A Race Recounted: 1965 World Championships Road Race

“It is raining, but Simpson’s joy shines through. It is this rainbow amidst the storm that illuminates the setting: a world champion’s jersey, well deserved and well worn.”
– Émile Besson reporting for Miroir Sprint, 6th September 1965

On 5th September 1965, Tom Simpson won the World Championships Road Race in a storm-swept San Sebastián, Spain. Benefiting from a strong British team working in service of his efforts, Simpson attacked with two laps remaining of the 270km-course. As he and Rudi Altig approached the finish line, a final surge was enough to separate him from the German sprinter by just three bike lengths. He became the first British rider to earn the men’s road world title and its accompanying rainbow stripes – a feat only matched by Mark Cavendish in 2011 – propelling both cycling and Simpson into the hearts and minds of the British public.

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Barry Hoban, a promising young professional who’d recently taken his first Grand Tour stage win at the Vuelta a España, was part of the British team in 1965, and was largely responsible for setting the ferocious pace that dominated the race. Fifty years later, Hoban recounts that rainy day in northern Spain, and the race that led to Britain’s first male road world champion.

“I knew it was coming – and bang: in the first lap, a couple of Portuguese and two or three Spaniards went up the road, and I was straight with them. I had ridden the Vuelta twice and had learned a thing or two about how the Spanish and the Portuguese raced; they were never happy unless they had someone at the front, attacking early in most races. No one ever stayed out, but these early jumps stimulated the race.

“There were a number of good riders present, half a dozen maximum, and a little group formed, with every nation bar the French represented: Franco Balmamion for Italy, Peter Post for the Dutch, and Roger Swerts along with sprinter, Rudi Altig, for the Germans. The only people trying to organise a chase behind were the French, and we just drew further and further away.”

This group formed the beginnings of the break that Tom Simpson would eventually bridge to, with the help of his other British teammates. Having been forced out of that year’s Tour de France early due to a bout of blood poisoning, Simpson was eager for a victory – and had set his sights on the world championships. According to reports, he even used his perceived weakness following the Tour as a bluff, in the hope of being dismissed as little threat to his competitors’ chances.

“When Tom joined us in the break, I asked how he was feeling. ‘I’m doing OK,’ he said. ‘Let’s keep away.’ There were no hangers-on in the group, and everyone was working.”

Riding selflessly for his fellow countryman, Hoban held the pace high for more than three quarters of the 267km race, ensuring the break was off-limits to all but the strongest riders on the day. His job done, the rest was down to Tom.

“I vividly remember approaching the last quarter of the race, and Tom asking me how I was feeling. I was suffering. Tom said that if I felt like falling off, I should do it in front of Balmamion [a rival of Tom’s]. Laughing, I said that I’d rather not.

“Two laps from the end, Tom attacked. Altig went with him, and I shot out of the back, with everything exploding behind. Tom and Rudi knew each other very well, and there was certainly a gentlemen’s code of practice for these things, which influenced what followed. Tom apparently said to Rudi, ‘How shall we take the final sprint, cat and mouse?’ And Rudi’s response was, ‘No. You go one side, and I’ll go the other. The strongest man wins.’ Which is basically what happened.”

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As a pure sprinter, there is no doubt that Rudi Altig is better than Tom Simpson. But the Lasarte circuit tired the legs. Tom Simpson was truly the strongest. His final sprint proved it without reason for doubt, as Rudi had nothing left.
– Émile Besson reporting for Miroir Sprint, 6th September 1965

Three bike lengths separated Tom Simpson from Rudi Altig in the final sprint to the line. Tom apparently heard Rudi’s chain slip, and jumped at the opportunity, giving it everything he had. Daring not look round, Tom knew he hadn’t been passed, and had become the new champion of the world. Hoban was eventually picked up by the chasing group, and finished amongst the pack in 19th place, ahead of a young Eddy Merckx.

“Tom won Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, the Tour of Lombardy; he was even given the freedom of Sint-Amandsberg in Ghent, Belgium, where he lived,” explains Hoban. “But it was the Worlds that were considered to be the ultimate single-day race, and Tom won it. He really was the first British rider to put Britain on the map.”

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s world title, Rapha has produced the special edition Tom Simpson Jersey, which takes its design cues from Simpson’s life and career as one of Britain’s most celebrated cyclists.

Proceeds from the Rapha Tom Simpson Jersey will be donated to the Simpson family and used for maintenance of the Tom Simpson memorial on Mont Ventoux. To find out more and to buy the jersey, go to: rapha.cc/simpson

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