In August of 2000, I had the opportunity to climb what is arguably the Tour’s most infamous climb, Mont Ventoux. Rising just shy of 2,000 meters (a little less than 6,000 feet) from the floor of Provence, climbing the Ventoux is as humbling an ascent as a cyclist might undertake. July 13, 1967, Tom Simpson suffered heart failure 1.5k from the summit as a result of amphetamine use.
Readers of BKW already know my position on doping in cycling is uncompromisingly against. When Phil Liggett or some other broadcast journalist would pay some homage to Simpson in Tour coverage, I used to talk back to the TV and shout how Simpson didn’t “give his life,” but was a pinhead for using amphetamines. They weren’t a good idea in rock and roll, and they were a terrible idea in cycling.
When I climbed Mont Ventoux, I passed Simpson’s memorial without stopping. Tour riders don’t get a chance to stop there and recover, so neither did I. While I was in no way a fan of Simpson’s, I couldn’t not stop at a memorial to such a significant event in Tour history. I recovered at the top and then rode back down.
I laid my bike down and gingerly made my way up the rocky slope, Speedplay cleats and all. What I saw stunned me. Literally littering the three steps at the foot of his monument were tiny tributes to a fallen member of cycling’s own. Hats, bottles, old tires and tubes, a flag, the odd bandana, flowers and T-shirts so covered the steps, there was no room to sit down. I made the connection with the ancient practice of leaving food, hunting items, clothes, all the things one might need in the next life. And here, at this modest memorial, cyclists from all over the world were leaving Simpson whatever they had to wish him Godspeed.
Gradually, what hit me was a feeling of loss. Not that I personally had lost anything, but what Simpson’s loss was. Here was a guy, a human being, a cyclist for whom racing and winning meant so much that he had given⎯literally⎯everything; he gave his life. Were his choices wise? Certainly not, but could I really condemn a guy for bad judgment? Who would argue that he really understood the risk he undertook–and the price he ultimately paid–to race on amphetamines? The sadness that realization provoked in me was great enough I was glad for the glasses I had on.
As I looked closer I noticed how everything left seemed worn out and used. I was struck by what an insult that seemed to be. One’s burial clothes are the finest available, not a ratty old T-shirt. Seeing the threadbare casings of the old tires only compounded my sadness. After a family climbed back in their car, I, to my own surprise, knelt down and wept. What struck me was how stingy visitors were to leave their castoffs. But what had I to offer? I felt my pockets and remembered my second, unopened Powerbar. I pulled it from my jersey and slipped it under a rock on the top step. Leaving the uneaten bar seemed the only respectful acknowledgement. It was private moment, one that I have not otherwise told anyone about, and only do so now as a way to show how profoundly moved I was by the memorial, and my grasp of his frail humanity.
My views on drug use and cheating will never change, but I can’t condemn Simpson for his tragic death. I am both chastened and inspired by his example. Many of us talk about how we’d love to die doing our favorite thing in the whole world. Simpson did exactly that, even if prematurely. In as much as any of us might wish to meet our maker in the saddle, doing so while racing the Tour de France goes down as going out with true panache. Godspeed to you Tom.