Saturday, 20 June 2015

Put Me Back On My Bike-In Search Of Tom Simpson - William Fotheringham

A book which has won many plaudits is "Put Me Back On My Bike", William Fotheringham's biography of the British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France. I recently read the book myself.

I had enjoyed Fotheringham's biography of Eddy Merckx, and found this one even more compelling. As well as chronicling his life and achievements, it examines the tragic circumstances of his death and his legacy for British and world cycling.

In the past, I had rather shied away from fully exploring the Simpson story, mainly I suppose because of its tragic end and unsettling elements. It is a tale with many old-school elements, but also starkly pertinent for modern eyes and eyes. 

What emerged most of all for me, over and above the well-documented episodes, is Simpson's complex and quirky personality. He appears to have presaged characteristics which we associate with modern sportspeople, but there were endearing traits and contradictions. I found myself warming to the man, even allowing for his flaws.  Aren't we all flawed in some way?  The Tom Simpson who is portayed here is much different from the one who, in my ignorance, I had sometimes imagined. His interest in money, the mild English eccentricity and the mischievous side. The one area which I expected more to be made of was the notion of the "working class boy made good", but it seems that this was only a part the story

It could even be said that he was a visionary in the context of the British scene, having his eyes on the Continental arena from an early stage, and in his renunciation of the insularity and backwardness of the domestic landscape. His approach to training and preparation is also covered in detail here, from his focus on diet to his constant striving for any minute technical or tactical advantage, his hunger for knowledge and information, and how he was prepared to stretch himself and his physical limits.

The testimony and anecdotes, together with the documentary sources, are part of what makes this book work for me, giving it real substance and authority. The recollections of those closely associated with Simpson all go towards composing a vivid picture of the man and his life. The human nitty-gritty is uncovered, not just the dry facts about races won or lost. Some of the stories are funny, others are unsettling or poignant. The author also visits some of the locations central to the tale, augmenting the tapestry.  The book is compact and to-the-point, but the level of detail and insight is impressive.

In relating the Tom Simpson story, Fotheringham also evokes the atmosphere of cycling, and to a lesser degree, European society in the Sixties. Whilst the vibrancy and cosmopolitanism are celebrated,  I sensed his unease about the organisation and financial structures of the professional sport in that era, which often placed the competitors in an invidious position. We also gain a taste of how Simpson was in some respects a man of his time, when sports and the world in general were going through a transitional phase. There are some touching and intriguing passages about the "expatriate" cycling community in Belgium, and how Flanders welcomed and embraced the young Brits who went there to pursue their dreams.

The last third or so of "Put Me Back On My Bike" necessarily assumes a darker tone, as the factors contributing to Tom's death are addressed, as is the issue of drug use in cycling, and how the peloton and the powers-that-be viewed it. Needless to say, these chapters contain much less in the way of levity and lightheartedness than the earlier parts of the work. It seems to me that the standard line that "everybody was doing it" is only accepted by the author up to a point, and he elaborates on the reasons for this.

All in all, I found this book to be an engrossing and informative read. It is well put together, powerful in places, and candid. Highly recommended.

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