The day I met Tom Simpson


The day I met Tom Simpson

By Brian Cookson, British Cycling President

It was 17 June 1967. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was still five days short of my sixteenth birthday, and in the middle of my O levels. Of course school was only a sideline, a bit of insurance. I was going to New Brighton with some mates from my club at the time, the Preston Wheelers, to see the man whose career I was going to emulate. It was the day I was to see my cycling hero.

I caught the bus up to the top of Cop Lane and waited for the mini to arrive carrying my clubmates. Was it a mini? It must have been, they all had them. They were all older than me, all working for a living, but committed racers in their own way, some better than others, 1st cats, 2nd cats, 3rd cats, whatever. All lads about town as well. They were my heroes too, in a different way.

Was it George Bradbury's car, or was it Andy Deakin's? Maybe I don't remember it quite as well as I thought. Either way I do remember it was a sunny day. But then every day was a sunny day when I was that age, wasn't it?

We drove down the A59, through Rufford, Burscough, Ormskirk and Maghull to Liverpool. I'd never been there before, despite living only 40 miles or so away. We didn't travel so much in those days of course. My kids think I'm joking when I say I'd never been to Manchester either, until I went for a college interview at 17. Why would I have gone to Manchester or Liverpool? There were plenty of shops in Preston, then there was the seaside at Blackpool, St Annes, or Morecambe. For a really exotic outing we would go to Grange over Sands, or a coach trip to Windermere. No point going to Manchester, certainly not Liverpool. How the world has changed in such a short space of time.

So Liverpool was a bit of a culture shock to me. I knew it was where the Beatles came from, indeed that had been another of my possible career paths - I had the guitar, the haircut, the music master even called me the school Beatle for a while. But I'd dropped that, I figured the life of a pro bike rider was my destiny.

On we went past Aintree racecourse, then mile after mile of terraced streets, past a gloomy prison, a big hospital, caught a glimpse of the Everton ground at one point, then suddenly we were in the Mersey Tunnel, descending in the semi-darkness, flat at the bottom, then climbing up the other side. Someone said they let you ride a bike through early on a Sunday morning, and the climb was the hardest on Merseyside.

Suddenly we were out in the bright sunshine and into the clamouring world of the Birkenhead Docks, passing ship after ship, loading or unloading their mysterious cargo, with home ports and flags from around the world. No containers in those days, just real docks and real dockers. Cranes and boats and trains, and those dockers all hustling and bustling, busy, busy, busy. Or maybe that's just the way it seemed to me.

Suddenly we were out of the docks and arriving in what seemed like a smaller version of Blackpool. New Brighton, our destination. I could see the sea, or rather the Mersey Estuary (I knew that from Geography), and I could see a huge outdoor swimming pool. In fact some of the lads went for a swim. I didn't join them because I knew I was going to be a serious professional roadman and swimming during the season was not good for cycling muscles. It didn't matter that my most significant performance to date was not getting dropped in a schoolboy criterium on Morecambe promenade. I was a serious bike rider.

Finally, we strolled up to where the races were, a few hundred yards away. A few hundred metres, I thought, preparing myself for my life as a European pro. The lower category races were going on, but my hero wasn't due to arrive until a bit later. So we waited. I relaxed my rules and had an ice cream (don't eat it too quick or you'll put a chill on your stomach).

The British professionals (or were they still calling them independents that year? I forget) were getting ready, and a fearsome lot they looked, a hard bunch of men. Blokes like Arthur Metcalfe, Colin Lewis, Roger Claridge. No matter, I'd soon leapfrog over them and join a top continental team, I thought.

A sizeable crowd developed. The biggest I'd ever seen at a bike race. Where was the man we had all come to see? Is it my memory playing tricks again, or was there a hot rod car there, in the colours of the event's sponsors Players No6 cigarettes? Bizarre.

An announcement came over the crackly tannoy. His flight had been delayed, but he was on his way. The British pros didn't seem too pleased. Their race was about to start and they didn't want to hang around. So they raced.

Another announcement came over the tannoy. An extra race would be held, when he arrived. So nobody would be disappointed. Was I imagining it, or did the British guys ease up a bit in their race? Were they talking along the back straight? They still didn't seem too pleased. Surely they should have been honoured that they were going to be thrashed by one of the greats.

Then suddenly there he was. Tom Simpson. My hero. The greatest British bike rider ever. You could pick up Cycling (as it was then) any week during the season and expect that he would have won a classic, or at least given his all in a break, before suddenly blowing and finishing in a state of exhaustion. He'd won the World Championship then the Tour of Lombardy, in 1965, less than two years before, the autumn that I first went on a club run. He'd worn the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. He'd won Paris - Nice earlier that year beating some young teammate called Merckx or something unpronounceable, who everybody said was going to be pretty good. Tom was one of the favourites for the Tour, leading a British national team, a temporary blip before the Tour finally became taken over by commercialism.

