The Thirteenth Stage
The Tour de France, 1967: Tom Simpson chases immortality on Mont Ventoux.
On a yacht in Marseilles marina, with a brick-sized chunk of ice stabbed on a fork between them, Tom Simpson and Barry Hoban pantomimed the extraordinary heat of that summer. They licked the ice like a gigantic lolly, Barry with some embarrassment and Tom, whose idea it most likely was, gurning with his tongue sticking out grotesquely. Barry then pretended to throw Tom into the water.
Jean Bobet was among the crowd of journalists. Once a Tour winner himself, he was now a correspondent for L’Equipe. Two years previously Bobet had photographed Tom after he had become the first Briton to win a stage, and had posed him in his clean new yellow jersey, with a bowler hat and umbrella, prancing on the stairs: an Englishman in Paris.
Tom was halfway through his fourth Tour de France. At 4,780 kilometres it was the longest that there had ever been, and five of his ten British teammates had already dropped out. Perhaps he looked a little leaner than usual in the press photographs, but then he lived on a strict diet shored up by carrot juice and fresh vegetables, which, mercifully, were cheaper in the markets of Ghent than in his native Harworth. His deep-set eyes looked dark, his sharp nose and cheekbones prominent against his thin face. But he was still smiling, even with a mouth full of ice.
He had started this Tour with a strict plan. He and his team would focus their attention on three major mountain stages, with the intention of either standing on the podium on the Champs Elysees, or collecting a few yellow jerseys along the way. On the first of these stages, climbing the Col du Galibier, he had suffered from diarrhea and dropped from sixth to sixteenth place. Before the Tour began the assembled journalists had predicted that he would finish eleventh. He looked forward to proving them wrong.
Tomorrow they would pass over Mont Ventoux, where Ferdi Kübler’s career had come to an abrupt end in 1955. Tom knew the story well; as a child his bedroom had been decorated with pictures of the one-time Tour winner. The Swiss had begun the stage full of hubris. ‘The Ventoux is not like any other col,’ his teammate warned him. ‘Ferdi’s not like the other riders,’ he replied. Leading the race alone Ferdi found himself dehydrated, and stopped to find a beer. By the time he reached the summit he was delirious and began to cycle back the way he had come. A spectator tried to set him on the correct course but he pushed them away, shouting, ‘Get out of the way, leave me, Ferdi’s going crazy, Ferdi’s going to explode!’ That evening he announced his retirement from the sport with the words, ‘Ferdi has killed himself on the Ventoux.’
Tomorrow Tom would have the chance to conquer the mountain that had conquered Ferdi Kübler. It was his second. Two years previously he had passed over the Ventoux in the rear of the peloton, with an infected wound and the beginnings of bronchitis. Now he began to bear a superficial hatred of every person who stood between him and victory. ‘I can get the buggers back,’ he told Harry, his mechanic, as they prepared his bike that evening. ‘When they sit on my wheel I’ll blow their brains out. I’ll get the bastards.’
Harry cared diligently for Tom. He would work through the night, modifying the bike – once he fashioned him a more comfortable saddle from the leather of Mrs. Helen Simpson’s crocodile handbag – and accompanied him on every stage, riding behind him in the team car.
After the Col du Galibier Tom’s bike had been sent back to Harry for cleaning and he could see from its state that the rider was seriously unwell. At the marina Barry gently encouraged him to take the next day slowly, but his suggestion was met with anger. His boss, Gaston Plaud, told him the same in stronger terms: ‘You must stop racing this Tour de France for the sake of your health. This is no good.’ Again Tom refused to listen. The Ventoux was the mountain on which a cyclist became great, and physical suffering was part of the exchange. ‘I think it’s riding the Tour that makes a cyclist immortal,’ he had said in a recent interview. He had stages like this one in mind.
The riders hung on the start line. Tom inspected his bike, checked his brakes. He wore the uniform of his team: a thin woollen jersey, white, with his number pinned on its back; black woollen shorts; a cloth cap; leather loafers. The last time he had attacked the Ventoux his shorts had become so saturated with sweat that they had fallen down.
Harry had re-taped his handlebars to create the illusion of a fresh bike. The machine smelled of grease. He got on and Harry strapped Tom’s feet to the pedals.
Jean Bobet caught Tom’s eye from behind the barrier. Tom attempted to return his smile, but to Bobet it looked more like a grimace. Then Tom stuck his tongue out, and he saw five white pills on it. The front of the field began to filter out, to the cheers of the crowd, and the figure bearing the number 49 was obscured.
Though no-one cared to break the code of silence, everyone knew about Tom’s use of ‘la moutarde,’ or his ‘Mickey Finns,’ as he called them: he would arrive at the team’s hotel with two suitcases, one for his clothes and the other for the drugs and their accoutrements. Those doctors who were in on the scheme recommended a maximum intake of eight milligrams of Tonedron per dose, but the body grew resistant to it over time, and Tom was adventurous. He had once given some to a dog at a friend’s party. It had survived, and it was small.
