The Flanders Lion Tamer
It took me 33 years to ride to the top of Mont Ventoux. Today my supportive club mates would consider this in line with my abilities. However the journey started on 13th July 1967. At the time I was living in Ghent and racing full time in Belgium. Tom Simpson lived nearby but he was a superstar rarely sighted by our ragged bunch of English cyclists trying to eek out a living from Belgian races. When not racing we always made for a shop or bar in town with a TV tuned into Le Tour (or whatever big race was on). And so it was on that fateful day in July. It was stage 13 and we watched in horror as the events unfolded. Tom was our hero and role model and the confirmation of his death stunned our little group.
Today I fondly remember Tom as an accomplished rider capable of winning at almost any form of racing. Classics, Tours , summer track, winter six-days. A consummate competitor, he rode to win but he also understood what being a professional meant. The crowds loved him and he responded with his effervescent character.
As we enter the classics season, Tom is remembered for his panache in the spring classics. From my experience, the Belgians do not take kindly to ‘foreigners' winning their races. It is no exaggeration to say that most Belgian riders would sell their mothers to win the Tour of Flanders. Before 1961 only seven non-Belgians had won from the 44 preceding editions of the Tour of Flanders. In 1961 Tom's form was clear but the odds were against him. The “Ronde” is the biggest race on the calendar as far as Belgians are concerned. Bigger than the World Championship, bigger than Le Tour. The winner, whoever he is, becomes an instant honorary “Lion of Flanders”.
Right from the gun the hostilities started. The first break worked well and contained none other than the darling of Belgium and World Champion Rik Van Looy (Rik II) until he fell and hurt his wrist. Four additional riders, including Tom's teammate De Haan, bridged up to the break. Tom could see that this was the winning move. All season he had experienced near misses and several times had been outgunned by his own teammates. But on this day Tom was imperious, confident and flying.
He jumped the bunch and only the Italian Champion Nino de Filippis could hold his wheel. They quickly bridged up with Tom providing the horsepower. Once there they quickly set to work with the rest of the original break. With about 5 miles to go Tom once more took the initiative and decided to increase his odds of winning, he attacked hard. Again the only man capable of staying with him was de Filippis. This was dangerous as he was one of the fastest road sprinters of the time. Even though Tom was no mean sprinter he realized that he had to outsmart de Filippis, especially as the three short finishing circuits in Wetteren were flat. Tom started his sprint about 1km from the line, but not at full throttle. The Italian sat happily behind him, poised and ready to jump. At the 300m mark Tom eased off just a little and de Filippis thinking that he was cooked jumped and passed him on the right. Tom immediately switched across the road and passed de Filippis on his right. Thinking that he had the race won the Italian looked over his left shoulder. No Tom! This confused him momentarily and Tom lunged past him on his right take a spectacular victory.
A week later Tom lined up for the Paris-Roubaix. Confidence and terrific form added to his thirst for victory. When they entered the paves Tom blitzed away solo. Normally riding on your own is much safer in this race but back in 1961 they allowed cars along with the riders (today only motorbikes are allowed). After a while Tom heard that the great Raymond Poulidor was bridging up. Not wanting company of the stature of ‘Pou Pou', Tom upped the pace to such a pitch that he caught the cars ahead of him. In typical P-R fashion chaos ensued as Tom tried to pass the cars. A press car swerved and forced him off the road smashing his front wheel as he hit the road and landing heavily on his knee. By the time team help came and got Tom on his way again dozens of riders had passed him. He valiantly set about getting back to the front but it seems that when your luck runs out in this race then you are in for a bad time. Tom crashed two more times before limping into Roubaix 30 minutes behind the winner – Rik Van Looy.
Just one year earlier (1960) Tom had been the hero of Paris-Roubaix. It was the very first live TV coverage of any race and Tom occupied the screens alone for most of the final hour. With his pursuiter's skill he was making light work of the cobbles as he raced at incredible speed. Just as they were reaching the gates of the Roubaix Velodrome eventual winner Pino Cerami caught and passed Simpson. Then seven other riders caught him as they circled the Velodrome.
Although Tom ‘only' achieved 9th place he was hailed as the hero of the day by the crowds. They demanded that he do a lap of honor as they gave him a standing ovation.
After a local Belgian kermesse in 1965 I managed to capture Tom in a quiet corner. He gave the impression of being in low spirits and told me that he had found the race very hard. This was two weeks before the World Championships. He kept this façade up wherever he went and come Championship day was written off as a serious contender. Just like his handling of de Filippis in the Tour of Flanders he was bluffing. This pre-race strategy worked and by the end of the day it was just Tom and Rudi Altig contesting the final sprint. Again it was the mighty sprinter Altig favored to win but through sheer will and clever maneuvering Tom took the day.
With the heart and courage of a lion, the Belgians truly appreciated Tom. He raced like a Belgian champion; he had made Ghent his home. After winning the World Championship the city awarded Tom ‘the freedom of the town' and a medal of honor. The festivities which included an open carriage parade through Ghent lasted all day and all night. Meanwhile back in his home country the newspapers were full of articles trying to explain to the British public the magnitude of Simpson's achievements.
To this day Tom Simpson is still the only Englishman to have won one of the ‘five monuments' (albeit 3: Flanders, M-SR, Lombardy ). He was the first Englishman to wear the Yellow Jersey at Le Tour and is still the only English Pro World Road Race Champion.
When I finally reached Tom's memorial on the ‘Giant of Provence' during the 2000 Tour I was surprised to be overcome by emotion. Memories of his great races, the pioneering trail that he forged and my own Belgian experience seemed but a few years ago. As I looked up I felt that I could touch the summit of Mt. Ventoux . If only Tom could have hung on just a little longer.