Tales from the peloton, January 28, 2007
Fiorenze Magni and Tyler Hamilton weren't the only riders to try to ride through the pain of broken bones in a Tour de France. Les Woodland looks back at French rider Pascal Simon's attempted quest to reach the Champs Elysées in yellow.
It was the year that some unknown called Miguel Indurain won the Spanish amateur road championship. In Spain generally, Felipe Gonzaléz's socialist government was ending its first year, which may not seem much to you but counted for a lot in a country with a long history of Fascist dictatorship. And across the Pyrenees in France, a man was struggling to win the Tour de France despite what he thought was a broken collarbone.
No, it wasn't Tyler Hamilton. Nor Fiorenze Magni, who tied an inner tube to his handlebars and gripped it between his teeth when he too broke a collarbone. In 1983, the man in pain was a Frenchman called Pascal Simon. Doctors strapped him up so much that he could barely move but this was the Tour and he struggled on regardless, winning the admiration and sympathy of the watching world for his terrible suffering.
For five days, he struggled on in his yellow jersey until finally it became too much, and he stopped.
"You don't abandon the Tour de France. It's so hard to come back if you do. You drop out only if you're really forced to If you're French, it means so much to get to the Champs Elysées." - Pascal Simon on abandoning the Tour de France.
That year, Bernard Hinault was expected to win. But knee pain forced him out of the race just as it had in 1980, and a new young rider called Laurent Fignon took over as head of the Renault team. The bunch licked its collective lips because he could never be the patron in the way that Hinault had been. The excitement ran particularly high in a rival French team, Peugeot, which had two riders it could count on to make a noise.
The first was a skinny little Scotsman with long hair, Robert Millar. He had been kept out of Peugeot's team for the Tour for some years. But then came a change of team manager and he had his place. To make his mark, he dominated an attack over the Tourmalet, Aspin, and Peyresourde on the stage to Luchon. Millar - who has since vanished - won the stage, the best climber in the group. But no sooner had he left the rostrum as the best of the day than another Peugeot rider, a man with a long, bony face, stepped up to take the yellow jersey.
Fignon, the great hope for Renault, was four and a half minutes down. It was a great day for Peugeot.
That night the team plotted how to keep Simon in yellow while giving Millar his head in the mountains. They may have been good plans but, unfortunately, they came to nothing. Next day, Simon touched a wheel on the undulating roads to Fleurance and he fell, tumbling on to rock. He felt, maybe even heard, the snapping of a bone. He thought it was his collarbone, which would be bad enough, and he insisted on carrying on.
Not until that night, when doctors gave him a more thorough check, did he hear he had broken not the collarbone but his shoulder blade. He was urged to leave the race. No man could survive the pain that the injury was sure to produce. And yet he struggled on for close on a week, his eyes often wet with tears. An enormous bandage surrounded his shoulder.
"You don't abandon the Tour de France," he said. "It's so hard to come back if you do. You drop out only if you're really forced to If you're French, it means so much to get to the Champs Elysées."
That dream, of riding through his capital city, kept Simon going and for a while it even looked as though he could even win. But then he reached the côte de la Chapelle. It was nothing like the Alpe d'Huez which finished the stage, but it was too much. He pulled one foot off the pedal and put it on the ground, weeping over his handlebars. A dream, the wish of a nation, the cycling world, had ended.
"I was five minutes behind the peloton," he says. "There was no point in carrying on suffering. But somehow, when you stop, the pain gets worse. It's bad when you finish a race, but it's worse when you give up before the end. And physically, people tell you it'll get better with time, day by day. But it never stops. You can never forget it. Every time you brake hard, it throws you forward on to the bars. Every bend, every bump in the road, it's the same. You don't know your limits until you're sick.'
Fignon won the Tour at his first attempt. Would he have won had Simon not crashed? Would Simon have won had he not crashed? All we know for sure is that Fignon was unbeatable the following year and that Simon rode again and came seventh, his best placing.
"I don't know whether I'd have won," Simon says now. "I could have had a big setback in one of the mountain stages. And then there was the time-trial stage, which isn't my specialty. But one thing is certain and that's that there was no favourite that year. The race was open and it was a time to make the most of it. Afterwards, there was the big battle between Hinault and Fignon."
Simon rode the Tour every year until 1991. Then he stopped for good after Paris-Tours, which he finished 147th. In 2001, a decade later, his brother François became maillot jaune on Alpe d'Huez, the end of the stage on which his brother had left the Tour. He told reporters; "Pascal said 'I lost the yellow jersey in the middle of nowhere in the Alps. Try to get it back for me.'"
The stage had barely finished when Pascal turned off the TV and set off from northern France to drive through the night to join his brother. And then François called an end to his career as well. In 2003 there was no longer a Simon in the peloton, the first time since 1980.
Pascal and François were two of seven children. Of the five brothers, four - Pascal, Régis, Jérôme and François - became racing cyclists. All rode the Tour. For nearly a quarter of a century, their parents opened the paper every day to read of at least one of their sons in the world's biggest race. And suddenly the spell was broken Just like Pascal Simon's shoulder blade.