Robin Scott-Elliot: Tom Simpson: the tragic cyclist who never came down

View from the Sofa: Death on the Mountain, BBC 4 / England v Pakistan, Sky Sports 1
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The Independent Culture

There was something of Harold Larwood in Tom Simpson.

Both were raised in Nottinghamshire to mining families and became sportsmen of the highest ilk, each known for an absolute determination to win, before becoming swamped by controversy. The difference, of course, is that it cost Simpson his life. Larwood moved to Australia.

Simpson's story is a well-pedalled tragedy, but as the Tour de France keeps going back to its favourite places so this is a tale worth returning to. Simpson was a victim of the drug use that was endemic and effectively unchecked in cycling in the Sixties, and also of his own will to win, his utter bloody-mindedness. What helped make him a champion was eventually to leave him dying, aged 29, on the parched slopes of Mont Ventoux, the legendary 6,000ft peak that looms over the Tour de France.

Death on the Mountain recorded Simpson's final day, grainy footage of that increasingly desperate 13th stage on 13 July 1967 interspersed with an exploration of how he came to take one risk too many. It was an enthralling portrait of a driven, enigmatic man. Simpson was happy to play the Englishman abroad, or rather how the French perceived an Englishman to be – he dressed in a suit, clutched an umbrella and strode around wearing a bowler hat. Out of the saddle he cut a sparky figure, relishing his life in France after moving across the Channel with just £100 in his pocket. "I think he liked to be the centre of attention," said his wife – the "I think" suggesting that he was a hard man to fathom even to those closest to him.

Simpson was determined to make his fortune – money was a recurring theme of the programme – and immersed himself in France's sport in every way. In the Sixties the Tour was even more gruelling than today, not least because it was 1,000km longer. That many of the peloton resorted to drug use may be understandable, but the acceptance of it is not. "Of course he took drugs," said one contributor. "But no more than anybody else."

"Doping was a kind of social bond. You took drugs to fit in... and were marginalised if not," summed up a French journalist. "It was practically impossible not to take drugs if you wanted to be in the Tour de France."

A former pro cyclist once told me how during his first Tour he was ruing his lot to one of his team's doctors. He couldn't see a way of coping with the race. The medical man said nothing but placed a full syringe on the table and left the room. The rider in question chose not to use it. No matter the feats of endurance that are demanded of these men, it is a choice. Simpson's death, said another contributor, and the traces of amphetamine found in his blood were part of a wider "corporate complicity" between the riders, and everyone knows that the big corporations usually get away with it.

England's cricketers have spent the last few days in Nottingham, where Larwood made his name, and he would have had plenty to keep him interested with some tyro fast bowlers on show. While the fundamentals of bowling quickly have remained unchanged, the make-up of the England set-up today could not be more different. Team England, revealed Mike Atherton as the camera lingered on a figure in the dressing room studying his laptop, have four full-time statisticians. In Larwood's day there were two dressing rooms, for Gentlemen and Players. Today they need two dressing rooms to get all the players and their support staff in.