishing 29th, and taking third place on stage 3. 1960 also saw him compete in his first Classics: he had top ten finishes in La Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix - he led the latter for around 40km before running out of energy and being overtaken less than 10k from the finish, ending up 9th.

In April 1961, however, Simpson achieved his first Classic victory. After losing at Roubaix the previous year, he demonstrated his liking for races run over rough cobbles by winning the tough Tour of Flanders after a two-man sprint at the finish. That year he also finished 5th in the early season Paris-Nice stage race, and 9th in the world championship, but he abandoned the Tour de France on stage 3, the season being badly affected by an early season knee injury.

In 1962, he became the first Briton to wear the maillot jaune as leader of the Tour de France (after stage 12) and eventually finished 6th overall (which was to prove his highest placing on general classification, and was the highest final placing by a Briton until Robert Millar's fourth place in 1984), losing his hold on third spot after a crash. Earlier in the season, he again demonstrated his liking for the tough Belgian Classics, finishing 5th in the Tour of Flanders and 6th in the Gent-Wevelgem.

In terms of Classic performances, 1963 and 1965 were probably Simpson's best years. Riding in the distinctive black-and-white colours of the Peugeot-BP team in 1963, he won the gruelling motor-paced event Bordeaux-Paris, was second in Paris-Brussels and Paris-Tours, third in the Tour of Flanders, 8th in Paris-Roubaix, and 10th in both La Flèche Wallonne and Tour of Lombardy.

Simpson won the Milan-San Remo Classic in 1964, finished fourth (again) in the world championship and 10th in Paris-Roubaix. He also came close to a stage victory in the Tour de France, finishing second on stage 9, and ending up 14th overall.

In 1965, Simpson became the first Briton to win the world professional road racing crown, outsprinting Germany's Rudi Altig at San Sebastian in Spain after the two had broken away with around 40km to go. He also won the north Italian Autumn Classic, the Tour of Lombardy (only the second time that the holder of the distinctive rainbow jersey has also won in Italy - a feat last achieved by Alfredo Binda in the 1920s), and picked up third places in La Flèche Wallonne and Bordeaux-Paris, 6th in Paris-Roubaix and 10th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Showing that he still had the legs for track racing, he partnered Peter Post to victory in the six-day race at Brussels.

His achievements were also recognised in the UK. Simpson ended the year by winning UK Sports Journalists' Association's award of Sportsman of the Year (following in the footsteps of Reg Harris - the only other cyclist ever to win the SJA honour), and he also won the 1965 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award - and remains the only cyclist ever to have won this accolade.

A stage victory in the Tour de France still eluded Simpson. He twice finished second, on stages 12 and 13, of the 1966 Tour, but eventually abandoned the event on stage 17: he had attacked on the climb of the Col du Galibier but crashed heavily on the following descent and was unable even to hold his cycle's handlebars. 1966, overall, was something of a write-off for Simpson, who missed much of the season due to a skiiing injury incurred the previous winter.

Making up for the disappointments of the previous season, Simpson looked in fine form in early 1967. He won the early season Paris-Nice stage race (taking two second places and a third place on different days) and the Tour of Sardinia. He also rode in the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) for the first time, collecting two stage victories en route to an eventual 33rd place overall.

Friday the 13th

At the start of the 1967 Tour de France, Simpson was optimistic that he could make an impact on the event. After the first week he was in sixth position overall, but a stomach bug began to affect his form, and he lost vital time in a stage including the Col du Galibier. In Marseilles, at the start of stage 13 on Friday 13 July, he was still suffering the effects as the race headed into Provence on a blisteringly hot day, and was seen to consume brandy during the early parts of the stage. On the day's main climb, Mont Ventoux, Simpson broke away early, but was soon passed by the eventual stage winner, Julio Jiminez, and four others. About two kilometres from the summit, Simpson began to zig-zag erratically across the road, eventually falling against an embankment. While his team car helpers wanted him to retire from the race, Simpson insisted on being put back on his cycle and he continued for another 500m or so before again beginning to falter; he toppled unconscious into the arms of his helpers still tightly gripping his handlebars. Despite efforts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the administration of oxygen, plus a helicopter airlift to a nearby hospital, Simpson died. Three tubes of amphetamines were subsequently found in the rear pocket of his racing jersey.


Missing image
Memorial to Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux

There is a granite memorial to Simpson near the spot where he died, paid for by British cyclists. His last words are said to have been "Put me back on the bloody bike!"

After his tragic death, his body was brought back to Nottinghamshire and interred in Harworth's cemetery. A small museum dedicated to his achievements (opened in August 2001) can be found in the Harworth and Bircotes sports and social club.

Achievements: a summary

Simpson's professional achievements include four Classic one-day victories:

In addition to these victories, Simpson frequently finished in the top ten of major Classics, and won numerous criteriums and other events.

As an amateur he also won an Olympic Games team pursuit bronze medal (1956), silver in the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games individual pursuit, silver (1956) and gold (1958) medals in the British 4000m individual pursuit championship, and was British League of Racing Cyclists hill climb champion in 1957, picking up a silver medal in the same event the following year.

External link

  • Complete Palmarès (


William Fotheringham (2002) Put me back on my bike: In search of Tom Simpson (Yellow Jersey Press, London)de:Tom Simpson nl:Tom Simpson


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