Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Put Me Back On My Bike – In Search Of Tom Simpson, William Fotheringham (2002)

Yellow Jersey Press 978 0224 08018 7 Paperback 254pp £8.99

An account of the life of the British star of 1960s cycling that raises the bar for cycling biography
It is curious to reflect now on what an enigma Tom Simpson was during the 35 years after his demise as he raced up Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France. Fotheringham opens with a screening of Ray Pascoe’s film Something To Aim At. For most of us, this was the only source of biographical information about the man widely described as ‘Britain’s greatest cyclist’.

By the late 1990s, when Fotheringham started work on this book, the precise details of Simpson’s demise had entered space of part knowledge, part rumour. Even his fans would assert that ‘it was drugs that killed him’, but it was rare to meet anyone who could recite the details with any kind of accuracy. The surprise is that it took as long as it did for someone of Fothingham’s talent to apply themselves to this subject. But then in the past decade, British cycling has been unusually blessed with high quality writers applying themselves to a whole range of bicycle-related subject matter. Of them, Fotheringham is among the best.

The book traces Simpson from the Nottinghamshire mining village, where he grew up to the top of the European cycle racing scene, drawing on dozens of interviews with friends, family members and professional colleagues. Along the way, he paints evocative pictures of everything from the amateur cycling scene in northern England in the mid-1950s to the experience of moving to and living in Europe.

There is much in this book from which Simpson’s humour and humanity shines out. He was clearly a gifted athlete and an engaging personality. It is in his account of the sometime world champion’s demise, however, that Fotheringham excels himself. His analysis is forensic and his evidence far too weighty for his conclusion to be in doubt – a massive dose of amphetamines caused Simpson’s body to fatally overheat. Indeed, the shock of the revised edition of 2007 is the revelation that Simpson experience a drug-induced collapse during the Vuelta earlier in 1967, that saw him zig sagging across the road in what was pretty much a rehearsal for the more famous incident.

That this book so successfully nails the drug issue is reason enough to commend it, but it is, nonetheless, a hugely enjoyable read. At the end, however, it is impossible to argue with Fotheringham’s conclusion:

“Simpson should be remembered as an impulsive, intelligent, articulate and supremely charismatic man who had a single blind spot: his need to win at any cost. He was not a bad man, nor a foolish one, nor was he unprofessional in his approach to his sport, but he chose to join others in cheating and got caught in the most dramatic way imaginable.”

PS Mar 09

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