Blimey, it really was him. Here, now. He looked exactly like the photos in the magazines. Tanned limbs, beaky nose, ready smile, classic black and white Peugeot kit and matching bike with Mafac brakes and Simplex gears (remember them?). A big crowd gathered around him and a couple of other continental-based guys who'd come over with him.

Meanwhile the race with the British pros had finished and it was clear some discussion was taking place. There seemed to be some reluctance, but eventually a smaller bunch took the start and a short race began. Simpson won, of course. At least in my memory he won. But then I wasn't really watching anybody else anyway. I think we all knew it was a bit of a show really, but we appreciated the effort the guy had gone to, to please his home fans on a rare British appearance.

The race was over and we wandered back towards the car, happy enough to have seen him. Suddenly there he was again, stood by his car chatting to fans, signing autographs. I waited my turn, and was too shy to ask him a question, but I'd got something special for him to sign, something that nobody else seemed to have - a copy of his autobiography "Cycling is my Life". And sign it he did, with a cheery smile. I still have it. He probably said something to me, but I can't remember what. I was already in a trance.

Off we went, back to the car, back through the docks, back to Preston, dropped off at the top of Cop Lane, and walking back home, still inhabiting the dream world of the Continental pro. Maybe I'd even be his teammate one day, I thought. I'd got the cotton Peugeot-BP cap from an advert in Cycling, I reckoned the rest of the kit would look fine on me too, once I'd filled out a bit. Days later, I got a stern rebuke from a team mate "Never mind that, you never offered any petrol money!" I was mortified - the biggest sin of all is to be tight with your mates.

But I had done what I'd wanted. I'd met my hero, the guy I was basing my life on. I had his autograph to prove it. I was happy and went about my training with renewed seriousness. The O levels? Well, I passed enough to get into the sixth form, even French because I knew I'd need it when I joined Tom over there.

Now my memory is moving on a bit. Its less than a month later. I'm a junior now and I'm in the changing rooms on a Thursday evening for the Eccleston Handicaps that take place every week. Andy Deakin (was it him, or is my memory playing tricks again?) comes into the changing rooms. He's got a serious look on his face. "Hey lads" he says "Simmy's died".

We are stunned. What can you say or do? It was on the BBC radio in Andy's mini, so it must be true. We don't cry, we're northerners, we are just stunned. Stunned, baffled and bemused. What's happened, was it a crash on a descent, yeah that happened to that French bloke Riviere or something a few years back, didn't kill him but finished his career, didn't it? Maybe that was it?

No. It seems the reports are saying exhaustion or heart failure or something. Wow, we think, we always knew Tom could push himself, we'd seen the photos and read the reports in Sporting Cyclist, but to push yourself that far was something else. Maybe there was more to it. Didn't make sense. We raced anyway, but our hearts weren't in it.

It didn't take long for the stories to start to emerge. Cycling on the front page of my Dad's Daily Express for once. Doping was there in big letters, it seemed amphetamines had been found in his kit. Amphetamines? Wasn't that what some mods took in clubs in Manchester or London? Film was shown on the News of Tom cheerfully showing the contents of his personal medical box - "muscle fortifiers" and all, whatever they were. It seemed pretty clear - it wasn't the only factor, the extreme heat, dehydration, general exhaustion all seemed to have combined. But there was doping. I was shattered.

I still clung to my belief that I would make it as a pro for a few more years, but now I look back I realise that my heart wasn't really in it any more. I still loved the sport and gave it all the commitment I could, whilst going through A levels and college and getting a proper qualification to see me through the real world. Of course by that time, reality had set in. I won a few races, even a Division Championship, but I wasn't ever going to be anywhere near good enough to be a pro. I knew that.

But it did teach me something and it did give me one very, very clear moral position. Doping is a scourge, and sometimes people need to be protected from their own and others' failings, their greed and their folly, if sport is to be worthy of our ambition, worthy of our commitment, worthy of our devotion.

Tom Simpson should still be with us today, an elder statesman, an icon for the young riders we are bringing so successfully into our sport. Instead he has been dead for forty years. He let us down. I understand the thought processes he went through, the moral conundrums he faced. But still, he made the wrong choice and he paid the ultimate price. Easy for me to say, I know.

The mystery is that so few people seemed to learn the lesson. Forty years later we are still going through the process of weeding out those who think it is acceptable to take those sort of risks, or worse to risk the health of young riders, men and women, in their care, just to win bike races and make money. At last, however, we seem to be making progress. That makes me happy. I know there are problems in many other sports, too. But I don't really care about other sports. I care about our sport, our young people, our beautiful races.

That's why I will always do everything I can and why I will continue to speak out on this sadly persistent issue. When I read of the latest "hero" to be questioned by the authorities, and hear of their protestations of innocence, their pathetic claims of laboratory mistakes, devious conspiracies against them and so on and so on, I smile, sadly. Forgive my scepticism. Truth will out. What goes around comes around. I know that, you know that, they know that. How do they sleep at night?

When I think of their cynicism, I think of Tom Simpson. And I think of a broken dream. The broken dream of thousands and thousands of us over the years.

Rest in peace, Tom.