Bradley Wiggins: 'Tom will be watching over me on Ventoux'
Bradley Wiggins is on course to finish the Tour higher than any other Briton in history – but today he faces the most feared climb of all. He tells Alasdair Fotheringham why he will carry with him a photograph of Tom Simpson, a compatriot who died on the same road 42 years ago
Saturday 25 July 2009
Today Bradley Wiggins will ride up the Mont Ventoux with a photo of England's greatest stage racer, Tom Simpson, attached to his bike frame – and with, Wiggins believes, the spirit of Simpson to support him should he falter.
About three kilometres from the summit, the Garmin-Slipstream rider will pass the monument to Simpson, where 42 years ago the Briton collapsed and died during the Tour.
For Wiggins, Simpson has a double role: he is both a source of inspiration and someone for whom the Briton hopes to bring greater recognition – through his own riding.
"Tom will be watching over me on the Ventoux," Wiggins says."For me, racing up there to try and get on the podium is a kind of homage to him.
"It's really kind of fitting the race should be decided there, and if ever there's a moment that I feel like giving up, then there's a reason not to – out of respect to him. What he was trying to do that day is what I'm going to be trying to do, too."
The son of a Yorkshire miner, Simpson was the first English- speaking international star of the sport, the country's first ever Tour de France leader, first world champion and first winner of major Classics like the Tour of Lombardy and Flanders.
Based in Ghent, "Major Tom", as he was nicknamed, played heavily on his Englishness to win over the foreign media. He would often wear a bowler or top hat for photographers, and one of the last pictures taken of him alive shows Simpson licking a huge block of ice somewhere in Provence: all that is missing is the caption, 'It ain't half hot, mum', and it would be the classic joke image of the British holidaymaker abroad.
There was only so much time for larks, though. Simpson was an ultra-dedicated professional, utterly meticulous with his diet, training programme and equipment, and at a time where doping was the virtual norm in cycling, all too often being dedicated meant using banned drugs.
"If 10 kill you, I'll take nine," he said once – a phrase that needs no interpretation, particularly when Simpson's death was almost certainly caused by a combination of alcohol, illness, dehydration, heat exhaustion and amphetamines.
Paradoxically, Simpson's untimely death on the Ventoux made him an overnight myth for British cycling, a conveniently hazy reference point. Even now, when cyclists talk about a promising young rider, they'll sometimes use the phrase, "He's the next Tom Simpson".
"I learnt about his history when I was about 16, there was a guy called Richard Allchin who lived locally who was always going on about him," Wiggins recalls.
"Then when I raced in the Ghent velodrome, I met people who knew him and helped him, like Albert Beurick," – who ran the cafe and hostel where Simpson was based early on, and where Wiggins (below), too, has stayed. "I won a race there and went to have a beer with all the public afterwards and Albert was in tears, saying that was exactly what Simpson would have done. Then with each race I did abroad, I'd learn more and more about how much he did for Britain, really. And I've got a lot of respect for him, a British rider coming over [to mainland Europe] to do something like this. He's the Bobby Moore of British cycling and for me, for our sport, going up the Ventoux is like the England players going up the steps of the old Wembley stadium, following Bobby Moore.
"Guys like him, or [first British Tour stage winner] Brian Robinson, or [former top sprinter] Barry Hoban, they're our 1966 World Cup winners."
As well as a source of inspiration, Wiggins passionately feels Simpson's achievements should not be forgotten. The 29-year-old worries that some of the younger generation of British cyclists fail to appreciate how big a pioneer Simpson was.
"It's like Remembrance Day, each time it comes round fewer and fewer people appreciate what that means.
"I don't think enough is made of Tom, and for me going up there on the Ventoux to try and get on the podium when he was the last Englishman to try to do so helps keep the legend alive."
Wiggins last rode up the Ventoux in the 2007 Dauphiné Libéré race, and he and his Garmin-Slipstream team-mate David Millar both took their hats off as a mark of respect when they rode past the memorial.
"At the same time, I wouldn't want to be patronising and say I'm doing it specially for his family or anything.
"But there are people he knew that I've got close to, like Albert, and that makes it matter more."
There is one huge difference between Wiggins and the Briton whose ghostly wheel tracks he will be following on today's 20km ascent of the Giant of Provence. Simpson was using drugs, Wiggins is not.
