Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Bedford, England

Friends: The caretaker of the cemetery outside the small ex-coal mining town of Harworth was pruning its hedge when I dropped in upon it the other morning. As I sauntered over to him, still wearing my helmet, he could have pointed and said, "It's one of those two black ones over there," but he waited for me to ask,"Is Tom Simpson buried here?"

Harworth was his home town. I had come to visit his museum, but I didn't know if he was buried here too. Happening upon the cemetery on the way in to town, I decided to give it a look and fill my water bottles. Even if there had been no one at the cemetery, I would have had no problem finding Simpson's grave. I twas one of the more prominent ones, marked by a slab of glistening black marble with an etching of him on his bike in downhill flight. It was 40 years ago he collapsed and died at the age of 30, a kilometer from the summit of Mont Ventoux, during the 13th stage of the Tour de France on July 13 wearing the number 49, whose digits add to 13, as the exhibit honoring him in town noted.

The epithet on his grave read, "His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he wouldn't give in." Such could be said of every champion cyclist or any who have risen to the ranks of the pro peloton. The sport demands one to push one's self to their limit an beyond and not to give in. Man y resort to any means to reach those ends, risking the ultimate, their very life, as did Simpson, who died with pills and vials in his jersey pockets and their contents in his veins. It takes extreme effort to excel at this sport, or even to keep up. The body must be conditioned and convinced to withstand the suffering. At a certain point many cyclists say they can't take any more of it and rather than quitting the sport turn to the needle.

The latest in the recent rash of racers to confess to drug use, the ten-year veteran Jorg Jaksche of Germany rationalized, "Cycling per se is not fun. It always hurts. The sport is a lot about pain, physical pain." But enduring the pain can lead to great, almost religious, ecstasy, as seen on the faces of those triumphantly crossing the finish line first. No other athletes burst into such sudden exhibitions of exhilaration.

Simpson remains the greatest English cyclist ever, the first to wear the yellow jersey in The Tour and the only one to win the road World Championship and such classics as the Tour of Flanders (Belgium's most important race), Paris-Nice (an early-season, week-long stage race in which he beat Merckx), and the two great Italian races Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy. Any of those victories would be the highlight of most cyclist's careers. Twice he ended the season as the second ranked cyclist for the year.

Besides directing me to Simpson's grave, the caretaker revealed, "I knew Tom. We went to school together and were members of the local cycling club." They joined as 13-year olds. Even though the club had over 100 members of all ages and both sexes, the town wasn't big enough to have a bicycle shop then, nor now. The nearest one was ten miles away. The club still exists, but only has a handful of members. "Its hard to get kids to want to ride a bike on these roads with all the traffic these days," he said. "I don't even ride any more."

He gave me directions to the Simpson museum. It was actually just an exhibit at the local Sport and Social Club, a pub of a sort, at the town's athletic grounds. "Take a left at the second round-about and then go through town and past the pit and you'll see it on your right," he explained. The pit was the old coal mine, right in the center of the town, with all the town's shops on a two block strip right across the mine. There wasn't much vitality left in the town, tho it did have a library and other social services. The liquor store doubled as a music store--Rhythm and Booze.

There was a guy outside the Sport and Social Club sweeping its deck and a woman inside cleaning up from the night before. Upon entering one is greeted by a wall-sized glass-encased display of Simpson memorabilia--photos, newspaper articles, jerseys, trophies and the bike he was riding when he expired. It was a Peugeot PX-10, the very bike, other than the sew-ups and the pine cone cluster, I biked coast-to-coast across the US on and up the Alaskan Highway. Otherwise it was the same white, black-trimmed Reynolds 531 frame with the identical TA cranks and Simplex derailleurs and handlebars and leather seat. The display case included the leather hairnet "crash hat" he wore when he competed on the track in the six-day races. On another wall was a photo from 1951 of the town's cycling club with a 14 year-old Simpson and the caretaker of the cemetery.

Although his training grounds in this region were fairly flat, his first prominent victory was the English Junior National Hill Climbing Championship in 1955. The plaque he was awarded was also on the wall. I camped in what's left of Nothingham Forest the night before, not far from Robin Hood Airport.

Later, George

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