Paul Kimmage: Half a century on from Simpson's death, cycling's omerta still rules in the peloton
Real Paul Kimmage every week in the Sunday Independent
"Eddy Merckx prefers to avoid the subject of doping. His attitude is no different when the subject is broached in Ghent. Perhaps he's keeping a pact with the dead when he blames Tom Simpson's demise on business interests and a lack of training, rather than showing any willingness to discuss amphetamine abuse. Perhaps also it's too close to home and this man, now in his seventies, doesn't want to desecrate the golden memories of his youth"
(Jeremy Whittle, 'Ventoux').
It was the spring of 1980. Alfred Hitchcock had just died; Robert Mugabe had taken power in Zimbabwe; the British Olympic Association had announced they weren't going to boycott the Moscow games; and Barry Hoban had travelled to Dublin to talk about his life in cycling.
He had spent the morning riding in the Wicklow hills with his hosts, the Emerald Cycling Club, and the evening at the Sunnybank Hotel taking questions from the floor that we laughed about for years:
"Barry, a few words on massage."
Okay, you had to be there.
I was 18 years old that summer and aspired, like many in the room, to live a fraction of the life that Hoban had lived: eight stage wins in the Tour de France, two stage wins in the Tour of Spain, Paris-Roubaix (third in 1972), Liege-Bastogne-Liege (third in 1969), and a win in Gent-Wevelgem. He had raced with my father, Shay Elliott and Eddy Merckx and was a living, breathing pathway to my stars.
He had also lived stuff that I had never dreamt about.
The Tour de France was in Marseilles yesterday and returned to the famous Stade Velodrome for the first time since 1967, when the stage was won by a lone Frenchman, Raymond Riotte. It is largely forgotten that Hoban finished 16th in Marseilles and that he took his first stage win at the Tour in Sete, two days later.
But nobody forgets what happened in between.
That morning - July 13, 1967 - Hoban arrived at the start of the 13th stage in Marseilles with his four (remaining) British team-mates (Tom Simpson, Vin Denson, Colin Lewis, Arthur Metcalf) and was photographed with Simpson joshing on a boat. Seven hours later, Simpson was dead after collapsing near the summit of Mont Ventoux. There were three tubes of amphetamine in his sweat-soaked jersey pocket.
On Thursday, Hoban was the guest analyst on ITV4, for their live coverage of the alpine stage from La Mure to Briancon. It was a week after the 50th anniversary of Simpson's death, and he had marked the occasion with a trip to Mont Ventoux with some family and friends.
Matt Smith, the ITV presenter, eased him gently into the chair with a brief reference to "the bittersweet circumstances" of his first Tour stage win (gifted to him by the peloton on the day after the Ventoux) and within minutes he was up and running, waxing lyrical about Merckx and Contador and Froome.
Viewers were invited to submit questions via Twitter to @ITVcycling. They did not need much encouragement:
Barry, what do you think is the biggest change in cycling from when you raced?
Barry, how many calories will the riders burn today?
Barry, what do you think of carbon bikes and modern equipment?
I watched, and listened, and thought of something that should have been asked that night in the Sunnybank ('Matt, can you ask Barry about the doping culture in 1967? And why it still plagues the sport 50 years later?') and reached for my phone with the devil in my ear.
What are you doing?
Tweeting a question.
You can't do that?
Why not? I'm a viewer.
And they've asked us to send Barry a question.
Not that question.
They won't answer it.
They won't answer it.
I pressed 'Tweet' and waited for a response but Contador was on the attack again and had scattered the peloton all over the Croix de Fer. "A class act," Hoban opined. Then there was a baton change in the commentary box and Smith and Hoban were replaced by Ned Boulting and David Millar.
I don't believe it.
I told you!
I don't believe it.
What are you doing?
I'm not taking this.
Put the phone down!
No, I'm going to tweet them again: "Hello . . . Matt . . . Barry . . . are you there?"
A minute later, there was a ping on my Twitter machine. I couldn't believe it, @ITVcycling were hearing me loud and clear: "Hi Paul. Barry back later and we will address your question."
"Thanks," I replied, impressed.
'Later' was after the descent of the Croix de Fer as the leaders headed for St Michel-de-Maurienne and the Col du Telegraphe. Smith had the microphone again and was feeding viewers' questions to Hoban. Some had obviously been sent by five-year-olds:
Were the crowds bigger or smaller back in your day?
Do you ever get a chance to look at the scenery?
Who was the cyclist you feared the most?
Spare me, please!
Who was your biggest rival?
Then it got interesting.
"What advice would you give to a young cyclist today?" Smith asked. "Perhaps (a guy) just starting out or a budding young professional?"
"Ride your bike and ride it safely," Hoban said. "Enjoy your cycling and ride as often as you can."
Then Smith reminded him that he was on Ventoux last week: "Barry, do you think the Tour should have officially paid its respects to Tom Simpson by having a stage on Mont Ventoux this year? A delicate question but what do you think?"
Okay, here it comes.
"Very delicate," Hoban agreed, without explaining why. "I think Tom's death sadly was, and is, a hot potato for the Tour de France organisation. I think what they should have done was respected him on July 13 - they should have mentioned his name and maybe a minute's pause."
HERE IT COMES!
"He was a great rider who gave a lot to the Tour de France. He was the first British rider to ever wear the yellow jersey. He lost it on the time trial up Superbagneres but he gave a lot to the sport, and I think they should have recognised it on July 13 - sadly they didn't."
YOU FUCKING HAVE TO ASK IT NOW!
But the question wasn't asked. And @ITVcycling weren't doing any explaining. But they don't have to. We know how it works.
In his just-published book, The Descent, Thomas Dekker tells a remarkable story about his introduction to life as a professional cyclist. Twenty years old, he travels to Germany for the first race and is assigned a room with an experienced team-mate who is watching porn as Dekker enters.
He tries to introduce himself and the guy throws him a towel: "First things first. Time for a wank."
Dekker is gobsmacked: "There I stand, case in hand, coat still on. I'm a trainee. This is my introduction to the pro peloton, my first full week with the major names of cycling . . . This is the man who is going to tell me what it takes to be a pro."
Later, when he has been sucked into the system, busted for doping and is about to be spat out, he makes the following observation: "There is no policy. There is no guidance. The managers act as if doping doesn't exist while most of the riders make their own arrangements. I take orders from the team managers in the race, but I don't look up to them. They don't seem to understand what I'm going through, what I need.
"And so I go in search of other role models, other points of reference. And I find them in the riders around me: especially the leading riders who are pushing the pace. Allowing myself to be drawn to the wrong examples is my own fault, my own weakness. But from the vantage point I have today, I would have killed for a big name in my own team who had the backbone to look me in the eye and tell me to keep my fucking paws off the dope."
Where are those role models today? Where's the backbone? The leadership? The noise? How many of cycling's major names have said: "Keep your paws off the dope, kids?"
Not many. We've had 50 years of omerta since Tom Simpson died.
It still reigns.
Sunday Indo Sport