Here's why Chris Froome never passed the popularity test

Though his drug use killed him, Tom Simpson remains a revered figure in cycling world


The best thing about doing all your Christmas shopping online is you always find the perfect present for yourself. At €45 it wasn’t cheap but irresistibly cheerful and of course free delivery too, the postman ringing once on Wednesday morning to declare its arrival.

At 224 pages, hardcover, about a foot-squared and weighing in at 1.5kg, Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire didn’t fit through the letterbox. It’s not your typical sports book and what also sets it apart is the endearing production; it’s a clear homage to the tragic heroism that was Tom Simpson’s cycling career, emphasising the hero, most of the 130 photographs a celebration of the life cut short at age 29.

It’s also celebrated as the William Hill Sport Book of the Year – worth a tidy £29,000 to author Andy McGrath, the editor at Rouleur, the lavish cycling magazines which sit equally well on my coffee table.

Now in its 29th year and also known as the Bookie Prize, Bird on the Wire beat off six other shortlisted books, including Ali: A Life, Jonathan Eig’s latest 542-page opus to The Greatest, and Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager by Ian Herbert.

The surprise winner then, but no less popular: “As such, it may well be a trailblazer it its genre,” said broadcaster and judging panel member John Inverdale. “It is certainly a book all the judges agreed they’d like to receive for Christmas.”

Bird on the Wire brings Simpson back to life through a combination of rare photographs and previously untold stories from those closest to him – culminating with his death 50 years ago, during the 1967 Tour de France: July 13th, the 13th Stage, unlucky for one.

Simpson went into that race a contender for the maillot jaune. From his teenage years in the northern mining towns of England he’d been a cycling star in the making, winning Olympic bronze in the team pursuit in Melbourne in 1956, before turning professional at age 21. Within three years he became the first British rider to wear that yellow jersey, finishing the 1962 Tour sixth overall.

In 1965 he won the World Championships and the Giro di Lombardia, almost certainly high on amphetamines. Simpson was always open about the use of drugs in pro cycling, even if rarely implicating himself. This never dented his popularity. He ended 1965 as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year – and that’s always been a sort of popularity test. The inaugural winner, in 1954, was Chris Chataway, the man who paced Roger Bannister to that first sub-four minute mile. Bannister was voted second. Go figure.

Sparkling personality

Bird on the Wire repeatedly hails Simpson’s popularity at the time, helped by his own sparkling personality, and the creation of an exceptional persona. Several team-mates attest to his good-heartedness; André Desvages, a first-year professional with Peugeot in 1967, was stunned at how much this champion cared about him.

“When I had Belgian races, he came to welcome me at the train station in Ghent or found me a hotel,” he says. At Paris-Nice, Simpson gave him advice about getting in the breakaway and was delighted to later discover that Desvages had won the stage.

McGrath also quotes French cyclist-turned-journalist Jean Bobet, who describes Simpson in glowing terms as “the first English Continental rider . . . ambitious like a Frenchman, selfish like a Spaniard, industrious like a German, talkative like an Italian and versatile like a Fleming”.

Yet Simpson was among the most notorious dopers of his time. In a previous biography, Put Me Back on My Bike, William Fotheringham describes how Simpson went on that 1967 Tour “with one suitcase for his kit and another with his stuff, drugs and recovery things”.

On Stage 13, riding up Mont Ventoux, the highest and loneliest peak in Provençal France, Simpson took one shot too many – collapsing 1.5km from the summit, having just consumed a fatal combination of amphetamines and brandy. He was pronounced dead on arrival to Avignon hospital, and found in the back pocket of his jersey were two empty tubes of amphetamines, one of which was labelled Tonedron, also known as crystal meth.

This directly resulted in the introduction of mandatory testing for drugs in cycling. On Ventoux, there is a memorial at the exact spot he rode himself to death, and 50 years on, it’s the most popular pilgrimage in cycling. It’s a strange contradiction and yet Bird on the Wire makes no secret of the love and affection for Simpson amongst his peers.

“Nobody had a bad word to say for him,” his Olympic team-mate Billy Holmes says. “I’m anti-drugs, but I wasn’t anti-Tommy. I was never anti-Tommy.”

In 2010, Simpson was inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame, and there’s a film biopic in the making.

Zero tolerance

I couldn’t save Bird on the Wire until Christmas, and read it from hard cover to hard cover on Wednesday evening, the same time as the Chris Froome story was playing out in the background.

What set this story apart was the apparent lack of any love or affection for the first British rider to win the Vuelta a España, on top of his now four Tour de France titles, and only the third rider to win both the Tour and the Vuelta in the same season, and with that sealing Team Sky its sixth Grand Tour victory in six years.

Yet for Froome, it seems, the popularity thing has always been questioned: not just because he’s Kenyan-born, or has never lived in Britain. The presence of the anti-asthma drug salbutamol, after Stage 18th in the Vuelta, at double the permitted concentration, certainly needs some explaining, especially why a team originally built on zero tolerance for doping continues to find itself at the coalface of it.

Salbutamol is only banned above a legal threshold for the simple reason that below it there is zero benefit. Unless you’re genuinely asthmatic, as Froome claims he is, where it becomes a performance-enabler, rather than-enhancer.

Beta-2-agonists such as salbutamol are all easily identified so for a rider like Froome to breach that threshold is sloppiness at best, recklessness at worst. If it was in any way deliberate his Vuelta title isn’t the only thing doomed.

Still the only thing certain at this stage is that Froome is never going to pass the popularity test, and only cycling has a strange way of explaining that.

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