The Britannia Times
Cinder Tracks to SuperstarPublished on 20th. November 2016
Tom Simpson's remarkable story is one close to Eroica Britannia's spiritual and geographical heart
Chris Sidwells is a freelance writer, editor and photographer whose words and/or pictures appear in every edition of Britain’s best-selling cycling magazine, Cycling Weekly. Recent magazine projects include the editing of a series bookazines called Cycling Legends under the Cycling Weekly brand. Chris has also written for Cycle Sport, Cycling Active, Cycling Plus, GQ Magazine, Men’s Fitness, Running Fitness, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and the BBC.
Chris has also been involved in Eroica Britannia in 2015 and 2016 as a judge for Best Bike in Best in Show and will also be a contributor to the online Britannia Times for Eroica Britannia 2017 with a series of shorts that tap into the heart of The Great British Adventure. We wanted to kick the series off, by marking the 50 year anniversary of the very Great British Tom Simpson.
From Cinder Tracks to Superstar
Cycling is huge in Britain now, but Tom Simpson is still revered for his achievements 50 years ago, and is remembered for his personality. It’s a remarkable story, and one close to Eroica Britannia’s spiritual and geographical heart. Tom Simpson was born in 1937, on November 30th, so he shared a birthday with Winston Churchill. During their lives they were just about the two most recognisable Englishmen in Europe, but their starts were very different.
Simpson was the youngest child of a Durham miner, a man opposed to Churchill who never forgave him for his treatment of fellow miners during the 1926 General Strike. Conditions were bad in the Durham coalfield when Tom was born, and pit closures common. Prospects were better further south, so in 1950 Tom’s parents and their three youngest children moved to Harworth, a mining village 15 miles east of Sheffield.
Harworth and District Cycling Club
Tom’s father got a job at Harworth Colliery, and Tom joined the Harworth and District Cycling Club. He wasn’t so good at first. He was a scrawny kid but he fought to keep up with the rest so they gave him a nickname, Four-Stone Coppi, after the Italian cycling legend Fausto Coppi. He improved slowly until he was 15, then he started to grow quickly and his talent shone through. Tom began to fly.
By 16 he was winning time trials, hill climbs and track races. Not track races on the velodromes we have now, but on cinder or grass tracks that went round every colliery cricket pitch in those days. But Tom was in love with road racing. He kept scrap books full of pictures of European road racers that he cut from magazines. Simpson wanted to be like them, a champion road racer. He even told his mother he would be, one day.
A Peak District Training Ground
In 1955 Tom started winning road races, especially in the Peak District, where he also trained, riding out and back from Harworth through Sheffield’s cobbled streets. Even against semi-professional riders, the teenage Simpson would win. He also met a coach, George Berger, who persuaded Tom to carry on track racing while he developed.
Britain always had good track riders, and in 1956 Tom entered the British pursuit championships on the legendary Fallowfield track in Manchester. That was a real outdoor velodrome with steep bankings. In only his second outing on Fallowfield Tom almost won the British pursuit title.
He knocked out the reigning world amateur champion Norman Sheil in an early round, but nerves got the better of Tom in the final and he took the silver medal. He was 18 and selected to ride the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He’d only been abroad for the first time a few weeks before, but he won an Olympic bronze in the team pursuit.
Peak District Victories
Tom was part of Team GB and went on more international trips. He continued winning road races in the Peak District. He also rewrote the local hill climb records, setting a time on Monsal that wasn’t beaten until 1980, and another on Mam Nick that lasted until 2016.
It was obvious that cycling in the UK wasn’t big enough for Tom Simpson’s talent, so in April 1959 he borrowed £100 from Gerald O’Donovan, the owner of Worksop’s Carlton Cycles, and moved to France. Tom’s aim was to turn professional and ride the Tour de France as soon as possible. He did it the following year.
But that’s jumping ahead in the story. By the end of his first month in France, Tom won enough money to pay O’Donovan back. He won another 20 races against semi and full professional opposition, and in August 1959 he turned professional for the biggest team in France, St Raphael. His first road race was the world professional championships in Holland. Tom finished fourth, the only Brits ever to finish higher are Mark Cavendish and Tom himself.