"I don't think that detracts from the guy himself," the Briton insists."When you read about Simpson in encyclopedias then all it says is he died on the Ventoux on drugs.
"They don't tend to mention what he achieved, or that he wasn't the only rider doing that. It wasn't like these days in any case, [where riders use] sophisticated doping with blood transfusions and EPO," Wiggins points out.
It's hard to disagree. Doping in 1960s cycling consisted mainly of the generalised abuse of recreational drugs like amphetamines and an almost religious following of cranky scientific theories.
Simpson's huge consumption of carrots – two or three kilos in one sitting – is one example, as was the widespread belief that dehydration was beneficial, one contributing factor to Simpson's death.
"That theory took a while to go," Wiggins says. "Even 30 years ago, guys would still go out for six-hour training rides with a Mars Bar and half a bottle of water."
Wiggins, in stark contrast to Simpson, is riding clean and is prepared to demonstrate it in wholly unprecedented ways. He's now asked the UCI, cycling's governing body, to publish his blood values taken for their biological passport programme – an anti-doping system that monitors riders' physiological data.
The data will be available on Monday, as will all his results from his team's internal testing programme.
"I always thought I was capable of doing something big in road cycling, but it's never worked out before," Wiggins says. "And had somebody said before the Tour that I'd be fourth overall with three days to do, I wouldn't have believed them."
He describes the 20km Ventoux as a "one-hour time trial" and that his tactic will be "to stay close to Lance [Armstrong, third overall]." "Really, it's going to be like going gambling, but unless I really blow, I can't do worse than sixth or seventh" – which would still be Britain's best result since 1984.
Considering his previous top Tour result was 123rd in 2006, it's hardly surprising that Wiggins says he would "sign for fourth now if I could".
"Having said that, after all the work I put into fight for the Tour, I came into the race truly believing top 20 was possible and maybe even top 15.
"Everybody at [British Cycling's headquarters in] Manchester had always said I've got the numbers [physiological capacity] to do well on the road. "The playing field is more level too, now," – by which Wiggins means there are fewer dopers, giving him a better chance to shine – "and before I've maybe been distracted by the track, not focused enough, and I've lacked the self-belief as well."
Come what may on the Ventoux, Wiggins' Tour performance makes 2009 a breakthrough year for him and the Londoner's future as a stage racer now seems guaranteed. That comes, amazingly, just a year after Wiggins took his second and third Olympic golds on the track. Were he alive, there is no doubt Simpson would be proud of him.
Mountain highs: How the legend was written
2000 Carpentras– Mont Ventoux stage 12, 231km
Some 300,000 spectators witness an epic showdown between 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani and 1999 winner Lance Armstrong which ends with the American gifting the Italian the stage win. Pantani then rebukes Armstrong for giving him such a prestigious victory, and Armstrong – who has never won on the Ventoux – says he regrets having done so. It's nine months before the two speak again and settle their differences – in, of all places, a restaurant in Murcia, Spain.
1994 Montpellier– Carpentras stage 15, 231km
Giant Italian Eros Poli reaches the foot of the Mont Ventoux with a 23-minute advantage over the peloton. The 1m 94cm, 84-kilo rider loses a minute per kilometre of the climb before roaring down to Carpentras for the only victory of his nine-year career. Five times Miguel Indurain has a near miss on the descent while a certain Lance Armstrong abandons on the same day.
1970 Montpellier– Mont Ventoux stage 14, 170km
The only victory on the Ventoux taken by Eddy Merckx, aka the Cannibal and cycling's greatest ever racer. Merckx's manager Vicente Giacotto had died the day before and the Belgian was determined to honour his memory. Merckx drops his most persistent rival, Joaquim Agostinho, 10 kilometres from the line and blazes away for a solo win. When passing the Tom Simpson memorial, Merckx takes off his cap in honour of his former team-mate, before collapsing at the finish and needing an oxygen mask to recover.
1955 Marseilles – Avignon stage 11, 198km
The third ascent of the "Bald Mountain" and the first in extreme heat causing several riders to faint. Frenchman Jean Mallejac loses consciousness and is rushed to hospital. He is discovered to have suffered from possible poisoning and a police investigation is later opened. Top Swiss rider Ferdi Kubler crashes twice and finishes 26 minutes down, weaving from one side of the road to the other. He did not race again. Frenchman Louison Bobet wins the stage, the foundation for his third consecutive win.
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