Note: these two little pieces were first published on my blog, Sept. 15 & Oct. 23 2008. Edited for CycleZine, today.
Part One: Adding lipstick to a corpse
“Tommy Simpson rode to his death in the Tour de France so doped that he did not know he had reached the limit of his endurance. He died in the saddle, slowly asphyxiated by intense effort in a heatwave after taking methylamphetamine drugs and alcoholic stimulants forbidden by French law. This information was given to me at authorised interviews with senior police officers during a week’s investigation in the south of France… Police reports were that three glass tubes were found in his racing jersey satchel at Avignon, where he was taken after his death. Two were empty. The third contained tablets.”
Tom Simpson died on July 13, 1967 during the 13th stage of the race. The number 13 hardly needs pointing out given the situation: drugs and exhaustion. His career featured many highlights, namely the Milan-San Remo win, the 1965 World Champion title, and the Paris-Nice victory. On the climb he was seen to zig zag slightly, then collapsed to the side. A morbidly famous phrase has been attributed as Simpson’s last uttered breath: “Put me back on my bike!” In fact, the phrase has even been shrouded in posterity as the title to his Biography. The sad fact that he died is one thing, but to stuff words into his mouth so as to make light of the situation, make him seem more heroic, or to make the sport (and its reality of drugs and over-extension of the body) is abhorrent.
The quote first appeared in an article that Sid Saltmarsh had written for The Sun as well as Cycling, however according to the records kept by the Press Division for the Tour de France, Saltmarsh was not even at the race to hear Simpson’s words, if there were any.
His race mechanic as well as his manager were on hand, however, and remember these words: “Go on! Go on!”
I can surely understand the need to fictionalize a situation in order to extract as much damp, dewy goodness as possible. His last words were vague, if they were in fact his last words, and to me that seems a better way to leave it. A person suffering from too much methamphetamines while climbing one of the largest mountains (a goddamn mountain!) in the Tour de France would certainly be at least a little incoherent when he eventually leans over to die, and can’t be counted on to have a witty word to part with.
And, for whatever it is worth, there’s even a haunting video of his climb and his fall.
Part Two: more musings
A remarkable collection of unseen photos of him have just recently come out (in a glossy, nationally distributed magazine) and while I do my best to keep the content here as outdated and esoteric as possible, I feel like the sadness of his death could be brightened a bit with an update on his life. Of course, I owe thanks to my dear and bearded friend Kyle for pointing it out (more about Kyle can be found here.)
The above portrait of Tom Simpson reminds me of another photo, and the two men could be brothers, if not identical twins. Even more confounding: while these photos of Tom have reappeared seemingly out of thin air, his double’s photo was famous for vanishing! Yes, a striking symmetry worth noting, despite the fact that the cyclist and the author were worlds apart. Yes, that photo above does look a trifle like the portrait of the author on the backside of the dust jacket to his first edition of his first novel — the same photo that he requested, vehemently, to have removed before the second edition could even be set up. Vanishing Salinger and Reappearing Simpson: photographic death and rebirth.
A slideshow of the magazine’s pages – please click to view.
And, to further the digression, Salinger’s own words about photos of authors:
In the first place, if I owned a magazine I would never publish a column full of contributors’ biographical notes. I seldom care to know a writer’s birthplace, his children’s names, his working schedule, the date of his arrest for smuggling guns (the gallant rogue!) during the Irish Rebellion. The writer who tells you these things is also very likely to have his picture taken wearing an open-collared shirt-and he’s sure to be looking three-quarter-profile and tragic. He can also be counted on to refer to his wife as a swell gal or a grand person. I’ve written biographical notes for a few magazines, and I doubt if I ever said anything honest in them. This time, though, I think I’m a little too far out of my Emily Brontë period to work myself into a Heathcliff” (Harpers, Feb 1949)
Lastly, to connect author to cyclist: Those readers that are amply steeped in the Glass Family may recall a recollection by the almost eldest son regarding the old Vaudevillian days of his parents, and how he remembers taking a ride on Joe Jackson’s famed silver plated bicycle. Tom Simpson, though 30-40 years after the days of Vaudeville, happens to be riding a highly polished steel bicycle that could be an exact double of the fictionalized one in these very photos.
I realize that these days the current state of cycling seems to focus primarily on the drug charges and doping problems of most of the professional cyclists, and at least in America we’re underwhelmed with the sport in general though any time it is publicized on television it is done so with a close attention to the possibility of some “brutal carnage” by way of a crash (ie: the only reason to watch a bike race is to have a chance to witness a human being crashing at 50 miles an hour wearing only a paper-thin layer of spandex.) The drugs have been around the bikes as long as the people have:
Henri Pelissier, winner of the Tour in 1923: “You have no idea what the Tour de France is. But do you want to see how we keep going? Cocaine for the eyes; chloroform for the gums. You want to see the pills, too? Under the mud our flesh is as white as a sheet, our eyes are swimming, and every night we dance like St. Vitus instead of sleeping.