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The Late Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson

The month of July in Ireland has its high points for everyone in sport. For some it is the GAA Championship games, for others its Wimbledon; others are more interested in the Open Golf competitions, for others still it is Motor Racing and Rallying, and some might just prefer to sit in a boat on a lake fishing, but for an ever growing number of cycling enthusiasts it is the Tour de France.

The 2017 Tour de France is in its final days as I write this and cyclists around the world watch its daily coverage or attend in person. I attended a stage a few times but it passes by so quickly you see very little.

However 50 years ago there was tragedy for one cyclist and his family, and for the cycling fraternity, as on the 13th stage on July 13th 1967, while racing to the top of a steep mountain, Mont Ventoux, the great English rider, Tom Simpson, at the age of 29, took ill, collapsed off the bike and died on the roadside, despite top medical attention. It was found that he had had a heart attack, which may have been brought on by medication he was taking and had taken some alcohol to cure a stomach problem he had developed a few days previously. Indeed his friends had advised him that morning to withdraw from the race but Tom was too committed to do that.

The Memorial

From all accounts Tom Simpson was a lovely person and endeared himself to everyone, cyclists and spectators, and he was BBC Sports Personality in 1965. Another great cyclist, David Millar, describing Tom wrote – ‘he was the first to charm all Europe not only with his ability to race, but with his personality and panache". His commitment to his sport was resolute and from early wins at Olympics and Commonwealth games he turned professional and was the first English man to wear the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France.  His death was mourned in many countries and in many sports.  In the 1967 Tour he was a member of the Great Britain team managed by Alex Taylor, who, incidentally, died on the 13th July 30 years later. All the members of the ’67 team were at his funeral, all together for the first time since Tom’s death, and afterwards they all cycled to Tom’s grave.

A memorial near where he died has become a place of pilgrimage for many cyclists but time, weather and human traffic had caused a deterioration of the monument and so the family decided to raise some funds to renew the monument and develop the surrounds so that it was more easily accessible. They opened a Tom Simpson Appreciation page and are selling jerseys to help raise the funds.

Back now to Ireland: Over the years Patsy Brady, a cycling fanatic, has collected cycling paraphernalia of all descriptions and last year opened his collection to the public. One of the first to visit was the great Sean Kelly. This year’s opening was attended by the great Irish lady cyclist, Eve McCrystal.

Cyclists from clubs all over Ireland have visited the ‘Cycling Museum’ and have been highly impressed with the massive and interesting collection. One of the Books on display is the story of the 1967 Tour de France, which was given to Patsy by another great cycling fanatic, John Colton. It contained the story of Tom’s death and tragedy and the huge impact his death had on not only the cycling world but sports people in general from all over the world.

Patsy decided to get a Jersey and so contacted the page and was answered by none other than Joanne Simpson. Tom’s daughter. They exchanged stories and when she heard about Patsy’s collection she sent him a signed jersey. It has Tom's name and cycle number (49) and his phrase – ‘Put me back on the bike’. This jersey will now have pride of place in the collection. On July 13th this year Tom’s family, including his daughter Joanne, and 500 cyclists took part in a ride to the Memorial. Joanne rode the 49 Cycle. Special guest there was Sir Bradley Wiggins.


An Irish owned Vineyard close to Mont Ventoux has produced a special limited edition wine to mark the 50th anniversary and has named it ‘Tom and the Peleton’. Again a donation from every bottle sold will go towards the maintenance and upkeep of the memorial, which is located 1 km from the summit.

A member of that Great Britain team, Barry Hoban, was inspired by Tom’s death and went on to become a legend in his own right as a cyclist winning many major awards. He also married Tom’s widow, Helen, and became stepfather to Tom’s daughters – Jane and Joanne (who was four year old when Tom died) and he and Helen have a daughter Daniela. Barry would be well known in business circles in Ireland as he represented an English company, which traded in here.

