Death or glory

Put Me Back on My Bike: in search of Tom Simpson

William Fotheringham <em>Yellow Jersey Press, 272

Today, Tom Simpson is remembered, if at all, only by the most impassioned of cycling enthusiasts. But the cyclist, who died from a heart attack while ascending the formidable Mount Ventoux in the Tour de France of 1967, was, in his day, one of the most celebrated sportsmen in Europe. In 1965, fresh from winning the World Professional Road Race Championship in Spain, he was the "sports writers' personality of the year"; he was also voted sportsman of the year by the BBC and Daily Express.

Simpson was a member of a select group of European cyclists, which included Eddy Merckx and Rudi Altig, and became the first Briton to wear the coveted Yellow Jersey. His "death or glory" attitude earned him notoriety, and his attacking flamboyance made him the people's favourite. Off his bike, the boy who grew up in a Nottinghamshire mining town became something of a celebrity, mixing, we are told, with the likes of Sacha Distel and Petula Clark. Now, that's swinging!

All of this is ably documented by William Fotheringham. Sometimes, however, this book can become too enmeshed in arcane detail - as you find yourself grappling with the names of cyclists, trainers and officials little known in their own day, let alone in ours. But the story of Simpson is compelling, not least because he died with heavy doses of amphetamines in his system and on his person, precipitating a major drugs scandal.

Simpson had no sense of his own limits, driven as he was by the pursuit of money. Competitive cycling was as ruthless in the 1960s as it is today, and he would do anything to win, even endangering his life.

The champion cyclist Lance Armstrong called the Tour de France a carnival of "purposeless suffering". No one personifies this more than Tommy Simpson, the forgotten hero of British cycling.

Next Article