Tour de France

Stairway to Heaven. With Joanne Simpson on a pilgrimage to the sacred Mont Ventoux

14min reading time   by Stijn Vanderhaeghe on 02 July 2021
There is a lady who is sure that all that glitters is gold and she buys a stairway to heaven... Joanne Simpson is that lady's name and since 2007 she has had her own ten-step concrete staircase to heaven. On the mythical Mont Ventoux, that is. Once at the top, she stands face to face with the monument in honour of her father Tom. Dad, as she still calls him affectionately. She was barely four when the 29-year-old British-Belgian top cyclist collapsed on the flank of Bald Mountain on Thursday 13 July 1967 during the thirteenth Tour stage from Marseille to Carpentras. Since then, this spot has become a true place of pilgrimage for cycling tourists. Like Lourdes in the mountains, but different. No flowers or wreaths. But bottles and nutrients...

For years, however, the Ventoux was a doomed no-go zone for Joanne and her one-year older sister Jane. Mother Helen Sherburn, who married Tom Simpson on Tuesday 3 January 1961, did not want to confront herself and especially her daughters needlessly with the place where their father lost his life while racing, barely one and a half kilometres from the top. The road was as steep as it was narrow, with a swing and a swerve. Tragic black-and-white images that are engraved in the collective memory. The understandable concern of a deeply grieving mother. It was the same reflex that prevented Jane and Joanne from saying goodbye to their dad: "We spent the summer of 1967 with Mum and her parents in Corsica," says Joanne. "With foresight, my dad planned part of his life after the race. He invested in real estate and that resulted in a large piece of land with our first Corsican holiday home on it. In July and August, this was always our base of operations. When the news of his fall on the Ventoux reached us via a transistor radio on the beach, my mother and her father left in a hurry by helicopter for the Sainte-Marthe hospital in Avignon. Jane and I stayed behind on the island with Nana, our grandmother.

Only two months later, mum came to pick us up again. In the meantime, dad had been buried and mum had briefly ended up in hospital, but we didn't know that at the time. Oh, how we were protected... Father's death was not mentioned at all. We were used to the fact that as a cyclist he was constantly away from home for long periods of time, so as a child you don't ask yourself any questions about that. It was only two years later that my penny dropped. Mum told us she was going to marry Barry Hoban, who was a teammate of dad's on the British team at the time. I could not believe my ears. And what are you going to do when Dad comes back', I asked her in bewilderment.

Mum and I had a very close relationship and I didn't want anyone to interfere. At first, I was very defensive about Barry. Later, I apologised profusely for that, because he was genuinely concerned about us. You just have to do it, being a 29-year-old to take care of someone else's two daughters. At one point, Jane and I were discussing what to call Barry in the garage. We decided that Tom would always be our daddy and Barry would be our dad. Innocent childish logic. When we called Barry dad for the first time, he was so happy he couldn't stop laughing. Of course, Jane and I thought he was laughing at us square in the face and we never wanted to call him that again. (laughs) Okay, Barry it is then."

Hats off, Merckx

In the meantime, the management of the Tour de France decides to leave Mont Ventoux out of consideration for a few years. It was not until Friday 10 July 1970 that the Tour caravan took over the Giant of Provence in all its glory. One year earlier, an upright commemorative plaque was unveiled at the spot where Simpson was killed, in the presence of Helen and Barry, among others. 'À la mémoire de Tom Simpson', it says in golden capitals. And also: 'Médaille olympique, champion du monde, ambassadeur sportif Britannique décédé le 13 juillet (Tour de France 1967)'. That monument was created thanks to a spontaneous fundraising campaign by the British cycling magazine Cycling, the predecessor of Cycling Weekly. Or, as it is forever chiselled into the granite: 'Ses amis cyclistes de Grande Bretagne'.

Almost immediately, this fraught spot takes on a sacred quality. It is about the only windbreak in an otherwise desolate moon-like landscape with extreme climatic conditions. Anyone passing by almost automatically stops to pay tribute to the enigmatic 1965 world champion. Cyclists leave behind a cap, bottle, tyre or other personal bicycle-related item. The non-sportspersons place a sticker or write a message on a loose stone. If it were not so windy at times, there would certainly be an inviting offering block and large candle rack next to it. Hopeful dripping absolution. Solidified desire. Silent sorrow...