Another Irish cyclist who knew Tom well was Peter Crinnion, who lives in County Wicklow, and he has told Patsy Brady of his time with Tom and how they trained together for nine months. Peter’s greatest memory of Tom was the day he won the Bordeaux to Paris 1963 race and the huge reception that was given to Tom as he arrived at the finish line and afterwards – thousands cheered him to the line and converged on him to get autographs. Peter and the great Shay Elliott raced with Tom many times and one special one was at the World Championships of 1963.

Peter describes Tom as a very likeable person who was hugely popular. He entertained on and off the bike but was never afraid or pulled back from a challenge.

He was asked once what treatment he had for saddle sores and he answered –‘fill the bath with ice cubes and sit in it for at least an hour’. He used laugh afterwards thinking of all the cyclists sitting on ice cubes in baths all over the country. Little did he know that ice would become such a remedial use as it has today.

 

Peter himself managed Irish teams including when Stephen Roche was a member. Indeed there are significant anniversaries for Stephen Roche coming up soon.

 

At the 2012 Cycling Ireland AGM, it was decided by the members to set up a Hall of Fame, recognising some of the people who have made Irish Cycling what it is today.  An initial 20 people were inducted into the Hall of Fame at the annual Cycling Ireland Awards Night in 2013, and one of these was Peter Crinnion. Three further inductees were added at the Cycling Ireland Awards Night in 2016.

For those interested in the sport of Cycling the role played by Tom Simpson is a ‘must read’ and because of the tragic circumstances of his death he must be remembered for what he achieved and how his death could, perhaps, been avoided. But the sport was different then with few regulatory checks and thankfully modern technology and regulation has changed things for the better but with all the scandals of recent years there is still a way to go. However his commitment, his enthusiasm, his passion, his ability to endear himself to others, his love of life are all worth emulating. Visitors to Patsy Brady's Cycling Museum will be able to see the Jersey and remember the wearer and what he achieved. We thank Patsy for his information and thanks too to Joanne, Helen, Barry, Peter Crinnion and Aiden Hammond for their assistance.

Joanne signs the Jersey for Patsy.

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In the Sunday Independent of Sunday, July 23rd (just two days after we published here) Paul Kimmage, who was himself a top class cyclists with many cycling honours to his credit, wrote an article re. Tom Simpson and in it he regrets that the Tour de France 2017 made no effort to remember Tom Simpson on this 50th anniversary of his death. However some cyclists steer away from Tom Simpson's memory because his death was possibly brought on from his use of amphetamines during the race. However we must remember this was the 1960's and there were no regulations or tests for those taking enhancing drugs and many were. The efforts to clean up drugs from sport are ongoing, only today they are much more sophisticated

Postscript: When I had posted the story above on this site, Patsy Brady shared the link to the Tom Simpson Appreciation Page, and it got many likes and one very interesting comment. This came from a Jim Mc Guire, saying he trained with and raced against Tom during the Commonwealth Games of 1958, held in Cardiff, and also in the Worlds in Amsterdam 1959, which was the year Tom had turned pro. He lives in Saintfield (near Belfast)and he is now a Cycling Ireland Commissaire (equivalent to a Referee) and was the main man at the Emyvale Cycling Grand Prix in May of this year. Patsy McQuillan was his driver and he had great time for him, - a lovely modest and well mannered gent. He told Patsy that on the day before the GP he had celebrated his 80th birthday with a party and was feeling tired (any wonder). Patsy also added that he was also Chief Commissaire at the Killylough race in March. He also told Patsy that he used be up this way in the past, as his late wife was a very close friend of a lady called Wendy, who lived a good while in Tullyree, Glaslough, but moved to Tydavnet. Sheand Jim's late wife were both florists. Jim was the Irish National Road Race Champion in 1959 and Peter Crinnion was champ in 1960 . Jim was one of 4 man Northern Ireland Cycling Team for Cardiff in 1958 and was a member of the Irish Team for the Worlds in Amsterdam 1959, where he raced against Tom Simpson on both occasions. Patsy sent me this photo and when I saw it I realised that he has been commissaire a number of times for Emyvale events and I have been talking to him a few times but only knew him as Jim. I whole heartily agree that he is a real friendly gentleman and I hope to meet with him again at a future event.
As a matter of interest - 2771 people have been to read this page.

Postscript at bottom of this page.