By Linus Rees

Put me back on my bike: In search lf Tom Simpson
Chain gang: Tom Simpson makes the peloton suffer as he leads them through the mountains. William Fotheringham's book courted controversy with the details of the English rider's death during the 1967 Tour de France, but gripped fans of cycling literature.

Britain may be approaching another golden age of cycling with the success of Mark Cavendish, Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and others in international events over the last few years. London has seen a resurgence in cycling over the last decade and the sport has captured the imagination of writers with shelf-loads of books being published about cycling. From road racing, track cycling to cycle touring, readers of cycling literature have probably never had it this good.

No wonder then that a new regular literary event will take place in London and will be launched at the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street this week. The London Cycling Bookclub is the idea of cycling enthusiast and marketing professional Matthias Pleyer who says the book club will be “A place to meet for people who like riding the streets of London, and reading about riding everywhere. We aim to meet every four to six weeks in London to discuss a book or two and have a chat about anything from our latest cycling trips to the joys of cycling in London.”

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Matthias studied literature and media in Leipzig then Vienna before coming to London in 2007. He  immediately enjoyed London’s literary culture, its bookshops and book clubs, and exploring the city by bicycle. He commutes by bike to his job in marketing but also enjoys touring the countryside around London. He feels passionately about cycling in London and wants to see the number of cyclists in London increase to European levels. Influenced by David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries about cycling in New York, and Anne Mustoe’s travelogues, Matthais wants to combine an enjoyment of London, literature and everyday cycling.

The bookclub initiative has been welcomed by Dr Bob Davis who organises the annual Cycling Film Show at the Riverside Studios:

“I have been riding as a Londoner for 35 years. I must have read thirty books on cycling. As an ex-racing guy I’ve enjoyed books by or about stars of the past that I have known. At this year’s Cyclists Film Show we are doing a tribute to Brian Robinson with readings from his book by biographer Graeme Fife.”

Dr Davis, who is also a published expert on road safety, thinks it is important to have discussions on everyday riding in London. “For me the most important thing is ordinary, everyday riding as a normal human being — wearing normal everyday clothes — just getting about London. If we are going to get anywhere, cycling has to be seen as just a normal part of everyday life, as sensible part of getting about: the sport and fun parts are an extra which shouldn’t get in the way of that,” said Dr Davis.

It is perhaps Lance Armstrong who has captured and inspired the modern English-speaking audience with his albeit ghost-written book published in 2000 a year after winning his first Tour de France. It’s Not About The bike: My journey back to life, describes the brash American’s rise through the sport, his winning the Cycling World Championships in 1995, his diagnosis with testicular cancer in 1996, and his subsequent recovery and rise to Tour de France winner in 1999.

Wherever Armstrong appeared, words and column inches of press would follow. And of course controversy. Several writers published books about Armstrong, the most controversial being Sunday Times writer David Walsh’s book in French — L. A. Confidentiel : Les secrets de Lance Armstrong. The book made allegations of Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs. The Sunday Times published extracts in English but Armstrong successfully sued and got an apology from the newspaper. Walsh later published another book about Armstrong in 2007 where he repeated the allegations: From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France. David Walsh has also written about and made allegations about doping in other sports, not just cycling.

The volumes of literature on Armstrong (and his own association with Dr Ferrari) no doubt damaged the image of the sport as much as it gave it publicity to a larger audience. But the new fascination with cycling has endured. In 2002 the Guardian sports writer William Fotheringham published his critically acclaimed but controversial biography of the 1965 BBC Sports Personality of Year winner Tom Simpson. In 1965 Simpson had won the gruelling London to Holyhead one day classic that started in the early hours of the morning at Marble Arch and finished 267 miles later on the island of Anglesey off the north Wales coast. It was the world’s longest un-paced one day cycle race and Simpson won it in a bunch sprint for the line. Today’s longest one day race Milan-San Remo is less than 200 miles.

When I joined riders on 13 July 2007 to cycle up Mt Ventoux in France it was to remember the death of Tom Simpson 40 years earlier during the 1967 Tour de France. Simpson’s death was described in detail in Fotheringham’s book. Simpson who was capable of enduring great suffering (and inflicting it) rode himself to death in the scorching heat on the mountain. Finally collapsing at the side of the road unable to continue less than a mile from the summit. But a post-mortem revealed he had taken amphetamines (not illegal in those days), alcohol and a diuretic. Added to that he had been suffering from a stomach bug.

