“I’m not going for stage wins, just the ‘most elegant rider’ and ‘most unfortunate rider’ prizes,” Tom Simpson prior to that fateful, 1967 Tour de France.
The pride of professional cycling’s calendar, begins in Brest, northwest France, this coming Saturday 26 June, and, in the quaint Nottinghamshire village of Screveton, at the Caffe Velo Verde to be precise, they be hosting two nights of talks with the nephew of a British, cycling legend.
Chris Sidwells was just a six-year-old child when his Uncle Tom died on Mount Ventoux, during the 1967 Tour de France, the cyclist himself was but 29-years-old at the time and, unbeknownst to the young Chris back then, Tom would live on through him.
Fast-forward to the present day and Sidwells, now in his early sixties, has published several books and written countless articles, both on Uncle Tom, the Tour de France, and on cycling as a whole.
Tom’s skills though, they would be learnt on the streets of North Nottinghamshire, and, with family members at the local Harworth & District Cycling Club, began riding with them in the early fifties, some seventy years ago; the family had moved to Nottinghamshire from another pit-mining village, from Haswell, in County Durham.
During those formative years as a cyclist, and with no coaching programmes whatsoever, and cycling being more attuned to the older generations, Tom would, eventually, buck that trend, and kick-start his career.
At the age of just 16 years, Tom would overcome those early barriers, with Sidwells, in ‘Cycling Legends O1: Tom Simpson (2018)’ saying –
“….way back in 1894, after an accident involving a bunched road race and a horse and carriage, the NCU (National Cycling Union) effectively ruled that the only races allowed on public roads were time trials. It allowed bunched racing on airfields or motor racing circuits or in parks, so in 1954 Simpson rode two bunched races held in a park, the Forest Recreation Ground, in Nottingham. He attacked at the start of the first lap, was caught on the last lap, and finished second. He returned two weeks later, did the same thing, wasn’t caught, and won.”
Although he’d leave Harworth, for the Rotherham-based Scala Wheelers, later that year, the family still residing in Notts and for Tom, he still rode the roads, whilst also undergoing employment as an apprentice draughtsman for an engineering company in Retford.
Speaking to ‘the Nottingham Sport,’ Tom Simpson’s nephew, Chris Sidwells, offered some insight into the young cyclist, one forever immortalised in the pantheons of both British, and World, cycling history.
“I only have a few memories of Tom as I was only six when he died (on Mount Ventoux), but, his mere presence made you feel special as everybody talked about him, he really stood out,” began Chris.
“Tom’s first successes though were in North Notts, on his way to international stardom; when he worked in Retford, Tom was always an example that was set to the other employees.”
The success in which Tom achieved once he landed on the world stage was to be pretty impressive and included that of a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics (Melbourne, Australia), a silver medal at the 1958 Commonwealth Games (Cardiff, Wales), and gold at the 1965 World Championships (San Sebastian, Spain), as well as successes in the Tour of Flanders (1961), Bordeaux-Paris (1963), Milan-San Remo (1964), Tour of Lombardy (1965) and Paris-Nice (1967).
There would also be, in the early sixties, at the age of 24, Tom’s career highlight when he earnt the prestigious honour of being the first British cyclist to wear that famed, yellow jersey, the maillot jaune.
In claiming that famous yellow, it would be an achievement not afforded another British cyclist for another 32 years, Cheshire’s Chris Boardman matching Tom during that of the 1994 Tour.
Quotes from Tom, about that jersey moment, in Sidwell’s ‘Cycling Legends,’ certainly provide insight into what the cyclist himself was like, as an individual, saying that –
“I was alright to halfway on 45 by 26, then Louviot came up alongside me in the car and told me to go onto the 45 by 24, then the 49 by 26. I just lost all my rhythm, and about three kilometres from the summit, I couldn’t give anymore.
“I may have gone down in history as the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey, but I must also have been the rider to wear it for the shortest time.”
And, in some typical, British style and panache, Tom celebrated his moment of glory, his time in the spotlight –
“By having my pot of tea, and jam and bread in bed after the stage,”
In addition to Tom Simpson’s connection to Nottinghamshire, and that of the Tour de France, there’s also another in that of the TI-Raleigh bicycles; a bike manufacturer in Eastwood, northwest Nottinghamshire, who were the sponsors of the Dutch-based TI-Raleigh team of the seventies and eighties.
Using that of the Raleigh bike, whose frame-building was constructed at the SBDU Ilkeston factory, two of cycling’s greats would be seen to ride that Notts masterpiece; Joop Zoetemelk (born in The Hague, Netherlands, 1946) won the 1980 Tour de France, and Laurent Fignon (born in Paris, France, in 1960), would ride the Raleigh bike in the 1990s, previously winning the Tour in 1984.
“Having done a previous talk there (Caffe Velo Verde) in early 2020, it went down rather well, so, with them now opening up more, and doing outdoor events, it was agreed that I’d go over and a couple of talks on the eve of the Tour,” continued Chris.
“As for the TI-Raleigh inclusion, they were built in Nottingham in the eighties, and it adds more local involvement, local interest, to the Tour de France story.
“They (Raleigh) were involved for a long time in supplying bicycles to professional cyclists and it was hoped they’d bring forth some British success – but they were at the forefront of bike design.”
As for this year’s Tour de France, which runs from the 26 June to 18 July, British interest on the whole comes in the shape of the Ineos Grenadiers trio Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghagen Hart, and Luke Rowe, Israel Start-Up Nation pair Chris Froome and Alex Dowsett, and Team Bike Exchange rider, Simon Yates – they looking to add to the ever-increasing list of British success from that journey round France.
Before that begins though, the author and journalist heads to Screveton’s Caffe Velo Verde for ‘An Evening with Chris Sidwells’ and his talk on ‘The History of the Tour de France and the characters who made it.’
Limited tickets for the two events, on Thursday 24 and Friday 25 June, 7-9pm, are available either in person from the venue facebook.com/CaffeVeloVerde or by emailing them on firstname.lastname@example.org
*Article provided by Peter Mann (Senior Correspondent).
*Main image @ChrisSidwells Tom Simpson cycling at the Forest Recreation Ground in the 1950’s