Non-football: Something to aim at
With launch of the British pro cycling team Team Sky today, allow me to turn my attention to cycling for a minute.
Cycling has long been something of a minority sport in this country. In fact, the sport’s status would be best classified, until recently, as ‘cult following’, rather than ‘mainstream’. All this changed when the British track cycling team was completely revamped and given a fair old chunk of lottery money with the goal of winning Team GB some Olympic gold. Soon, gone were the days when British cyclists turned up to velodromes self-financed and clutching their own equipment. In the space of two Olympic games the British track cycling team had gone from outsiders to that rarest of rarities in British sport – a world-dominating, finely tuned winning machine. The heroes of this renaissance were the likes of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and the only man to have retained his gold medal in the individual pursuit, Bradley Wiggins.
The wider world of cycling, however, has much more to offer than velodromes and kilometre sprints. The greatest stars of the track are a different animal entirely to the monolithic endurance machines that are those men that put their bodies through hell year in year out and compete for glory in road events such as Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and, generally speaking, the ultimate goal – Le Tour de France. The history of British riders in the Tour is a sporadic and scattered one. To a historian of the greatest race in the world they would be considered not much more than footnote – a few stage wins here, a few yellow jerseys there – were it not for one man who tragically and controversially wrote himself into the mythology of the Tour, Tom Simpson.
Simpson was a man from a working class, north eastern stock. His family moved to Derbyshire when he was young and Simpson found his cycling legs riding through the Peak District. With the goal of becoming a continental cyclist and keen to avoid the burden of national service that was soon to be upon him Simpson moved to Belgium to further his career. At this time, in the late 50s and early 60s, there was no great financial backing for someone with the aspirations of Simpson. The move was mainly self-financed and he earned his keep by racing in events around Europe and by garnering himself publicity in France by playing up to a British upper-class, Avengers-esque stereotype, often seen wearing a suit and bowler hat, clutching an umbrella and a newspaper and drinking a cup of tea. The French quickly took to this eccentric Brit and gave him the nickname ‘Major Tom’. So it was that, in 1967, Simpson entered a car dealership in France and put down a deposit on a brand new Mercedes. “Something to aim at”, Simpson told friends, making clear his intention to win the 1967 Tour de France and make enough money to pay for the car. Simpson never made it back to that car dealership. Towards the end of the tour, fuelled by amphetamines and half a bottle of brandy, Simpson wobbled up the slopes of one of the most ominous and daunting mountains in the Tour’s history, Mont Ventoux. Moving uneasily from side to side up the road Simpson fell off his bike and collapsed on Ventoux’s wind-swept lunar-esque white rocks that lined the side of the road. As his team car stopped and staff ran out to tend to him Simpson is alleged to have breathed his last words “put me back on my bike”, tried once more to ride up the mountain, fallen again and then died.
It could be said that, from then on, British riders in the Tour de France were riding in the shadow of Tommy Simpson. Garmin-Slipstream’s David Millar wrote on the anniversary of Simpson’s death in 2007 that Simpson’s memorial on Ventoux was a reminder of “how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling’s very own Icarus.”. On the 26th July 2009 the Tour once again climbed the Ventoux. According to the Guardian report from that stage:
‘Mark Cavendish removed his helmet as he rode past the memorial; Charly Wegelius and David Millar offered gifts, Wegelius a water bottle to be added to the pile of cycling knick-knacks, Millar a cotton hat, which he tossed in the direction of the pale grey marble monument. On it he had written: “Tommy Simpson RIP, David Millar.” ‘.
Before all this though the main pack had come past. Too focused and too drained to concentrate on anything but the road ahead of them were the main general classification contenders – Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, yellow jersey Alberto Contador, seven-time winner Lance Armstrong and, amazingly, Britain’s Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins had been nothing short of a revelation in the 2009 tour. Losing 10% of his body fat to adjust to the demands of climbing Wiggins had surprised all but himself when he found himself in 4th position coming to the Ventoux, the Tour’s penultimate stage. Needing just to keep pace with the main GC riders and not lose time to Andreas Kloeden, Wiggins rode up the Ventoux with a picture of Tom Simpson affixed to his bike. After finishing the Tour he told the Guardian:
“When I reached Ventoux on the second-last day it felt as if Tom was waiting for me. As I began the climb it felt as if his spirit was riding with me. It started on the early slopes and I imagined how Tom must have been feeling, riding towards his death, and the feeling grew as I climbed.
There were times when Andy Schleck was attacking and it was horrible. I thought, ‘I can’t go on. I can’t do this anymore …’ But I then thought more vividly of Tom and how he must have felt that last day. It was like a reason not to give up. I felt like I was doing it more for his memory than anything.”.
It seems perfectly fitting to imagine, therefore, that Bradley Wiggins, in this seemingly impossible quest to equal Robert Millar’s British best of 4th place, had not a brand new Mercedes as his “something to aim at”, but the legacy of Simpson himself.
Confounding expectations is something that British cycling supremos Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton and Steve Peters have made their stock in trade on the track over the last decade. Now they turn their attentions to road racing with the new pro cycling team Team Sky. Taking to the roads of London for the team launch today fans will have been filled with optimism and excitement to see the slick way this team has been assembled. It boasts amongst it’s ranks some of the finest young British riders (Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Russ Downing, Peter Kenaugh), some of the finest up and coming riders in all of cycling (Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas Lofkvist) and, firmly in position as team leader for the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins. Brailsford’s clearly stated aim for the team is to win the Tour de France within five years. Maybe Wiggins’ fourth place last year was just a preface for the next great chapter in British cycling, maybe it was a fluke he can never repeat. If we can be sure of one thing though it is that British cycling today took a step far greater than any it has taken before and announced itself as a serious force to be reckoned with in the big world of continental road racing. For Bradley Wiggins, riding onto the Champs-Elysée as the winner of the Tour de France now seems a considerably more realistic ‘something to aim at’.
I should mention that the biographical detail of Tom Simpson was learned from reading William Fotheringham’s stunnng biography Put Me Back On My Bike, Dave Millar’s “cyclings very own Icarus” quote comes from his foreword to the reissue of Simpson’s autobiography Cycling Is My Life and Bradley Wiggins’ descrpition of riding the Ventoux comes from the Guardian interview with Donald McRae Exhausted Bradley Wiggins now knows he can win the Tour de France.