Author: Andy McGrath
Reviewed by Richard Peploe
Why would anyone want to take on the task of writing a new book about Tom Simpson? Surely everyone already knows that he died in dramatic circumstances, and that is all he is famous for? Not only that, we should not be celebrating his life because he was known to have used performance-enhancing drugs. And anyway, there have been enough good books about him already, so can there really be anything new to say after all these years?
In ‘Tom Simpson’, author Andy McGrath does an admirable job of showing us why there is a good reason to re-visit the Tom Simpson story – and with 2017 marking 50 years since his death (on 13/7/67) there was always going to be renewed interest in the subject around that date.
As is often the case, some people’s status is only elevated when they die, especially if there is an expectation that the best was yet to come. McGrath mentions Jimi Hendrix and James Dean as having a similar status, to which I would add Jim Clark and Marc Bolan. The important point is that they had all achieved more than most by the time of their premature death: in Simpson’s case it is only recently that any male British cyclist has been able to make a valid claim to have outperformed him.
That is how good he was.
As for the drug taking, our bookshelves would be largely bereft of cycling biographies if we chose to ignore any connected with ‘cheats’, yet there are some cracking good books out there about acknowledged drug takers – of which this is one. At least in this case you know the situation in advance (unlike those of us who were fooled by the Lance Armstrong lie), and whilst some people are clearly benefitting financially from the book, you might feel better knowing that Simpson won’t be one of them – unlike with Tyler Hamilton, David Millar, and so many others.
Despite everything that has already been written about Simpson, McGrath’s biggest achievement is managing to bring something new to the table, even though there have not really been any developments in the last 50 years.
Fresh interviews with many of those around at the time are good, but may not be enough to persuade you to buy this book if you already have ‘Mr Tom’ or ‘Put me back on my bike’, two previous biographies; however, the picture element of this ‘coffee table’ book is much more likely to sway you, as McGrath address the fact that “He has not been done justice photographically until now.”
Many of the images from the photography agencies will be familiar, but I doubt that you will ever have seen them at the size that this book allows, with pictures frequently covering more than one (very large) page. A certain amount of ‘image retouching’ has apparently taken place where necessary, but you don’t notice it – which is the perfect result.
There are also some ‘never-before-seen’ pictures (or at least not seen by the general public), which appear to have come from various friends and colleagues – with most being of Simpson’s earlier years. The team behind the book also trawled through the image libraries at various agencies and magazines to unearth photos that might not have been used before. Here at last is an opportunity for us to see more of these photographs, in some cases for the first time.
Obviously there has to be coverage of Simpson’s death in the book, and even though we all know how it ends, it makes for a compelling story – and there is a moving interview with Helen, his wife: “Why? Why? If I had been there, I wouldn’t have put him back on the bike.” That is also a reference to the most famous phrase attributed to him (‘put me back on my bike’), but which he probably didn’t say.
In one of the discussions that McGrath had with people who were not even born at the time of Simpson’s death there is one with Dr Greg Whyte (okay, he was actually 3 weeks old), who points out that the drugs alone would not be the cause of his death – otherwise many other cyclists could have died that day: “We forget the fact that he had an infection. We forget the fact that it was 45 degrees C. We forget the fact that he was chronically dehydrated … Basically, what we see here is a perfect storm for a hyperthermic death”.
You get the feeling that it would not have taken much for history to have taken a very different course.
Even if you have no interest in the life (and death) of Tom Simpson, this book is the latest to give a well-illustrated insight into life as professional cyclist in that era – and it was hard. For anyone to do as well as he did was an exceptional achievement, especially when he had to do it largely by himself with none of the support by the national Federation that is sometimes taken for granted today.
You don’t need to take my word for the quality of this book: it has won the 2017 William Hill's of Sports Book of the Year Award, which comes as no surprise to me.
Even with so much of the story already well-known, McGrath still finds new angles in the subject – but above all the beautiful presentation of existing and new images sets this book apart from any previous work.