“At last that coveted yellow jersey is worn by a Briton – SIMPSON PEDALS TO GLORY,” so proclaimed the banner headlines in Britain’s ‘Daily Express’ newspaper.
Given that cycle racing in Britain in the 60’s was regarded at best as a novelty, and at worst as a pain in the neck to other road users; for ‘The Express’ to grant the frail Yorkshireman such exposure was little short of miraculous.
It was the first day that a rider whose native tongue was English led the world’s greatest bike race.
Simpson had burst onto the pro scene in 1959 after a brief but highly successful amateur career in Brittany. As a first year pro he won two stages in the Tour de l’Ouest and rode an amazing debut World Championships, finishing 5th behind Andre Darrigade of France after 181 wind blown miles around the Zandevoort circuit in Holland.
The following year, a sensational 20 mile bid for glory in the ‘Hell of the North’ which only ended on the outskirts of Roubaix was flashed around Europe on the then ‘new fangled’ Eurovision TV. It cemented his reputation as a favourite with the Belgian fans, who insisted he ride a lap of honour for his heroic final seventh place.
In 1961 Simpson joined the ‘Greats’ outwitting Italian Nino Defilippis to take the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. The Italian protested, saying that the finish wasn’t clearly marked and it had been a decade since an Italian won – Fiorenzo Magni in 1951 – therefore the victory should be shared. Simpson retorted that the last time a Briton won a classic was 1896 and there would be only one winner in the 1961 Tour of Flanders!
The 1962 season had started well for Simpson, with a stage win and the white jersey of leadership in Paris-Nice on his back before a final 2nd overall behind Jozef (Jos) Planckaert of Belgium in ‘The Race to the Sun.’
‘Le Tour’ was different in 1962, after an absence of 32 years, trade teams came back.
Simpson’s Gitane-Leroux team was a strong one and would finish with the fourth highest pay packet of the race – Ђ3,694 (approx. US $7,000!) French overall winner, Jacques Anquetil’s St. Raphael-Helyett squad would lift Ђ11,148.
Simpson had kept himself well in the hunt for yellow all through the early stages and his big chance came on July 5th 1962. The stage was a killer, from Pau to Saint Gaudens in the Pyrenees with the giant Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde all on the agenda. But if Simpson could live with the ‘heads’ – Anquetil and Planckaert – whilst distancing the only two riders ahead of him on GC – yellow jersey Schroeders and team mate Darrigade, the jersey would be his. On the Tourmalet, Schroeders and Darrigade were distanced – the jersey was for the taking, Aspin and Peyresourde notwithstanding!
Dropped briefly on the Peyresourde, Simpson was not to be denied, he rejoined and was with the leaders at the line.
As legendary English cycling journo, JB (Jock) Wadley put it; “We knew an hour before the finish that Simpson was maillot jaune, and yet prepared though we were, there were tears in scores of journalists’ eyes as well as our own, when that magic yellow jersey was actually presented to the slim Englishman who had made cycling history.”
Simpson wore the jersey for a mere 18 kilometres; the next day he cracked with three kilometres to go of the Superbagneres mountain time trial, losing yellow to eventual second overall, Jos Planckaert.
Simpson would finish that Tour a bruised and battered sixth overall; he would never win a Tour stage or wear the jersey again, but history had been made, the door was open.
If Cadel or Levi or Lance or Christian, or any number of the current current crop of superstar English-speaking Grand Tour threats, do manage to pull-on that final yellow jersey in Paris, take a second to think of that day in July 1962 and where it all began.