In St Raphael Tom was taken under the wing of the experienced Brian Robinson, the pioneer of British road racing. Robinson was the first Brit to finish the Tour de France, the first to win a stage in the race, and the first to become a regular part of European pro cycling. He was a steadying influence on Tom, and he needed it.
That Aston Martin Story
In April 1960 Simpson came ninth in his first Paris-Roubaix after being alone in the lead for the last hour of the race. He was only caught at the gates of Roubaix Velodrome. It was the first bike race to be broadcast live across Europe. Then he won an important French stage race, the Tour du Sud-Est.
Tom was living in Paris in a flat with Robinson by then. “It was in the worst part of Paris, Porte de Clichy, and we had a table two chairs a bed and a refrigerator,” Robinson remembers. “It wasn’t so bad really,” he continues. “We were hardly ever there, but I remember Tom after the Tour du Sud-Est. With that win, his performance in Paris-Roubaix and some extra contracts he’d won quite a lot of money, so I told him, “Put that away in the bank Tom, you never know when you might need it in this game.” Anyway, I went away for a race, and when I came home there was an Aston Martin parked outside. It was Tom’s.
"We still had a table two chairs a bed and a fridge, but now we had an Aston Martin parked outside.”
Robinson tells the story well, and he tells it with affection. Simpson was never going to be as careful and disciplined as him, the Aston Martin was the first in a succession of Mercedes BMWs and Jaguars, but Robinson adds wistfully, “I would have given all my careful nature for a little bit of Tom’s talent.”
A Truly Eccentric Englishman
Tom Simpson went on to win lots of big races. The Tour of Flanders in 1961, he’s still the only British rider to do that, and in 1962 he became the first British rider to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, when he also finished sixth overall. But at the same time he created a persona, modelling himself on an English gentleman, wearing Saville Row suits topped off by a bowler hat. Tom’s personality took him beyond cycling and into European hearts. It was the 1960s and British fashion and music led the world. Tom used that, he learned languages and his style on the bike and off it earned him respect. He was loved in France, Belgium and Italy.
Tom Simpson lived with style and raced with insouciance
His brilliance reached a zenith in 1965 when he won the world professional road race title and the Classic, Il Lombardia. He ended the year ranked number two in the world behind Jacques Anquetil. He was honoured at home too, winning the 1965 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the first cyclist ever to do so.
But two years later Tom Simpson was dead. Like a modern day Icarus his wings melted in the heat of Mont Ventoux, and he fell to earth. A great British adventure was over, only now are British riders surpassing his level in the sport, although he is still the sole British winner of some very big races, and none have had his spirit or equalled his charisma.
More about Chris Sidwells
Chris has written 17 books on cycling, three of them coffee table type guide books, supplying photographs as well as words. Many of his books have gone to multiple editions and been best sellers in their genre. They cover every aspect of cycling, and in total have been translated into 24 languages and sold worldwide. He works as a regular pundit for BBC local radio stations, and was involved in BBC Radio Sheffield’s live coverage of the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart in Yorkshire, and in both editions of the Tour de Yorkshire.
His latest books include a collaboration with Chris Boardman called The Biography of the Modern Bike, and involvement in writing and sourcing bikes for DK’s The Bicycle Book. The research and knowledge gained during these two projects helped Chris in his role as a judge in Eroica Britannia’s ‘Best in Show Bike’
In a new departure Chris published the British pioneer professional Barry Hoban’s autobiography, Vas-y Barry, in 2015 with his own publishing company thepedalpress.uk. His current projects include more with thepedalpress.uk and writing three new books to be published in 2017 and 2018, including one very close to his heart called Wild Cycling.
Chris has a degree in geology and is an active cyclist with years of racing and riding experience. He has won races in every cycling discipline, road, track and off-road, and in every age group from youths to masters. He lives near Doncaster.