Tommy Simpson was brought up in Harworth, Nottinghamshire, and as a boy he joined Harworth district cycling club where he was nicknamed Four-Stone Coppi after the Italian champion. While working as a draughtsman in a Retford glassworks he won a bronze medal in the team pursuit at the Melbourne Olympics (1956) and a silver in the individual pursuit at the Cardiff British Commonwealth and empire games (1958). With stamina belied by his fragile appearance, he won his first professional world road championship in 1959 at the Zandewoort circuit in the Netherlands. On 3 January 1961 he married Helen Margaret Sherburn (b. 1939/40), whom he met when she was working as an au pair in France, the daughter of Frank Sherburn, produce merchant. They had two daughters. In 1961 he won the tour of Flanders, the first classic win by a Briton for sixty-five years. Other classic victories followed including Bordeaux–Paris, Paris–Nice, Ghent–Wevelgem, Milan–San Remo, and, in 1965, the tour of Lombardy.
Tommy Simpson was world professional road race champion in 1965 and was voted BBC sports personality of the year. But an injured leg, broken on a family skiing holiday, meant that he missed most of the following season and was unable to exploit his title commercially. Aged twenty-nine, he saw the 1967 tour de France, the world’s greatest cycle race, as his last remaining chance to make big money out of the sport. On 13 July 1967, during the thirteenth stage, 133 miles from Marseilles to Carpentras, after remounting twice Simpson finally collapsed in high temperatures half a mile from the summit of the virtually shadeless Mont Ventoux. Attempts at resuscitation failed. His was the first known drugs-related death of a British sportsperson. Although the official cause of his demise was given as dehydration and exhaustion, it was later acknowledged that Simpson, like many other cyclists, had been using amphetamines. Taking such drugs was well established among long-distance racing cyclists in the days when there were no dope controls. Indeed attempts to introduce drug tests in 1966 had been fiercely opposed by leading cyclists, including five times tour winner Jacques Anquetil, who argued that professionals could not cope with their long season without resort to stimulants.
As a mark of respect, the fourteenth stage from Carpentras to Sète was a slow procession with Barry Hoban, a member of Simpson’s team, the predetermined winner. A memorial stone was erected near the Ventoux summit, where each year cycling fans still leave mementoes in tribute to a fallen champion. Hoban later married Simpson’s widow.