Put me Back on My Bike – the story of Tom Simpson

This is the second of my bike book blogs (see here for the first) and luckily this one was fantastic from the start.

Put me Back on my Bike is the story of Tom Simpson, told by William Fotheringham, a sports writer and journalist.

put me back on my bike

I knew what everyone knows about Tom Simpson – that he was one of Britain’s great cyclists (although his achievements were paling slightly as I came upon him after the wonders of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Vicky Pendleton and Laura Trott amongst others), that he had died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux and that drugs and alcohol had been found in his system. He took on a greater relevance and importance in my life when I decided to cycle up Mont Ventoux. I laughed nervously about it when showing off about how hard it was going to be – “well a cyclist did die on the mountain one year, but he had taken drugs and alcohol and hopefully I won’t have any of that so I’ll be fine!” What I didn’t realise was that the drugs and the alcohol were only one part of it – the other huge reason for why I wasn’t going to die on the slopes of Ventoux was because there was no way, mentally, that I could push myself as far beyond my body’s limits as Simpson tried to do. I would go up nice and slowly with no worries about time; Simpson, ill and dehydrated, would be racing up the mountain, desperately trying to catch the climbers in front of him.

tom simpson struggling

Fotheringham weaves a wonderful story of Simpson’s life, showing the cyclist in all his complexities from numerous interviews with friends and family including his wife, reading letters written by Simpson himself and research into the race itself in that era – the 1960s. It is the story of Simpson’s life and an analytical, scientific explanation into the numerous factors that probably caused his death.

It would appear that Simpson died at the “right time” for the drugs element of his death to be fully emphasised, to live on beyond everything else that went into it. Drug use in the peloton had been getting worse and worse over the years before his death, with Dumas, the tour doctor, increasingly worried about its use – there were so many unprescribed drugs, nobody knew what they were taking or what the side effects were. The way the book tells it, it is almost as if Simpson was made an example of – as if his death was not caused (not solely) by the drugs and Dumas decided to refuse internment and pass the empty pill bottles on in order to make an issue of it, in effect, to scare the peloton clean. As Fotheringham says, “the moment Dumas refused internment was the moment when the Simpson tragedy took on a different dimension. Once Dumas decided to set the investigation in motion, the tragedy merged into the wider history of drug-taking in cycling and in sport in general.” Drugs had just become illegal in the peloton after increasing awareness and debates over their negative effects throughout the mid to late 1960s, and Simpson’s death led to the passing by the UCI Congress of international penalties for doping. This was a key development – consistent rules throughout the cycling world.

But despite increased awareness over drugs, science was still hugely lacking – for example, there was no real knowledge or understanding of the effects of dehydration on performance. The rules prevented riders from taking bidons from team cars (to stop them hitching lifts) and so the cyclists resorted to raids on local bars to pick up water (and that fateful bottle of brandy – they just grabbed whatever bottles they could get hold of). Dehydration and diarrhoea had kicked in with Tom Simpson a few days before his death, as we know from his mechanic’s memories of cleaning shit off Simpson’s bike after the day’s stage. It was believed that if you drank water, you would sweat more, and you would lose your strength. So cyclists battled through, and it was horrendously hot on that fateful day on Mont Ventoux. The heat had gotten to cyclists on other tours as well and William Fotheringham recounts its effects on the 1955 Tour de France – one near death (Malléjac never raced again), one breakdown (Kublet retired from the sport afterwards) and the collapse of at least six others.

Simpson’s illness, his dehydration, his use of drugs, all came together with his desire, his need to win and his need for money. He never had known when to stop, when his body couldn’t take anymore, and the drugs would further mask that. Ultimately it appears he pushed his body too far past the limits on the slopes of Mont Ventoux.

And in comparison to the previous book I reviewed, French Revolutions, William Fotheringham really does the mountain justice. His description of riding up the mountain is so accurate, so lyrical, I loved it. “And in the final metres before the café, Provence opens up behind your back wheel like a map spread out on the floor: green vineyards, honey-coloured villages, brown forests”. And then as you approach the summit, “to the right, the great mass of sun baked limestone soars into the sky. Far below, to the left, what looks like the whole of Provence is on display, with row after row of rolling blue hills to the south”.

photo 5

But this is not just the story of Tom Simpson’s death and the mountain that conquered him. Through Tom Simpson’s life, the history of cycling in Britain in the post-war era is told, with Simpson’s role in changing it, in expanding the interest in cycling, increasing British professional, and bringing confidence to British cycling due to his successes and near misses on the continent. There are moments which show how much of professional cycling remains the same – such as the scene where Simpson retires from the 1966 tour with no strength in his hand from a fall, extra padding on his handlebars “but each bump in the tarmac jars the wound“. I read this just after Froome crashed out of the 2014 Tour for a very similar reason. There is also slight irony as this book was published before the Armstrong confession. Fotheringham states, with no irony, that Simpson paved the way for cyclists like Lance Armstrong – “as the first cyclist from outside mainland Europe to achieve true stardom, he was a sporting pioneer, blazing a trail which leads, indirectly, to the achievements of Lance Armstrong today”. It would appear that Simpson blazed a trail in more ways Fotheringham meant. This continues in the afterword, with a quote from Barry Hoban who was a member of Simpson’s team in the 1967 tour: “The only thing Tom did wrong was to die … [He] was doing nothing more than certain other riders were doing. Everyone knew that Tom took drugs but the use of the word “cheat” is wrong.” Again, this is horribly reminiscent of Armstrong’s repeated denials of being a cheat. However, they appear to differ in one very important way. Simpson comes across as a gentleman, speaking to all and interested in all, no matter their position in the peloton.

Thus, the legacy of Simpson endures – in the persistence of drug-taking within professional cycling, in the thousands of amateurs that struggle their way up Mont Ventoux every year, in the incredible popularity of cycling in Britain and the success of our cycling teams, in the Tour de France’s fantastic stages in Yorkshire and through London in 2014.

tom simpson

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