Failing that, during the Tour of 1970, Eddy Merckx paid perhaps the most beautiful tribute ever to Tom Simpson. The finish of the fourteenth stage is at the top of Mont Ventoux. As was often the case in those days, Merckx solo's towards yet another spectacular victory. After almost 170 kilometres of racing, his muscles start to creak as he nears the top of the last col of the day. Still, the top favorite for the final victory has the presence of mind to take off his red-white Faema cap when passing Simpson's memorial stone - in the season 1966-'67 they rode together in the French team Peugeot-BP - while Tour Director Jacques Goddet lays a wreath. A short meaningful nod later, Eddy continues his victory march without hesitation. He reaches the top of the Ventoux with a lead of one minute and eleven seconds on his later Molteni teammate Martin Van den Bossche.

Anyone passing by almost automatically stops to pay tribute to the enigmatic 1965 world champion.

More than 45 years on, Joanne still finds it a wonderful gesture. "At the time, of course, I was far too young to fully realise the impact it had," she admits. "Eddy was also the only Belgian cyclist to attend my father's funeral. That is to his credit. But I can also enjoy the numerous, anonymous or not, expressions of respect on the Ventoux. Those people will probably not blame me for occasionally taking home something of what is left behind at the monument. My box of relics already contains a few stones with special messages on them, hastily scribbled notes, a few striking water bottles and also a huge flag. I happened to be present at the moment that three British youngsters - not even fervent cyclists - wanted to leave it at the memorial stone. Especially for their pilgrimage to the Mont Ventoux, they had had a large Union Jack made with Dad's most important victories: the Tour of Flanders 1961, Bordeaux-Paris 1963, Milan-San Remo 1964, the Tour of Lombardy 1965 and of course the World Cup 1965 in San Sebastian. Each time with a beautiful picture of daddy. I was deeply moved. When those guys noticed, they insisted that I take that flag home with me.

In 2007 - the year I had the concrete steps made for the monument - a British man in his sixties suddenly stood next to me on the Ventoux. He had ridden up on an ordinary ramshackle bicycle. As if that were not enough, he was wearing his best shirt and a plastron, but underneath was an old pair of woollen shorts that were clearly two sizes too big and had been washed a little too often. (laughs) Of course, I asked him about the significance of his unusual cycling outfit and he spoke the legendary words: 'If you want to pay your respects to a gentleman, you have to dress like a gentleman'. He assured me that my dad was not only a good cyclist at the time, but also every inch a gentleman. Again, I could hardly keep my mouth shut. So beautiful. I still look back with great pleasure at the photos of that fine man. With a little good will, you could probably write down stories like that every day. And that is quite a comforting thought."

Mixed feelings

And yet Joanne Simpson has mixed feelings about the memorial that has been turned into a place of pilgrimage. Obviously, she would have preferred to see her father reach the top safely. But the image of him that is constantly being painted has bothered her immensely for decades now. "There is almost nothing I enjoy more than sitting on the steps in front of the monument for hours on end," she continues. "Enjoying the insanely beautiful view and the presence of my father. 'You've picked your place to go,' I tell him. (laughter) For me, he is not buried in Harworth, but on the Ventoux. There I still feel his presence and I always get my best inspirations.

Unfortunately, my contemplative peace is sometimes disturbed by totally misplaced statements about Dad. Once, for example, I heard two Dutch people shouting at each other during their descent: 'Look, this is where the doping alcoholic died'. At a moment like that, my heart breaks. Where do people like that get it from? I've tried several times, but so far I've never seen father's official autopsy report. Have they? And all the others who shamelessly proclaim it too? Well then. As soon as I get the confirmation in black and white that he died as a result of some doping product, I will be the first to announce it.

All my life, I have been confronted with these shadowy hush-hush stories. Nobody shows the back of their tongue. And certainly not ex-racers. There is a logical explanation for the alcohol allegedly found in his body. In the 1967 Tour the riders were given two bottles of water in the morning and two in the afternoon. They were not allowed to take extra drinks from the support vehicle. So they were forced to resort to public fountains, rivers or natural springs along the way. Or the team's water carrier would rush into a café or hotel to hastily grab whatever he could get: water, Coca-Cola, beer, Orangina or anything else. As long as it was booze.

