As the 50th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s World Road Race Championship victory nears next weekend, Brendan Gallagher recalls his victory in San Sebastian.

For many the Tom Simpson story seems to start and end with his tragic death on Mont Ventoux in 1967 and I've always found it sad that we pay so little heed to the rest of his stellar career, the decade or so when he bravely flew the flag for Britain when cycling was the smallest of minority sports here. 

So this article is dedicated totally to recalling his finest moment 50 years ago – 5 September 1965 – when he demonstrated all his class and tenacity to beat Rudi Altig in the pouring Spanish rain to become Britain's first professional road race champion. Only Mark Cavendish has emulated him since.

We will be assisted in this by the recollections of the splendid David Saunders, the foremost cycling commentator and journalist of the time, alas long dead. One of my first Christmas presents was a long forgotten sporting anthology compiled by the sports correspondents of the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s entitled I was there and before long I was damned near word perfect in recalling Sanders' reflections on what was clearly an emotional day.  

""Having mysteriously lost the book 30-years ago I was astonished to stumble upon a strangely familiar looking edition (pictured) recently at the local Scout jumble sale, with my schoolboy signature on the inside cover and a familiar looking stain where I had spilt the Tizer one afternoon.  One of life's little mysteries!

I have it by my side again now although I don't need to open its pages to recall Saunders stirring intro: "It is not often that one gets an opportunity to see sporting history made, and I cried when it happened to me. What tended to make things difficult was that I was ‘on the air’ for the BBC at the time and the words were more sobbed than spoken." One of the more memorable ‘intros.’ Great stuff!

Simpson, with his love of the one day Classic, was well suited to World Championship races and had already logged two fourth places in previous World Championship, in 1959 and again in 1964.  He was hungry for a breakthrough podium finish and preferably the Gold medal.  Also although a savagely determined Tour de France competitor who would flog himself to the limit and alas, beyond, deep down he probably recognised that he wasn't quite robust enough or as consistently strong in the big mountains, to ever be a serious contender. Not that he would ever stop trying. 

A rainbow jersey was, however, a realistic target and a way of making his mark in the sport although outwardly it wasn't looking too promising in 1965 despite a promising 12-mile circuit at Lasarte just outside San Sebastian that included one demanding climb that would have to be negotiated on each of the 14-laps and would surely mitigate against a bunch finish. 

It had the look of a Classics type parcours with the sprinters and pure climbers likely to be be side-lined but nobody was quite sure of Simpsons' form after the most testing and occasionally depressing season as Saunders outlines.
 
"When Simpson arrived in Spain for his seventh attempt at the World Championship he was, to some extent, a broken man. Only six weeks earlier he had abandoned in the Tour de France, forced to retire with blood poisoning as a result of a crash in the mountains the previous week. He had ridden for five days with his left hand and arm swollen, unable to grip his handlebars properly. He suffered agonies and yet, when the doctors pulled him out of the race, he cried with rage and frustration because he could not finish Le Tour. Taken by helicopter to hospital he was told there that another 24-hours without treatment would have meant amputation."
 
Simpson actually recovered quickly to ride frequently in mainly smaller races back at his continental base in Belgium and although his results throughout August were extremely modest he was steadily clocking up the miles. Simpson was, as we will see, also the most cunning and crafty of racers and it is more than possible that he was deliberately flying under the radar and encouraging rivals – many of whom had either seen or heard reports of his emergency exit from the Tour – to dismiss him as a contender. 
 
""Saunders knew his man well though and wasn't fooled for a minute. On the morning of the race he wrote an upbeat preview for the Sunday Telegraph, which rather went against the grain, with his optimism based on both a respect for Simpson's talent and his own inside track on what was going on with the major contenders. 
 
In the French team the big beasts Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor were at daggers drawn with no realistic chance of the team uniting behind one rider while equally the Belgium team – and travelling press – didn’t seem committed to their obvious contender Rick van Looy.
 
Italy, meanwhile, were certain to be without two of their strongest riders in Felice Gimondi and Vittorio Adorni and to the objective observer the race was actually very open.  Saunders was also much encouraged by what he felt was one of Britain’s strongest ever teams which had been gathered in support of Simpson – Vin Denson, Alan Ramsbottom, Keith Butler, Michael Wright and a  young and eager Barry Hoban were all eager for the fray.
 
Just before the start Saunders went for a stroll to chat with the riders as they gathered on the line. As you do. Naturally he approached Simpson who, in a perhaps slightly overloud and obvious voice, commented: "Well Donald, no more stupid lone efforts for me. I'm going to sit in and wait for my chance – if it comes." 
 
