Cycling world remembers ‘rock star’ rider Tommy Simpson, who died 50 years ago today

Tommy Simpson.
Tommy Simpson.

The cycling world will be remembering East Durham-born cyclist Tommy Simpson who died 50 years ago today while competing in the Tour de France.

Tommy, who was born in Haswell, was Britain’s first cycling world champion, the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, and remains the best Classics rider the nation has produced.

But on July 13, 1967, during stage 13 of the Tour, Simpson collapsed less than a kilometre from the summit of Mount Ventoux.

Race doctors tried to resuscitate him to no avail. He died as he was being airlifted to hospital aged just 29.

The official cause was “heart failure caused by exhaustion”, but race doctor Pierre Dumas said he found amphetamines in the back pocket of Simpson’s jersey, while an autopsy said he had alcohol in his bloodstream.

He was a pioneer not only in cycling but in sport, an innovator and entertainer whose popularity in Britain exceeded that of his profession.

“He’d been BBC Sports Personalty of the Year in 1965, he was the Bradley Wiggins of his time,” said Jeremy Whittle, author of Ventoux: Suffering and Sacrifice on the Giant of Provence.

“He was suited, booted, sharp. He was fully into the idea of being a rock star.”

When he won Olympic bronze in the team pursuit in 1956 aged 19, he packed his bags for the continent and quickly made an impression on the road.

“He finished fourth in his first professional race and carried on succeeding like he didn’t know how to fail,” said his nephew, cycling journalist Chris Sidwells.

Simpson piled up an envious record in cycling’s greatest one-day Classics - known as the Monuments. He would win three of them in his career - the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo and the Giro di Lombardia, and recorded 11 top-10 finishes in his 15 Monument starts.

The 1967 Tour was no ordinary Tour for Simpson, who was negotiating a move to a new team and needed a good result to land the contract he wanted.

He piled pressure on himself, and things only got worse when he fell ill during the race after he rode up Ventoux in stifling heat, already on the edge of exhaustion and dehydration. Friends, family and well-wishers were due to gather on Mount Ventoux for a memorial today.