This year's Tour has already seen Mark Cavendish tip his helmet to Tom Simpson atop Ment Ventoux. And you can consider this our tribute to one of British cycling's icons. 54 years on from Major Tom's passing on the summit of the Giant Provence, friend of CHPT3 Ian Walton Hemingway (@themusette_cc) travelled to Ventoux to be alone on the mountain to remember the achievements of Britain's first world champion.
"I wanted to be alone on the mountain, so I camped alone with a camera from the 1960s that a working-class fella like Tom might have used had they been watching that fateful day."
A small tribute. On a big mountain. For a grand rider.
Chapeau, Tom. We salute you. A man who paved the way for every British rider since, including our very own David Millar, who on this very day in 2012, on the anniversary of Tom's passing, won a stage of the Tour.
The following words are from David, recalling that stage win, with Ian's images from Ventoux.
This weekend, we are challenging you to ride 226km. The same distance David rode on that day in 2012.
There had been sparks of what I was still capable of in the previous year, but the last real flash had been at the 2012 Tour de France. A Friday the 13th no less. I clearly remember being on the start line in Annecy, talking to my old teacher from Hong Kong, Charlie Riding. He’d made it a tradition to visit the Tour in previous years to see his old student.
Mr Riding had been the only person in Hong Kong who had told me to do it, to chase my dream; that maybe, just maybe, there could be a reality beyond the reverie. I never forgot that, and he clearly hadn’t either.
I sat there on my bike, one hand on the barrier, awaiting the neutral start, Mr Riding and his wife and two boys on the other side, among all the spectators. We were chatting away, and in his usual way he said, ‘So, you going to give it a go today, Dave?’
I can remember pulling my head back and almost laughing, ‘No way, Charlie, I’m wrecked!’ I asked him if he’d seen the stage. There were two category one mountains in the first seventy kilometres. And it was the longest of the race. ‘No way. Bugger that,’ I concluded. Argh, as soon as I said it I could see the disappointment on his face, never mind those of his two little boys. I tried to recover it: ‘I’ll see how it goes. You never know, right?’ Charlie took this better; the boys clearly weren’t that bothered. I don’t know why I’d been worrying about them in the first place.
It turned out that I was strongest of the guys who wanted to win the stage that day, which was ironic because I had probably been the least interested in trying. I even let the break of nearly twenty riders form before bridging up to it on my own, so uninterested had I been in fighting it out beforehand. I crossed the two mountains within myself. There were only five of us left at the summit of the second, and I still didn’t feel like I’d gone too deep within my reserves. I rode a very clinical stage, winning it in a sprint against Jean-Christophe Péraud.
I punched the air, just as Cyrille Guimard, my old directeur sportif at Cofidis, had taught me: ‘Only raise your arms after you’ve crossed the line, David. You’ll slow yourself down and open yourself up to those coming up from behind if you sit up before.’ I had made exactly the same salute when winning my first Grand Tour road stage in the 2001 Vuelta a España.
That day in 2012 I stopped worrying about losing and started caring about winning. In 2001 it had been about me proving to the cycling world that I was more than a time triallist. Eleven years later it was about proving who I was and what I represented. The deeper I got into the stage, the more I became aware I was going to win (bar broken chains or slipped chains or bad chainrings or no front derailleurs), the more I realised the responsibility I carried. This was the year we’d had the ghastly early crash that had wiped out the majority of the team and all our general classification hopes; as a team we were on our hands and knees with all pre-race objectives eradicated by Stage 6. Due to that loss of hope I was given carte blanche to race for myself. I hadn’t had that opportunity in years. I’d been testing myself in numerous breaks up to that day, and could feel myself getting stronger as each stage passed.
I’d never race for the win unless I considered it to be a realistic chance. I used all my breakaways up to that day as reconnaissance of who was strong, practice at making it into the break, and training my body to handle the specific workload required to win a stage. Considering how much of an emotional racer I generally was, I could at times be incredibly cold and calculated. Friday 13th July 2012 was one of those days I switched off my emotions and read the race like a book. Crossing the line I shouted the exact same thing I’d shouted in 2001: ‘FUCK, YES!’ Back then I’d got off my bike like cock of the walk, proud to show everybody I was more than a time-trial specialist. Come 2012 all I wanted to do was lie down.
I have this photo...