Saunders was then pushed to one side by a photographer who for reasons unknown was eager to grab a shot of Simpson together with Rudi Altig who was standing nearby. Very prescient and as Saunders later commented: "I have often wondered how much the photographer got for the picture which showed the first two finishers in the World Championship BEFORE it had been run.”
 
And so the race began with Hoban immediately getting in a big early break which was initiated by the home Spanish riders with the Portuguese also showing early aggression. Simpson and Altig decided to bridge over to after just three laps. So much for ‘sitting in and waiting for his chance’, a comment which had immediately aroused Saunders suspicion because it would have been so untypical of the ultra-aggressive Simpson. Something was afoot
 
Simpson did his share, but no more, of the work but Hoban worked exceptionally hard to animate the break and ram home the advantage in the persistent rain that had dogged the Championships all week.  At halfway they were well over two minutes clear at which point a strong six man group, including Ireland’s Shay Elliott, detached themselves from the bunch only for the hard driving Elliott to puncture and the move fizzle out. The peloton, including a young Eddy Merckx, raised the white flag very early in the piece. The 14-man break was away, the winner would come from their ranks.
 
Onwards ever onwards in the rain. The break thinned little by little with the stalwart Hoban eventually hitting a wall of fatigue although he took good care as he ‘fell off’ with a few laps to go, he took care to make sure he was in front of the dangerous but struggling Italian Franco Balmamion. Distanced from the disappearing break Balmamion never managed to get back on terms.
 
The war of attrition continued and then, on his way back from filing a batch of copy from a mobile cable office, Saunders heard over the tannoy that two riders had broken clear on the penultimate lap up the Hernani climb. Rushing back to the press tribune seats he was informed it was Altig and Simpson but refused to believe until he saw it with his own two eyes as they crossed beneath him with one lap to go.
 
"There were the Great Britain colours, the blue jersey and red sleeves just ahead of the powerfully built figure of Rudi Altig. Suddenly and incredibly the big crowd of Belgian supporters – complete with hats, umbrellas and banners daubed with Van Looy, Ward Sels etc started chanting Simpson, Simpson, Simpson.” 

Saunders supressed the growing butterflies in his stomach and as they disappeared out of view stationed himself by the nearest TV set in the tribune, the continental journalists pushing him to the front to ensure a front row seat as his countryman did battle.
 
“I watched with bated breath as the two men alternated at the front, each doing his share of the work. By now the whole of Europe was watching this final drama being played out. That is every country except Britain – who had not taken the Eurovision link – a great shame for, as a great sporting nation, we should have been able to witness one of our finest triumphs.
 
"I thought about the other British riders for a moment as the announcement was made that Michael Wright had retired. All of them had done their job magnificently guarding the attacks from the bunch and generally slowing things down whenever possible. That was of course Denson, Butler Wright and Ramsbottom, for Hoban had done his share in the breakaway. In fact he had done more than his share to keep the group clear and Simpson paid tribute to his efforts after the race."

 
In his autobiography Simpson revealed that the duo struck a deal that they would ride hard in unison until the final kilometre to ensure that they stayed away and Altig, as the more renowned sprinter, would probably have fancied his chances under that arrangement athough Simpson had a good turn of speed himself. 
 
What followed though was intriguing. Under the gentleman’s agreement it seems Simpson was reluctant to launch a full out attack on the final Hernani climb but what he did do was up the pace and make it hard while at the same time implying that he himself was almost spent. If you look at the grainy black and white footage on YouTube Simpson definitely seems to be pulling a fast one, almost theatrically overplaying his own suffering and fatigue.  It was his own version of the classic rope-a-dope tactics from the boxing ring. 
 
""Altig, who had performed a minor miracle himself to arrive in a competitive state at the Worlds after breaking his leg earlier at the Vuelta earlier in the season, either simply didn't notice or was too tired – they had been racing for over six and half hours – to be particularly bothered. He would deal with Simpson down on the final straight. Saunders picks up the story. 
 
"Two hundred yards out Simpson went with Altig swinging across to try and hold the Englishman’s wheel. Those last yards were agony for everyone was waiting for the German to come through and thrust his machine ahead. Suddenly it dawned on us that he had no strength left and Simpson was pulling away! One, two and then at the line three bike lengths clear and a very tired Altig unable to do a thing about it.
 
"Then chaos. Riders, team managers, supporters, pressmen, police, soldiers, cameramen jammed in a solid mass around the British pit. People were cheering and crying at the same time. Foreign journalists crowded around shaking my hand and those of other British reporters. Some were crying, others were laughing, all were delighted for this was a most popular victory."

 
So there you have it. Sometimes we should put aside the angst of his death and take care to remember Tom Simpson in his steely British patriotic pomp, the brave pioneer and those plucky foot soldiers who helped him pull off of a miraculous win against the odds. Ultimately his story didn't end well but my god there were some glorious moments along the way.