Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Put my panniers back on my bike

Ask my Dad to name three racing cyclists of his era, and you would expect three names to come out. Jacques Anquetil. Eddy Merckx. Tom Simpson.

I've read a lot of travel books lately, from my son's heroes - Mark Beaumont, Alastair Humphreys and friends, whilst on my trips to Devon to fetch him, listening to the audiobook of Tyler Hamilton's controversial autobiography. Looking for a change of pace, but perhaps coloured by these tales, and our recent trip to Brittany, I reached for a book my Dad bought when it first came out - William Fotheringham's 'Put me back on my bike', the definitive autobiography of Simpson, famous as the first Brit to wear the maillot jaune and the rainbow jersey of the World Champion, and indubitably more famous for dying, dehydrated and suffering the effects of a cocktail of amphetamines and alcohol, on Mont Ventoux on Stage 13 of 1967's Tour de France.

I very much enjoyed the book, with its clever non-chronological structure, dancing back and forth between present, past and 13 July '67 to maintain a thematic approach to help us build a picture of the man as much as the life he lived, each chapter of insight illustrated by an episode from Simpson's career.

In view of his status as one of the heroes of my father's era, and with a cycling-mad little lad of my own, I couldn't help but consider Simpson's story in terms of examining my own reaction to his sad story, the lessons I would want to share with Thomas Ivor in consequence.

Despite being a lifelong teetotaller, and never having touched drugs, I can empathise with much of what Fotheringham reveals of Simpson, I daresay my Dad could, too, then and now. My paternal grandfather, like Simpson's father, was a miner. We've experienced social lift. As a railwayman, I can appreciate the idea of being part of a family in one's chosen trade. As an activist and advocate for causes including cycling, I can certainly recognise his efforts to build cycling's profile and stature as a sport - indeed, he spoke of it when made 'Sports Personality of the Year', calling it a "big honour" for the sport as much as himself.

As a cyclist, well, Katie will probably have a wry smile when I say I recognise Tom Simpson's riding style - it was literally 'death or glory'. On a decidedly more modest scale, I too have a tendency to ride hard and run the risk of 'blowing'. It is no accident that sees Katie do most of the towing when we're touring, because she is much better at a measured, steady effort than I am. I do the heroics. I step in at the end of the day for the last few miles if we end up going further than we'd budgeted for, but Katie, ever the more organised of us, matches supply and demand and holds a much steadier pace than me.

The trouble is, you can't speak of Simpson, or indeed Anquetil, or Merckx, without thinking about drugs. Even the era of my own youth disappointed. There is conjecture about the achievements of 'Big Mig' Indurain, and Riis, Ulrich, Virenque, Pantani, Armstrong et al were all outed as cheats. As Fotheringham notes in his updating 'Afterword':
"...the question of whether Simpson was a cheat can be answered in this way. He broke the rules... 
...Simpson's drug-taking should not be glossed over. It was as much part of his life as his whaler-dealing, his dreaming and his will to win; indeed, these four sides of this personality were all tangled together. And his use of amphetamine clearly played a key part in his premature, tragic death. What he did wrong was to take drugs, apparently to excess..., and to ignore the advice of those around him whom he should have trusted."
My Dad was almost of the same generation as Simpson. I grew up watching Virenque and co. It was one thing to have been immersed in the joy and excitement of those years of bike racing at the time, and subsequently disappointed, but for all they achieved, it's awfully hard to present Simpson as a role model to my children any more than the others. Indeed, I think the thing Thomas Ivor could learn from Simpson is that as noble as it is to dig in on the bike, there is a limit beyond which it is foolish to push past by any means.

It is also fair to say that there are other cycling heroes to be found, close to home. The rider who made the most impression on me as a boy was Boardman - I was ten when he lit up Barcelona on his space-age Lotus bike, and I remember what felt like a stampede at Leicester Velodrome when I tried to get his autograph soon after. Boardman deferred treatment which required banned drugs, to conclude his career. Graham Obree missed out on likely glory in the Tour de France Prologue, ditched by the pro teams when he declined to cheat.

I love bike racing, in all its forms. It still inspires me, I still enjoy going to watch, but there are causes to be disillusioned, and my most memorable days on the bike involve panniers. One day time and fitness might allow me to do more riding on my road bike, and to get more from it than just a sore bum. In this most exciting of eras for British cycling, which has inspired so many and for which Simpson must have yearned fifty years ago, I hope that history will ultimately manage to be both searching and favourable to todays British champions - Wiggins, Pendleton, Hoy et al, and restore once and for all some dignity and integrity to cycling as a sport, in Thomas Ivor's lifetime.

Doliprane - French cycle touring drug of champions...
Touring is probably the only recognised cycling discipline that is not an out-and-out competition as its raison d'ĂȘtre. True, the Mark Beaumonts and Alan Bates' of this world inspire us with their adventures and feats of endurance, but nobody gets pulled up for participating in a doping 'arms race' whilst flogging along with a full set of Ortleibs on the bike. There's an income to be made from selling adventures and tales thereof, but not from beating someone else at all costs. If you ride on the road, touring is the discipline which teaches measured endurance on the bike, and introduces us to the world under our wheels. Our competition becomes with ourselves; the biggest challenge to get out of the door and actually pursue the particular adventures that drive us. Nobody needs to cheat or put themselves in an early grave to do that. If it is possible to cheat on a cycle tour, the only person you can cheat truly is yourself, by not taking every opportunity that comes your way.

The more I consider Simpson's life and legacy, the more I want to go and take on Mont Ventoux myself - with a nod to the premature death of an incredibly gifted but flawed 29-year-old racer, but perhaps, rather than on my road bike, I would do it in a measured, budgeted effort, knowing that with my panniers on the racks, it is not the clock, or cash, but the journey itself, that is my reward. 

'Put me back on my bike' by William Fotheringham is published by Yellow Jersey Press and available in print and on Kindle.

No comments:

Post a Comment