Saturday, January 31, 2004
Surprisingly, UNC’s Davis Library has a fairly impressive collection of cycling books. While I should have been immersed in my Spring semester’s library school readings, I instead read several of these fine books in rapid succession. Here’s my first review:
Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson. William Fotheringham. London: Yellow Jersey, 2002.
Tragically, Briton Tom Simpson is best known for being one of only three cyclists in Tour de France history to die while competing and the only competitor to die without being involved in a high-speed accident. Tom Simpson expired near the summit of Mt. Ventoux on July 13, 1967 due to heart failure induced by the lethal combination of dehydration, exhaustion, sweltering heat, amphetamines and alcohol. His shocking death brought the insidious specter of drug use in the professional peloton front and center, and sadly, to this day, drug use is still an issue in professional cycling. The title of the book is supposedly Simpson’s last words to his mechanic who ran to Tom’s aid after he collapsed on Mt. Ventoux.
Professional cycling had always been a sport dominated by continental Europeans. Tom Simpson, from 1959 to 1967, was one of the early English-speaking pioneers to compete on the continent and to this date his palmares have yet to be equalled by any UK professional: victories in the World Championships, the Tour of Lombardy, the Tour of Flanders, Bourdeaux-Paris, Milan-San Remo, the Tour du Sud, and Paris-Nice, the first English-speaker to wear the maillot jaune in the Tour de France, podium finishes in Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Ghent-Wevelgem, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Baracchi Cup, Fleche-Wallonne, G.P. du Midi Libre, plus a top 10 finish in the Tour de France still stand as the benchmark for any English-speaking professional to emulate.
Tom Simpson was in many ways a man ahead of his time regarding diet, team structure, financial investments, and technical innnovations. Simpson was obsessed with his weight and he maintained a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean meat. Perhaps his greatest dietary staple was a daily dose (1 liter) of fresh carrot juice. Incredibly, this required his wife to peel and juice 10 pounds of carrots everyday. Simpson had a revolutionary approach to financing a professional cycling team which never got off the ground in his day (due to his untimely death), but is now the model for the successful Basque squad Euskaltel-Euskadi. His idea was to sell subscriptions to the public to foster a sense of regional/national pride. Also, not satisfied with the Brooks leather saddle which was really a rider’s only choice for a seat, Simpson designed his own saddle which is the model for contemporary racing saddles: a plastic shell, thin layer of foam padding, and a thin leather covering stitched to the shell.
Of course, no summation of Tom Simpson’s career and life would be complete without commenting on the tragic ignorance on the part of pro cyclists regarding drug and alcohol use plus the dangerous practice on the part of race promoters regarding the limited amount of fluids allowed to riders during races in stifling heat. Amazingly, on hot days racers would actually stop in bars along the route and steal water to drink since the race caravan provided no neutral water to the riders and prohibited handups from team vehicles. Also, there was a belief that small amounts of alcohol were beneficial in the heat. On the day Simpson died he was severely dehydrated, had consumed brandy at the base of Mt. Ventoux, and popped some amphetamines for an added boost sealing his fate. Simpson’s defenders, his wife and some former teammates, claim that it was the race doctor’s fault that Simpson died due to medical incompetence. Sadly, they seem to be in denial about the drugs in his system. Their prevailing belief is that since Tom Simpson had used drugs before and hadn’t died that he knew what he was doing. Ergo, the amphetamines in his system couldn’t have been the cause of death. Simpson was a pretty bright fellow, but he had no medical or pharmaceutical training and therefore was in no position to properly self-prescribe performance enhancing drugs.
Fotheringham truly admires Simpson and his book meticulously documents Simpson’s professional career and family life without sugar-coating his tragic death. Drawing from the journalism of Simpson’s era plus recent interviews with Simpson’s wife, former teammates, mechanics, soigneurs, and professional cycling peers, it was interesting to note the raw emotions and sense of loss still vivid and unresolved after 37 years. I’m a student of cycling history and was duly impressed by Fotheringham’s masterful job of situating Simpson within the larger milieu of 1960s professional cycling, a period characterized by the domination of Jacques Anquetil (whose dandyism inspired Simpson) and the dawn of Eddy Merckx. Simpson was a phenomenally gifted athlete; driven, focussed, and professional. Unfortunately, while undoubtedly not the only champion of his era to dope, the extreme pressure to succeed coupled with the financial uncertainty of the professional athlete in the 1960s forced Simpson to utilize any means to win. The monument to Tom Simpson near the site of his death on Mt. Ventoux should be a warning to the pros who still race past this hallowed ground, yet 37 years later the pressure to win and feelings of invulnerability still claim young lives. What a waste.
One last tidbit which I found fascinating: the only professional cyclist to attend Simpson’s funeral was his young teammate, the immortal Eddy Merckx.