Discovering the real Tom Simpson

British rider Tom Simpson dominated cycling in the 1960s and had a charisma that captivated the hearts of cycling fans the world over. His tragic death on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France has become part of the history of cycling, for all the wrong reasons.

With Bird on The Wire, published by Rapha Editions, author Andy McGrath endeavours to set the record straight, telling the real story of an endearing sportsman who achieved incredible feats during his cycling career. Here McGrath talks about the biography that has since been awarded the 2017 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.

"For that generation, it was like cycling's JFK moment. I think that shows how closely he touched many of their lives."

What does it mean to you for Bird on the Wire to be shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award?
It’s an honour. Totally unexpected too, as this is my first book. No pressure on the next one, then. Really though, it’s testament to Tom Simpson’s achievements as a racer and his shining personality.

Was it something you had expected or hoped for while writing it?
No, the process itself occupied all my time and energy: I was focused on assiduous research, gathering plenty of fresh material from new sources, telling the story as faithfully and fascinatingly as possible, trying to bring both revisionism and new details to the Simpson story. Any award is a bonus, but an afterthought.

What led to your decision to write a book about Tom Simpson?
Tom Simpson already intrigued me. There are a couple of biographies out there, but I felt strongly that there was a wider, more international angle to be taken of Simpson, from old team-mates with untold stories. I suppose the 50th anniversary of his death made it more timely, plus it’s probably the last time many of his contemporaries can offer their thoughts and recollections. What’s more, Simpson was incredibly photogenic, as was the era. He has never been done justice photographically before.

Did you know a lot about Tom before you started writing?
A fair amount. The thing with Simpson is that he’s already known as a figure of notoriety; the champion who died on Mont Ventoux. That’s the perennial starting point, not as the man who won the World Championships, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-Sanremo or the Tour of Lombardy. I feel the rest of his life has become overshadowed by that. I wanted to focus on his life, as well as giving context to the doping going on at the time. It’s perverse: there was a lot of publicity around the 50th anniversary of his death in July, but how many people will commemorate what would have been his 80th birthday in late November?

"The sheer abundance of funny anecdotes took me aback. Everyone seemed to have their own Tom Simpson story."

Were you at all surprised by any aspect of his story?
I was surprised at how raw the memories were for every interviewee. I hadn’t prepared myself for that. Fifty years have passed, but for almost everyone I met, it felt like just yesterday, whether they were recalling teenage tomfoolery or intense bike racing moments. When they remembered how they heard about his death, it often brought up emotions. For that generation, it was like cycling’s JFK moment. I think that shows how closely he touched many of their lives.

Did what you discovered change your opinion of him in any way, for better or for worse?
You don’t go into a biography without expecting to find skeletons in the closet. Simpson was no angel in certain aspects and I aimed to simply represent him accurately and honestly, including the good and the bad. I knew he was a character too, but the sheer abundance of funny anecdotes took me aback. Given his lively personality, everyone seemed to have their own Tom Simpson story.

As a racer, it further altered my perception of him: Simpson is underrated as Britain’s greatest one-day racer and overrated for his Tour de France achievements. Being Britain’s first yellow jersey wearer in 1962 and a sixth place finisher is a red herring that suggests he had a big chance of winning the sport’s most famous race. I came to realise that the Tour was the race he wanted the most that probably suited him – and his exciting riding style – the least.

You must have been pleased a book with such a strong design angle has been nominated for the William Hill Award. Was it your intention for it to stand out?
Absolutely, this book had to stand out in every aspect, from the writing to the layout. I’m delighted they recognised its fantastic design, itself a nod to the Sixties, and the excellent contemporary photography included too. I’m indebted to the designer Rob Johnston, who also works with me at Rouleur magazine, Guy Andrews and so many people from Rapha – too many to name – for their faith, help and hard work with the book. Fingers crossed for the awards announcement.

Bird on the Wire is available through Rapha Editions, priced £36.