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British Cyclist Tommy Simpson Died 50 Years Ago Today

12 July 17 words: Gav Squires

In the days before Team Sky, asthma medication and bubble suits, the most famous British road cyclist was Tom Simpson. Thursday 13 July is the fiftieth anniversary of his death while climbing Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France and so we take a look back at the life and times of the fastest Nottingham resident on two wheels…

Born in Country Durham, Tom Simpson's family moved down to Harworth when he was twelve and this is where he rode his first bicycle, lent to him by his brother-in-law. A year later, he would join the Harworth & District Cycling Club, which is still riding today. He would deliver grocers around Bassetlaw on his bike and would have his first race at the Forest Recreation Ground. Following his first wins in junior events in 1955, he almost quit cycling after being banned for six months for running a red light. He started to play around with motorcycles but was unable to progress due to the fact he couldn't afford a new bike and so it was back to pedal power. 

The decision paid off and Simpson was selected in the four-man team for the 4,000m pursuit in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The team returned home with bronze medals following a defeat by Italy in the semi-finals. Simpson would go one better two years later at the Commonwealth Games, missing out on a gold by just 100th of a second in the final. In November of the same year he made an attempt at breaking the indoor amateur one-hour record but was an agonising 320 metres short. The follow year he would head to France with the aim of turning professional. He took with him two bicycles gifted by Carlton Cycles based in Worksop. 

Just four months after arriving in France he was riding in his first professional race, the Tour de l'Ouest. He was briefly in the lead after winning two stages but a puncture put paid to his hopes and he had to settle for finishing fourteenth. A month later he finished fourth in the World Road Race Championships, still the best ever finish by a British rider. 

In 1960, he would finish ninth in the Paris-Roubaix and would win his first professional stage race, the Tour de Sud-Est. Later in the same year, he would ride in his first Tour de France, finishing a respectable 29th. The following year he became the first Brit to win a Monument Classic when he triumphed in the Tour of Flanders. However, he had to withdraw after the third stage in the Tour de France due to an injury that he suffered in the Paris-Roubaix earlier in the year. 

In 1962, Tom Simpson became the first Brit to ever wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, although he only kept it for one stage before eventually finishing sixth overall. 1963 was his most consistent year so far, with victory in the Bordeaux-Paris race and a number of other good finishes, which saw him finish second in the Super Prestige Pernod International, a season-long competition for world's best cyclist. He followed that up in 1964 by winning the Milan-San Remo before finishing fourteenth in the Tour de France, despite suffering with tapeworms. 

1965 might have disappointing in relation to the Tour de France, where Simpson was withdrawn by his team's doctors due to an infected hand. However, he won the Giro di Lombardia and the World Road Race Championship, allowing him to wear the rainbow jersey the following season. His results over the year saw him finish second in Super Prestige Perod International again and back home he became the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. 1966 was a tough year with injury, not helped by a broken leg while skiing before the cycling season even started and he had to quit the Tour de France after injuring his arm in a crash with a press motorcycle. 

In 1967, Simpson based his entire season on winning the Tour de France. He won Paris-Nice, plus two stages of the Vuelta a España, and seemed set to do well in France. However, on the thirteenth stage of the Tour, a combination of one of the toughest stages, the heat, brandy and amphetamines led to Simpson suffering from heart failure and dying in the saddle. There is now a plaque at the site where he died and his death led to the introduction of testing in 1968. 

Outside of cycling, Tom had two daughters and had a couple of run-ins with the draft board of the RAF. He missed his papers when he first moved to France and again when he came home one year for Christmas, in fact he avoided riding in the Isle of Man International one year because the Royal Military Police were waiting for him.  

Tommy Simpson is buried in Harworth and his successes laid the foundation for what has followed in British cycling. So, next time you're pootling round Notts on yer bike, tip your helmet to our Tom. 

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