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From early on in my life I have always had a fascination about the career and death of the British cyclist Tommy Simpson. In my youth I was a keen cyclist, but I never cycled competitively. I had one of those ‘Can you remember where you were when JFK was shot?’ moments in 1967 when Simpson died that July day during the Tour de France on his ascent of Mt Ventoux. I do remember exactly where I was when Kennedy died. I was in a fish and chip shop in Darwen, Lancashire – my hometown. I clearly remember my parents and everyone around being very shocked.
I vividly recall when Simpson passed away. I was in Blackpool, Lancashire on one of our ubiquitous summer holidays. I was listening in my earpiece to a cricket commentary on my transistor radio when a newsflash interrupted this very English scene flowing around in my head. I think importantly for me though it was the death of Tommy Simpson that was the first one in my life to really registered on my consciousness – how could such an athlete just die?
Simpson, it seems, contributed to his demise due to his response to the extreme pressure to succeed that surrounds the Tour de France, this pressure of course continues to this day. Sadly, it was ever thus that ways were being found to enhance a rider’s performance in the Tour. It was concluded that he also had done so, and this had made him unknowingly go beyond the limits of endurance, a point of no return. Due to having been quite debilitating ill in the previous days of the Tour a tragedy was the inevitable consequence.
He was, despite joining in with the culture of the times in striving to be better at any cost, an immensely popular figure. In England he was revered as an athlete which was unusual for the somewhat minority spectator sport of cycling. What I am saying really is that he was not a soccer playing superstar but through strength of character and that determination to win he had broken through the barrier into much wider popularity. He certainly had with me. I had followed his career avidly and for that reason his death was a massive event in my life. The modern comparison for my son would be the death of Ayrton Senna.
When travelling in Provence I had always looked up at Mt Ventoux, you must do as you cannot miss it, always thinking that I must go up there and pay my respects. Simpson’s memorial is constructed where he fell, just one kilometre from the summit on the route going up from the village of Bèdoin. I decided it was high time that I made the pilgrimage and so we set out first of all for Malaucène.
We did not go up Ventoux straightaway as there was a morning market in the town and we spent an hour or so browsing around. As usual we were unable to resist the temptation to buy. After a coffee in the market square, we finally set off to start to make our way up Ventoux via the route D974. The road is quite steep even in the initial stages leading from Malaucène, a summit route also used on the Tour. We reached a service station appearing like an Alps chalet, but we passed it by and pressed on towards the summit and our goal for the day. Even early on in our climb up the mountain by car it is clear that to do this on a racing cycle must require a certain quantity of superhuman strength – and a touch of madness. Without condoning it you can see that many would resort to assistance from whatever source available to try to deal with this immense pressure placed on them by the Tour de France. I cannot comprehend how anyone can attempt this at all but on this day there are a few amateur cyclists, some equipped with oxygen, attempting to emulate their heroes from the Tour. I am not sure how sensible it is to try – but try they must.
Our car is new, a Skoda Octavia top of the range diesel model with the larger engine and has never missed a beat in all the time I have owned it as a company car. It has taken us the nearly one thousand miles from the North of England with ease and for the last week we have toured around the area without it offering complaint. The car is in the peak of condition. We round some zig zag bends and bizarrely at a couple of points I have the sensation of going downhill. I have had this feeling occur also in the English Lakes at higher altitude when your car seems to be almost cruising uphill with minimum power being applied. I am sure there must be a scientific explanation of this phenomenon. We carry on climbing quite slowly as I need to concentrate as we hesitantly reach somewhere around 4500 feet in altitude.
It is around this point on the climb, near the summit and then close to our objective of Tommy Simpson’s memorial that something very strange starts to happen with our vehicle. The car becomes very unresponsive and does not gain any further height with ease, becoming extremely sluggish. You sense that the engine has the signs of overheating and I half expect to see some smoke coming from under the bonnet. This is a quite disconcerting sensation, but worse follows in that it now appears to be that most of the mechanics of the car are starting to shut down and not responding to my control. This was quite scary as we were at a high altitude with serious drops going down from the side of the road. I did not feel I was in control of the vehicle even though I was only progressing the car at an exceptionally low speed. I decided to ease the car over to the mountain face side of the road and it did so very reluctantly. I must admit I was shaking and extremely stressed by this, as was Niamh.
There was no possibility of me trying to continue up the mountain road as my nerves were completely shot. It was essential in view of what was going on with the mechanics of the car that we try to get back down the mountain safely. Sadly, I would be thwarted in getting up to Simpson’s memorial, but discretion is as they say the better part of valour. I tell Niamh to get out of the car while I try to attempt to turn the vehicle around to head back down the mountain road. I have visually checked the engine etc. and nothing seems on face value to be mechanically amiss with the vehicle. The car really does not want to move but eventually I do manage after about a twenty-point turn to safely get it pointing in the opposite direction and Niamh reluctantly gets back in.
We start to retrace our steps down Ventoux and come immediately to a sharp turn. I brake and there is absolutely no response from the pedals. Fortunately, at this gentler part of the decent we are not going too fast and I negotiate the bend which then straightens out to a long steeper descent. Again, I try the brakes and – nothing! I manically pull on the hand brake and point the car to the mountainside and eventually bring it to a stop in a small ditch by the side of the road. Our nerves have been through the wringer and back again. At this point we both get out and now see our car as a demented enemy, no longer the faithful friend that has served us so well thus far. The only plan I can think of is that we bide our time and let the car completely cool down and then hesitantly and conservatively try again. This is what we do and when I am happy that we have left it long enough we get back inside.
Heading cautiously down the long descent the brakes are not perfect by any means, but they seem as if they will get us back to Malaucène if I take considerable care. We slowly but surely do this, and it was an incredible relief to get back down and park in the commune, get out and have a double expresso and mop each other’s brow. I had been thwarted in my plan for the day but worst of all we had got ourselves into a profoundly serious position on that climb. We felt that it could easily, so easily have ended with a far worse result. I have no explanation as to what occurred with the car on that mountain road. The altitude inducing a reaction in the car to that height was the only thing that I could put it down to.
What made it completely bizarre was that when we got back in the car and travelled all the way back to Mazan where we were staying, the vehicle drove and responded perfectly as it always had done previously. I could not take it to a garage as there was nothing to look at – it was fine. It drove perfectly for the rest of the week and on the long journey back to England. It was indeed time for a bottle of wine or two. I never got to Tommy Simpson’s memorial and reaching it is still on my ‘to do list.’ I will get there, probably without Niamh. I will pay my respects to my childhood cycling hero, but I will do it with profound respect for this dangerous mountain and I will do it with care and talk kindly to my car on the way up.