Cicadas called out from the dry fields. He hated that sound; he hated the heat. Having learned to ride in Yorkshire, cold and wet was his preference. The sun made his bike frame hot to the touch.
Tom, like every competitor, carried only two small bottles of water with him. Popular wisdom held that the energy spent processing water could be better used in the legs. ‘La chasse à la canette’ became a tradition of the race, when parched team leaders would dispatch their domestiques to beg for a drink from homes or cafés.
Colin Lewis found a restaurant by the roadside. By the time he caught up with Tom in the breakaway both were parched. Tom grabbed the bottle of Coke and drank half straight off. He passed the rest back to Colin.
‘What else have you got?’ he asked.
Colin pulled the second bottle from his jersey pocket. It was brandy, and half full.
‘My guts aren’t feeling too good, give us a swig,’ said Tom and drank half of it, then cycled hard.
An hour later Tom was watching the breakaway leave him behind. He had stuck with them to the foothills of the mountain, through heat that had made the liquid food curdle in his bottle. As the road steepened in the intermittent shade of the forest he noticed that he was slowing down. Bright light flickered through the pines, making him feel sick. His stomach hurt.
In the shade of the forest he saw a hut. He pulled over, flung his bike onto the verge and went in.
From the roof of the team car where he was setting up his camera, Harry recognised Tom’s bike. He called for the driver to stop as Tom emerged from the trees, screwing the lid back on his bottle. Harry felt sure that it did not contain water.
‘Hey, Tom, that’s naughty, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ he called out.
Tom winked, got back on his bike and cycled on, swigging at the Cognac in his bottle.
The three tubes of pills rattled together inside his jersey. Two were empty now. His mouth was dry, and it was hard to focus his eyes. He rode hunched forward, his saddle higher than his handlebars; his head bobbed forward with each revolution of the pedals.
Spectators in sun hats lined the road. One man strode out in front of him and threw a cupful of water into his face, a violent act of kindness. Tom’s body had no more sweat in it.
Team cars and lone cyclists passed him. The peloton could not be far behind. He leaned forwards for another push and gripped his curved handlebars. The forest began to fade away and the summit, seeming snowy but shimmering with heat, stared him down. As he drew near to the tree line a hot wind threw grit into his open mouth.
The mountain hummed with heat. In his white jersey Tom faded into the landscape as he rode out of the shade. The rise in temperature was instant and he breathed dry dust as he tried to fill his lungs. At 1,900 metres above sea level, the air yielded little oxygen. Ahead were the insect-like forms of the breakaway group.
The French cyclist Lucien Aimar gained on Tom, and saw that his eyes were glazed. He drew level and offered Tom some water, but he did not acknowledge him and instead tried to cycle away. Aimar encouraged him to hang back and rest in his slipstream for a while, but Tom appeared not to have heard him.
‘Tom, stop fooling about,’ he said. Tom cycled on.
Two kilometres from the summit he began to serpentine across the road, first veering left until inches from the sheer cliff, then to the bank on the other side. His head bobbed from side to side as if encouraging each leg in turn.
From the team car Harry saw that Tom was about to fall. They pulled over and he ran to him, in time to catch the bike. He tried to lay Tom down.
‘No, no, no, up, up,’ rambled Tom. Unsure what to do, Harry began to steer Tom along the road.
‘Me straps, Harry,’ said Tom, and Harry tied his feet back onto the pedals. Tom slowly pedaled away, and Harry heard his words echo back to him from the rocks: ‘On, on, on, on, on.’
Two topless men on the roadside saw Tom lean forward on his handlebars and curve to the right. His legs were no longer turning the pedals but his dry, yellow hands gripped the bike tightly. As the bike began to topple they caught it and guided it to the side of the road. Harry ran to them and untied the straps on the feet. He tried to carry Tom on his back, but he was limp and heavy. They laid him down, legs in the road and head on a pillow of stones. His hands had to be prised from the handlebars. Harry tried to give Tom chest compressions, but the air that was drawn into his lungs simply left again with a sickening wheeze.
The Tour physician and a nurse drew up in their car. The nurse began to blow air into Tom’s mouth. Her hand on his face pushed the eyelids back slightly.
A crowd gathered on the slope above them. They stood at a respectful distance, for the most part.
The doctor unzipped Tom’s jersey and the three tubes of pills fell out. He continued to treat the body until a helicopter came to take it away.
Bobet was struck by the perfection of the silence as the typewriters stopped clicking in the press room. Some of the journalists went down to the morgue to view the body and the silence followed them there. Tom’s body lay on a trolley, half-covered by a sheet. His eyes were still open. One photographer took pictures of the body. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said after every exposure.