It’s become my favourite photo from my career. I can remember lying there on the ground with my eyes wide open looking up at the sky. I was so wired from concentrating for so long that I couldn’t close them. The sky was bright blue, mottled with clouds that drifted across with an indifferent serenity. I could have been lying on the deck of a boat. It was the absolute antithesis to my surroundings. For the first time in hours I wasn’t thinking about the wheel in front of me, the wind direction, the climb coming up, cadence, what I should eat, how much I needed to drink, other racers in the break, each of their strengths and weaknesses, what I knew about their palmares, and how to expect their plays in the final, what was on the radio, the time gap behind, or the fear of losing; am I strong enough to beat them in the sprint? Or should I attack them? All of that was behind me now. Not only could my body relax, but, more importantly, I could switch off my mind. I’d done it. I’d crossed the line first. I wanted to enjoy that moment, I wanted to have it to myself, no matter how brief it was, because ultimately it was just a moment among hundreds and thousands of others – yet I knew straightaway that it was one of the most important of my long and tumultuous career.
I didn’t own the day, which is how I would have felt when I was younger. I no longer had that privilege. I’d handed that back years ago – that was my debt for having been given a second chance. I was an ex-doper, and as long as I raced I had to remind people of not only that but, more importantly, that I was now a clean rider. When I win I consider it an obligation to confront my past and the sport’s past; to not skirt around it, but to draw attention, not only to where we have been, but where we are now, and the direction we have to go in in the future. I think that’s the only way I, and cycling as a whole, can be taken seriously.
As if I needed reminding of this, the cycling universe decided that I should win on the anniversary of Tommy Simpson’s death in the 1967 Tour de France. An anniversary I held dear but had given up on anyone else caring about since the 2007 Tour de France when – even though it was the fortieth anniversary, and the year after Floyd Landis’ infamous non-victory – nobody had even mentioned it. As recently as then it seemed people would rather forget Tommy Simpson burning up, when to me it seemed more relevant than ever to remember it. That Friday 13th July 2012 was my moment to remind people of something I felt we shouldn’t forget, because that’s where we come from, and we must make sure we never return.
Lying there on the ground, surrounded by photographers and press, team staff, anti-doping chaperones and race organisation, I was fully aware that the second I raised myself off the ground my moment would be over for ever. I tried to make it last as long as possible, which wasn’t long considering I was lying a few metres beyond the finish line, not the safest place for a brief meditation on life. Once I got up I had to become another version of myself – the doper turned anti-doping crusader. I don’t remember much of the next hour of interviews, podium protocol, anti-doping control, more interviews – I’d been racing for six hours in thirty-five degrees-plus heat. I’m not sure how I even managed to be so switched on: my hands were cramping in the press conference, I remember that.
One of the first interviews I did was with Ned Boulting. Listening to it again, I’m surprised to hear myself still breathing heavily:
Ned: You’ve done it. You’ve waited a good few years to make that kind of statement on the Tour de France again, haven’t you?
Me: Yeah, that’s why sometimes when bad luck happens it actually turns into good luck, because for the last few years I’ve been at the disposition of the team. I haven’t had the liberty to do things like that. Because we lost our GC hopes I’ve been allowed to do what I want, so I’ve taken advantage of it.
Ned: Time after time we’ve seen you in breaks and it hasn’t quite worked out. I think of Barcelona in 2009 and that kind of ilk, but you got it perfectly tactically today, didn’t you?
Me: I was determined. I was just saying to Marya [Pongrace] before, as soon as I got in the break, I was just, ‘I’m gonna win today, I’m gonna win today, I’m gonna win today.’ In my head I gave myself no options. I was going to do whatever it took.
Ned: Two attacks from Kiserlovski: did they worry you? Or did they play perfectly into your hands, ultimately?
Me: No, I’d already decided I was going to go after every single attack. I knew I could win the sprint, so my tactic was to shut everything down. So that’s what I did.
Ned: And on the forty-fifth anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death.
Me: Yeah, I mean, that’s particularly poignant, I think, especially after what I’ve been through, as an ex-doper who’s now clean and who loves his sport. I’m very proud to have done it today because I think we mustn’t forget Tommy’s memory and what happened and also what this sport’s been through . . . now, we’re the cleanest we’ve ever been, with Brad [Wiggins] leading the Tour, and Chris [Froome] in second, and now four British stage wins. I mean, we’re clean riders and we’re dominating the Tour de France.
I now sit next to Ned talking about the Tour de France. In our years of knowing each other we talk about things we could have never talked about in the heated moment of a post-race interview. We've talked about that day, and with hindsight and our friendship I admitted to him, that with hindsight, I could see that I closed the loop that day. In those 30 seconds while laying on my back a few metres past the finish line, staring at the sky and its quietly passing clouds imagining I was on the deck of a boat, with chaos all around me, I made the decision. It was over. I didn't need to win bike races anymore.