NEXT SATURDAY, as the riders on the penultimate stage of this year's Tour de France climb towards the summit of Mont Ventoux, one of them, David Millar, will do what he always does at a certain point on the mountain: he will sit up, remove his helmet, before respectfully bowing his head as he passes the pale grey marble monument that stands by the road, in memory of Tom Simpson.
Simpson died at this spot during the 1967 Tour, near the summit, but defeated, finally, by a toxic cocktail of extreme heat, dehydration – in those days, riders' fluid intake was, incredibly, limited by the organisers to four litres a day – and his consumption of amphetamines and alcohol.
The Tour, perhaps understandably given the association with doping, has an ambiguous relationship with Simpson, and a mixed record in acknowledging his death. But Millar doesn't.
In 2007 he was disgusted that there was no official acknowledgement of the 40th anniversary of the Englishman's death, and that disgust prompted him, after the day's stage, to sit in his room and pen a diary entry that reads as a passionately eloquent tribute to Simpson, as well as a critique of his sport. It is a piece of writing that now appears in print, as the introduction to Simpson's newly republished autobiography, written just before his death, and titled, with the most poignant irony, Cycling Is My Life.
"I don't think it is right that 90 per cent of the peloton will not have been aware (of the anniversary]," wrote Millar. In his new introduction, he adds: "There was not even a mention of Tommy's legacy. That was the day I realised just how far the sport had to go before it could rectify all the wrongs it had allowed. Even while professional cycling claimed to be doing everything within its power to change the hardened doping culture that existed, I knew that something was desperately wrong. We were teetering on the edge of an abyss. It was as if Tommy Simpson had never lived, let alone died."
As Millar explains, Simpson "was not the first British cyclist to cross the Channel and enter the other world known as the Continent… but he was the first to charm all Europe not only with his ability to race, but with his personality and panache". And he continues: "Every time I pass his memorial I am in the habit of doffing what in my younger years was a cloth cap, but has since become a helmet, to his memory. It is a memory I hold closer than most because he is a person I can relate to more than most. Tommy and I share many traits and have followed similar paths. I, like him, immersed myself completely in a world that was very foreign to me in the pursuit of a dream. As with Tommy, that dream became life-consuming; as with Tommy, it ended up with my doping. But I have survived where Tommy didn't.
"He died from doping at a time when there was no doping control. His death was a wake-up call that, years later, we are only starting to hear."
It will be interesting to see what, if any, mention is made of Simpson as the Tour returns to Mont Ventoux this year, with a stage that is arguably more eagerly anticipated than any since 1989, when the Tour ended with a time trial. It is the first time a major mountain has featured so close to the finish in Paris, an innovation made possible by the TGV that connects Avignon and Paris, reducing the journey to a couple of hours.
In 1989, of course, the Tour was served with its most famous finale: Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon going head-to-head, both still in contention for the yellow jersey and LeMond taking it by the narrowest ever margin, just eight seconds. The Tour's current director, Christian Prudhomme, clearly had 1989 in mind when devising this year's route, saying, when he unveiled the course, that "the stage is set for a dream of a landmark finale, exactly 20 years after the most extraordinary final in the history of the Tour. Never, in over one hundred years, has a mountain been so close to Paris. And what a mountain, 24 hours before the Champs lyses: the Giant of Provence!"
Yet, as Millar says, Mont Ventoux stands for something else, too. In his book, Simpson describes climbing the mountain in the 1965 Tour, two years before he died at the same spot. The Giant of Provence, he writes, "is a great mountain stuck out in the middle of nowhere and bleached white by the sun. It is another world up there among the bare rocks and the glaring sun. The white rocks reflect the heat and the dust rises, clinging to your arms, legs and face".
Prior to the 1967 Tour, Simpson put down a deposit on a top-of-the-range Mercedes. He thought he could win the Tour; victory would pay the balance, the idea of the car keeping him going when he was suffering. He was renowned for going to the limit and beyond. In the 1964 Tour, he finished 16th with a tapeworm; in 1965 he rode to a standstill with a septic hand which almost had to be amputated; in 1966 he retired in tears after crashing heavily, having launched an all-or-nothing attack. Cycling Is My Life reads like a catalogue of crashes, injuries and setbacks, interspersed with the odd success, though Simpson's good humour is as evident as his determination.
As David Saunders, who worked with Simpson on the book, notes in his introduction: "When he fell from his machine on Mont Ventoux on that fateful day he did what one could only have expected. He asked to be put back on his bike. He was then at death's door but still would not give in. He was still in possession of all his faculties for he recognised people and spoke to them by name but, as he weaved drunkenly across the road for the last time and was held up by spectators, he had reached the end of the road, his final milestone. Eye-witnesses told me that his fingers had to be prised from the handlebars and it took two helpers to open his mouth, so tightly clenched were his teeth." The kiss of life came too late. Simpson was dead, at 29.
Saunders wonders what "drove this great man to his death? Ambition? Money? Vanity?" Ambition, he says, could have been his downfall, but not vanity. "Perhaps, though, it was the money. He had a burning desire to make enough so that he could retire early and enjoy life with his wife and two daughters."
Intriguingly, Saunders also claims that he and Simpson had planned another, post-cycling, book, "one in which things could be said that would have been impossible to record in this one".
You wonder what those "things" might have been, for there is no mention, in Cycling Is My Life, of the drugs that, in those days of no tests, were rampant, feeding a culture of doping that would end with the sport, as Millar puts it, "teetering on the edge of an abyss".
Millar ends his introduction imagining himself standing by Simpson's monument, agonisingly close to the summit of the Ventoux, realising "how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling's very own Icarus".
• Cycling Is My Life, by Tommy Simpson (Yellow Jersey), 8.99
HOW SIMPSON'S DEATH PROVED A KICK-START FOR HOBAN
BARRY Hoban, a contemporary of Tommy Simpson, set the record for the most stage wins in the Tour de France by a British rider, winning eight between 1967 to 1975 – an achievement equalled by Mark Cavendish last week.
It was Simpson's death on the 1967 Tour that helped Wakefield-born Hoban, pictured above right, set the record that was to stand for 42 years. On the next racing day after the tragedy many riders were reluctant to continue and asked the organisers for a postponement. French rider Jean Stablinski proposed instead that the race would go on but that a British rider would be allowed to win the stage. This honour went to Hoban. Two years later, in 1969, Hoban married Simpson's widow, Helen.
As well as winning eight Tour stages, Hoban was placed second in seven, and third in another seven. His first Tour was Jacques Anquetil's last, he rode alongside Eddy Merckx, and his last Tour was Bernard Hinault's first.
Hoban, now 69, still holds the record for the most Tours completed by a British rider – having finished 11 of the 12 he started between 1965 and 1978. He was also the only Briton to have won two consecutive stages of the Tour until Cavendish, pictured above right, triumphed on stages 12 and 13 in 2008.
Hoban started cycle racing in 1955, and went on to become one of Europe's best sprinters. He went to France in 1962, turned professional two years later, and stayed abroad for another 16 years. Towards the end of a long career spent largely in mainland Europe, Hoban occasionally returned to the UK to race; he won the London-Bradford race, was second in the British professional road-race championship in 1979, and won the Grand Prix of Manchester in 1980.
Hoban now lives in Powys, Wales with Helen. The couple have three grown-up daughters. Barry is stepfather to Helen and Tom Simpson's daughters Jane and Joanne, and Barry and Helen have a daughter, Daniela.