Blood, sweat and gears – our Tour de France legend Tommy Simpson

IN HIS POMP: Simpson celebrates another win
IN HIS POMP: Simpson celebrates another win

IT would be easy to claim that Britain fell in love with professional cycling courtesy of Sir Bradley Wiggins.

While just plain Bradley a year ago, Wiggins memorably became the first Tour de France competitor from these shores to win what is arguably sport’s toughest contest.

WEARY LOOK: Simpson just minutes before his collapse

WEARY LOOK: Simpson just minutes before his collapse

Fellow countrymen such as Mark “Manx Missile” Cavendish are also now household names while a third Briton, Kenyan-born Chris Froome, is favourite to win this year’s centenary race.

Yet Britain’s love affair with the Tour originated in a cramped East Durham home more than 75 years ago.

Haswell-born Tommy Simpson was this country’s original celebrity cyclist and its first winner of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award.

By 1967 he was one of the favourites to win the race until tragedy struck on July 13 on the daunting slopes of the dreaded Mont Ventoux.

Simpson collapsed near the arid peak of a dormant Provence volcano known as the “sorcerer’s cauldron” and died as he was helicoptered to hospital.

He remains one of only four competitors to perish during the race.

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

They are also rumoured to be the name of a forthcoming movie about Simpson by This Is England director Shane Meadows.

Yet for all his achievements – he was the first British cyclist to wear the yellow jersey as race leader and was cycling’s world champion in 1965 – he remains a divisive figure.

Initial sympathy for Simpson was quickly diluted when it emerged that his body contained traces of both alcohol – thirsty riders used to accept drinks from spectators without knowing their contents – and amphetamines.

Whether this cocktail was chiefly responsible for his demise is still open to debate nearly 46 years later.

Dehydration triggered by a combination of a prior stomach injury and exhaustion was also noted as a contributory factor in the post-mortem report.

While cycling has been plagued by continued doping scandals since Simpson’s death, it must be remembered too that the use of amphetamines had only been outlawed a year earlier.

The temptation to continue using previously accepted drugs must have been overpowering for an experienced cyclist struggling for fitness in searing heat.

Any doubts about his legendary status were also largely removed when an estimated 5,000 people turned out for his funeral at Harworth, in Nottinghamshire, where he grew up after his family left the North-East.

Among them was perhaps the race’s greatest competitor, Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, who would later win five Tours.

Simpson may only have been around the age of nine when he said goodbye to Haswell at the end of the Second World War.

But it was there where his love of cycling began.

Put Me Back On My Bike, written by William Fotheringham, recalls a story Simpson’s mother, Alice, who ran Haswell Workingmen’s Club with Tommy senior, used to tell after he became famous.

The youngest of six children, a three-year-old Tommy junior used to race after older children on his tricycle.

Asked in no uncertain terms to go away, he would tell them who would make a cyclist.

He certainly lived up to his words.

Wiggins himself is happy enough to repeatedly laud Simpson as an inspiration and memorably rode with a picture of him taped to his bike when he ascended Mont Ventoux four years ago to clinch what was then a British record-equalling fourth position.

This year, on July 14, a day after the 46rd anniversary of his death, the Tour returns to the mountain for the first time since 2009.

Similar tributes are expected by riders and spectators alike as the race weaves its way past a battered memorial stone to a flawed genius who was forged right here on our doorsteps.