The tragic tale of the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux and an East Durham village

It is the undoubted Hollywood stage of the 2021 Tour de France cycling race.

By Gavin Ledwith
Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 12:51 pm
Updated Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 1:17 pm

On Wednesday, July 7, riders will ascend the feared Mont Ventoux not once but twice as part of the 11th stage of this year’s tortuous road to the annual Paris finish line.

Nicknamed the “Sorcerer’s Cauldron” and “Giant of Provence”, its barren summit – likened to the moon’s surface – exposes cyclists to a dreaded cocktail of both extreme winds and searing heat.

It was close to its peak that the 118-year-old Tour suffered one of its four rider fatalities.

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The Tour de France returns to Mont Ventoux, top, in 2021. Tom Simpson, bottom left, collapsed there during the 1967 race and later died. Right, a memorial stone remembers him in his East Durham birthplace.

Tom Simpson was born in 1937 in Haswell, East Durham where his parents ran the workingmen’s club, in Station Street, before moving with his family to Harworth, Nottinghamshire, after the end of the Second World War.

By 1967 he was one of the world’s leading riders at a time when cycling was largely overlooked on these shores as a minority sport.

His accolades included becoming world road racing champion in 1965, the first United Kingdom competitor to wear the Tour’s famed yellow jersey and the first cyclist to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

No respecter of reputation, however, the merciless Ventoux claimed his life at the age of 29 on July 13, 1967, as he struggled up the 21.4km climb in baking conditions.

Tour de France cyclist Tom Simpson was born in Haswell in 1937.

Collapsing around 2.5km from the summit, Simpson died as a helicopter transported him to hospital.

His last reputed words, “put me back on my bike”, later became both the title of the definitive biography about his career and a lasting tribute to his tenacious spirit.

While both alcohol and amphetamines were discovered in his system, dehydration triggered by a combination of exhaustion and a prior injury was also noted as a contributory factor in the post-mortem report.

Doping, which has subsequently plagued the sport, had only just been outlawed and Simpson is still largely revered by surviving contemporaries and younger cyclists alike.

Crowds in 2013 on Mont Ventoux, in Provence, the last time the Tour de France raced to its summit.

Eddy Merckx, arguably cycling’s greatest rider, travelled to England to attend his funeral – where 5,000 people lined Harworth’s streets – while a granite memorial close to where he collapsed is still constantly covered with water bottle tributes.

Sir Bradley Wiggins, who became the first United Kingdom cyclist to win the Tour in 2012, has also repeatedly cited Simpson as an inspiration and visited Haswell himself in 2017 to officially unveil the village’s own Simpson memorial at the Hazelwell Centre.

Alan Liversidge, the chairman of Haswell History Group, which was involved in the project, said: “We have had people come here from all over to visit the memorial and take photographs.

"I’ve had chats with cyclists from places like Ripon and Doncaster who have come here to visit it.

Alan Liversidge at the Tommy Simpson memorial stone in Haswell. Picture by FRANK REID

"I’ve also been to the memorial on Mont Ventoux and I think ours fairs very well in comparison.

"When we there, we bumped into a few 18-year-old cyclists from Belgium and told them about the memorial and they said ‘we all know about Tom Simpson’.

“He is one of the most famous people to come from Haswell, if not the most famous, and I’m proud to say that he came from here originally.”