STREWN with brightly coloured paper hats and bunting, littered with publicity paraphernalia, still echoing faintly to fireworks, musical motor horns and loudspeakers.
This is the town of Angers, in the old French province of Anjou, on the day that the circus left town.
It has been like the World Cup, the Olympics and Derby Day rolled into one frenzied occasion as 130 cyclists from 13 national teams, 668 cars and motor cycles in the official convoy and 250 pressmen have left the start of the 54th Tour de France.
And I wished good luck, on the starting line, to 10 of the most courageous, but probably least-known, sportsmen I have ever met.
The team representing Great Britain.
Ahead of them, 2,900 murderous miles watched by more than 150 million European tele-viewers and countless spectators en route, before the survivors tear into Paris on the finishing stages, which World of Sport is showing on Saturday.
Twenty-four days of cutthroat action; 24 stages averaging 120 miles each, including six major mountain climbs of more than 5,000ft. An average speed for the tour of 22 m.p.h. — which zooms to a breathtaking 70 m.p.h. on the down-mountain stretches.
Yes, 70 m.p.h. on a 25 lb. piece of machinery, balanced only on one-inch-wide rubber tyres, pumped up to 100 lb. pressure!
It costs £500,000 [£8.9m in 2018, allowing for inflation] to stage the Tour de France; the eventual winner collects about £1,500 [£27,000] plus contracts and perks worth up to £30,000 [£532,000]. This carnival-crazy, jam-packed chateau township paid £11,000 [£195,000] just to stage the start.
These are just a few of the facts. This is big-time, one of the biggest annual sporting events on earth. The facts tell a story; but only half of it.
What sort of men are carrying the Union Jack? Here’s their story. The human angle. For they’re super men. And few people in Britain realise it.
I arrived, down the bumpy road from Rouen, to find Angers fraught with tension, jealousy, rivalry, sparking with Latin temperament, as the fgted idols of the French, Italian, Spanish and Belgian teams prepare for cycling’s greatest test.
These men are the darlings, the kings, the Bobby Moores, Jim Clarks, The Beatles of the Continent. You’d expect the British boys, based in the back street Hotel Croix de Guerre, to be anxious, over-awed.
Mostly North Countrymen, this sizzling, sweltering atmosphere isn’t their world. They know they haven’t a hope of winning the team prize.
How are they treated? Consider the time trial, a round-the-houses race against the clock, staged the night before the official start, to establish the first owner of the famed leaders maillot jaune (yellow jersey: worth £75 [£1,300] a day to the holder early in the race, £37 [£660] daily later on, when it tends to become the property of one man).
Clusters of Continental photographers and starting line officials gently take the mickey from these brave boys in smart white vests with Union Jack epaulettes.
“Bye-bye,” they chaff, in mock-Oxford accent, as they each leave. “Ta-ta, old boy.” And they hum a tongue-in-cheek National Anthem.
But one man rams the taunts straight down their throats. There’s one man they all fear.
One man they don’t take liberties with.
Tommy Simpson. The 29-year-old that Continental fans call “Seempson.” Short in stature, big of heart, tall in the saddle.
And he’s the man the British team are riding for. The one man they know CAN win the Tour de France for Britain. Simpson. World Professional Champion in 1965, first Briton ever to win a stage in the Tour de France, in 1962.
On the eve of the start, I track down Tom warily. After all, this is the lull before the storm. The favourites are edgy.
“Glad you could make it, Dave,“ he says. “We’re always pleased to see British pressmen taking an interest in us cyclists.” (In all the hundreds of newspapermen here, I’ve met only three reporters, and one British photographer — my colleague Peter Bolton, who drove me down.)
I’m hugely impressed by the manner in which Simpson and the rest of the British lads approached this Tour de France. Cheerfully. Unemotionally. Quietly determined. Typically British, you might say.
So why, if cycling is so big on the Continent and we can produce great fighting riders like Tom, doesn’t cycling capture the imagination of the vast British sporting public?
“Because nobody is prepared to put up the big money in Britain,” he replies. “Pretty well every big business concern on the Continent is here, spending a fortune. In Britain, firms just aren’t prepared to do this.
“This could be because cycling is always rated as a poor man’s sport. You don’t see that many bikes about back home, do you? It’s all cars. That’s maybe why there’s such a big following for car racing.
“Perhaps Britain’s cycling missed the boat just after the war, when everyone had a bike. We’ve got the wrong image. We’re all exiles.”
Simpson, son of a Durham miner left Britain nine years ago, with about £100 [£2,300] in his pocket, to settle in Ghent, Belgium.
Now he has a building company there, and a summer retreat in Corsica.
Most of his team-mates are Continental-based. Burly Vin Denson, 31, a Ghent cate-owner. Michael Wright, blond, very Anglo-Saxon looking, but who has lived all his life in Belgium and speaks only about a dozen words of English!
Barry Hoban, the friendly Wakefield lad, now based in Paris; pin-up boy, quiet Peter Hill, now building a reputation in Normandy; tall, wiry Australian Bill Lawrie.
The British-based members of the team: Arthur Metcalfe, Colin Lewis, Peter Chisman and Albert Hitchen. Have you heard these names before? I hadn’t.
But I won’t forget them now. They’re doing Britain proud, whatever the eventual result, and deserve one hundred times the sporting recognition they get.
The eventual Tour de France winner is the man who covers the total distance in the shortest time. He need not win a single stage. Team tactics are everything. Simpson says: “To win this race you need 50 per cent luck, 50 per cent skill. I’m not outstanding at anything, but pretty average at the lot. On a good day, with everything going right, I know I can do ’em all. I also know that there’s going to be a day when I’m going to finish on my knees.”
Thomas Simpson died whilst this article was at the printer, having taken amphetamines and alcohol to try to keep going whilst suffering from a stomach complaint during the 13th Stage, leading to heart failure in the heat. The TVTimes printed the following box-out at the foot of Dave Lanning’s column the following week:
The sad news of Tommy Simpson’s death on the 13th stage of the Tour de France came as last week’s issues of TVTimes was being printed. Dave Lanning, whose article on the British team was in that issue, writes: The story I wrote was the scene in Angers at the start of the race. It is tragic that Tommy Simpson’s driving determination to win for Britain should have cost him his life. I pay tribute to a sportsman and gentleman I was to know only too briefly.