On that fateful day in July, Colin Lewis was the British servant on duty. When he joined dad at the front of the peloton on the way to the Ventoux, he apparently only had a bottle of cognac left in his back pocket. He told me that himself years ago. It was 42 degrees in the sun at that moment and my father was incredibly thirsty. He took a few sips and threw the bottle away. So there will be alcohol found in his blood, but to call him a drug-addicted booze hound is taking things a few steps too far. Although I am not naive, of course. Who didn't use in the sixties? My dad was a victim of all those doping sinners. A martyr, if you will. That is the double feeling that often overcomes me at the top of the Ventoux. I still fervently hope that one day I will get my hands on his autopsy report so I can finally close that chapter.

No second monument

The doomed no-go zone remains intact. Even Helen has changed her mind: she has now expressed the explicit wish to have her ashes scattered over the Ventoux so that she can be close to Tom again. "In 1994 we were invited by the organisation of the Tour de France to attend the fifteenth stage on Monday 18 July", says Joanne. "It went from Montpellier to Carpentras with a passage over the Mont Ventoux. That was from the 1987 Tour. We were very well received and of course paid a visit to daddy's monument. After the cérémonie protocolaire, mum got an autographed green jersey of Djamolidin Abdushaparov, which was my favourite, by the way. (laughs) Her day was complete. Before that, we had only been together once on the Ventoux, but with the best will in the world I can't remember when that was exactly.

The next time, however, is still crystal clear in my mind. In 1996, on my way to work in Bruges, I happened to hear an interview with Helmut Lotti in the car. Among other things, he told me that he and his then wife were planning to climb Mont Ventoux by bicycle. I did not know what I was hearing. If she can do it, so can I', I thought immediately. My decision was made immediately: in the summer of 1997 - exactly thirty years after my father's death - I would conquer the Ventoux on a racing bike at any cost. To finish what my father had failed to do at the time. I started training like crazy. My mother saw it with regret. She did not like it. You're not a cyclist, Jo', she often tried to change my mind. Why do you have to do it now? Stop it. I have no desire to unveil a second monument on that mountain! But I didn't let her throw me off balance and just kept training with one goal in mind: to climb the Mont Ventoux on Sunday 13 July 1997. Ah, you're just as stubborn as your father,' mum threw her last weapon into the fray. You don't have to do this for me, you know. On the contrary. It was of no avail.

That first time, the climb went surprisingly smoothly. I'm not someone who harbours a suspicion of a God or believes in an afterlife or anything like that, but that day I really felt Dad's presence very strongly. It was as if he was pushing me upwards. Before I realised it - admittedly with a lump in my throat - I had passed his memorial stone. I was going to ride up to the top anyway and then come down again. And do you know what was so beautiful that day? I rode up together with some friends and sympathisers and everyone - including the men who were much better uphill than I was - stayed on my wheel. That was not agreed, but out of respect, all the occasional riders kept to it. They granted me so much that I had been looking forward to and had trained really hard for a year. Look, it still gives me goose bumps. At the top, my mother and I fell into each other's arms, crying, and together we went to the monument. We sat there for at least half an hour. Just the two of us. (It is difficult now) It was a very emotional and intense moment. I decided that from then on I would do something every five years with the Ventoux as a benchmark to commemorate my dad.

In 2002 I cycled from Ghent to Bédoin to climb the Ventoux, in 2007 I had the concrete stairs made, in 2012 I ventured to the Cinglé - in 24 hours I climbed the Mont Ventoux three times from the three different starting points Bédoin, Malaucène and Sault - and in 2017 there was of course a lot to do. It would be exactly 50 years since Dad died there. On 30 November 2017, he would also celebrate his 80th birthday... This double anniversary certainly could not go unnoticed. By then, the concrete stairs had to be completely covered with granite so that they would be more resistant to the weather up there. Because that's what I sometimes ponder: what will happen to the monument when I'm gone? Who will be responsible for its maintenance? And so on. Hence the decision to protect the staircase better. It can only help to stay one step ahead of the ravages of time. There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold and she's buying a stairway to heaven...

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