Simpson was held in adoration by his British fans. But controversy continued after his death when the other teams in the peloton agreed that a British rider should be allowed to win the next day’s stage as a tribute to their fallen team-mate. The day after his death on the mountain his British team-mate Barry Hoban was allowed to win the stage. Yet it was apparently agreed by the pack of riders that it should have been his other team mate and close friend Vin Denson who should have been allowed to win. Hoban was accused of stealing the stage win against the wishes of the other riders. Hoban has always denied this.

In 2001 at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, Vin Denson and Albert Buerick (a friend and supporter of Simpson) described the last they saw of Tom Simpson. Nearly 40 years on it’s difficult for many to move on from what happened in 1967. William Fotheringham recalls how emotions still cut deep:

“Denson says Simpson was like a brother to him. Beurick makes the same claim. He gets angry when he recalls the fact that Hoban has always had credit for the victory and calls the rider ‘a prick’, a ‘young upstart’, in front of 200 people. Denson seems embarrassed by the situation, as well he might. It’s all rather complicated, and the whole question is muddied further by the fact that Hoban ended up marrying Simpson’s widow Helen.” (Fotheringham, 2002: 6)

My own observations on the 13 July 2007 accord with Fotheringham’s. Sitting down to dinner with members of the Harworth & District Club (Simpson’s old local cycling club) the guests seem to treat the memory of Simpson with awe. When someone mentions Fotheringham’s book about Simpson he is quickly cut short. When Barry Hoban turns up he is ignored and his wife Helen looks awkward amongst a crowd of men who seem to be taking hero-worship to extremes. Vin Denson is dignified and mingles easily and I catch him saying a discrete hello to Hoban. But there’s a difficult air surrounding Hoban’s presence and Helen and her daughters are clearly irritated by the behaviour of many of the men.

Some biographies of cyclists are no better than hagiographies. Fotheringham’s book stands out because of his ability to not only tell a story but to be frank about the life of a young, handsome and talented athlete who chased after the good life, the fast cars, the TV interviews, the weeks spent on the road and the temptation to push just that little bit too far. It’s among the best of sportswriting.

Matthias Pleyer
Matthias Pleyer: Founder of the London Cycling Bookclub

Attendees at the London Cycling Bookclub have much to explore and talk about with regard to cycling and literature. There’s never been a better time to enjoy the sport or to read about the Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape (as a biography of Jacques Anquetil was titled) that goes on behind the fanfare and parade that accompanies cycling events.

They’ll be in good company as the Fitzroy Tavern has long been a host to literary groups since writers and their hangers-on propped up the bar there during the 1930s and 1940s.

“I used to work very close to the Fitzroy,” says Matthias “and I always found it a great pub. With its literary tradition it was an easy decision to launch the book club here.”

The London Cycling Bookclub will meet 7pm, Wednesday, 12 January at The Fitzroy Tavern, 16 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2NA. More about the London Cycling Bookclub here and follow them on Twitter here.

The Cyclist Film show takes place on Sunday 30 January at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.

Literature mentioned in the text

Lance Armstrong (2000) It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Yellow Jersey

David Byrne (2009) Bicycle Diaries, Faber and Faber

Robert Davis (1993) Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety. Leading Edge Press.

Graeme Fife (2010) Brian Robinson: Pioneer: The Story of Brian Robinson, Britain’s First Tour De France Hero, Norwich: Mousehold Press

William Fotheringham (2001) Put Me Back on My Bike: In search of Tom Simpson, London: Yellow Jersey Press

Paul Howard (2008) Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape: the remarkable life of Jacques Anquetil, the first five-times winner of the Tour de France, Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing

Anne Mustoe (2007) A Bike Ride: 12,000 miles around the world, Virgin Books

Selena Roberts, David Epstein (2011) The Case Against Lance Armstrong, Sports Illustrated, 24 January 2011

David Walsh (2008) From Lance to Landis: Inside the American doping controversy at the Tour de France, New York: Ballantine Books

Update (26 January 2011): Film of Tom Simpson story mooted. Death on the Mountain: The Story of Tom Simpson will be screened again on BBC 4 at 9:00pm January 30

One reply on “Cycling and literature at the Fitzroy Tavern”

Comments are closed.