BEFORE Robert Millar (now Phillipa York), Chris Boardman, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and all the rest, Britain had a cycling hero of legendary proportions.

His name was Tom Simpson and he died 50 years ago this week on July 13, 1967, collapsing off his bike during a stage of the world’s greatest cycle race.

Leading the British team – the Tour was contested by national teams back then – Simpson had been ill with a bug that gave him sickness and diarrhoea. He had dropped out of the top six and was under pressure to get back up the field.

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On the 13th stage, featuring a punishing climb up Mont Ventoux, the field left Marseilles in searing temperatures which later reached 50 degrees Celsius and by the time they reached the lower slopes of the mountain, it was clear that Simpson was in desperate trouble.

He carried on, but one kilometre below the surface he toppled over. His team management pleaded with him to abandon the race but Simpson was determined to continue.

He remounted and his last words were heard by team mechanic Harry Hall: “On, on on”. Less than 500 metres later, three spectators rushed to help a wobbling Simpson who fell unconscious.

Despite desperate attempts to save him, including a helicopter airlifting Simpson to Avignon hospital, he was pronounced dead in the emergency room at 5.40pm. The Tour doctor Pierre Dumas was convinced that Simpson had died on the mountain as soon as he came off his bike. I was eight at the time, but still remember the shock that it caused to the whole of Britain. Here was a national hero, a BBC sports personality of the year in 1965, no less, a world road racing champion and a medallist in both the Olympics and the Commonwealth games, now struck down at the age of 29. It was one of the few occasions back then when sport shoved all other news off the front pages.

I had just started on my first bike back then, and loved the flashy gear that Tour de France cyclists had. I remember being in total disbelief that Tom Simpson was dead – my dad explained that it was because he had refused to give up and tried too hard, but it was still hard to take in.

No one could believe it, because Simpson was thought to be the fittest man in sport. I found out later that he was as popular in France and Belgium, where he had made his home in Ghent, as he was in Britain as the French loved his sheer commitment to cycling which is their real national sport. The race carried on, of course. All the other teams decided to let the British team win Stage 14 and Barry Hoban crossed the line wearing a black armband. Two years later Hoban married Simpson’s widow Helen and the third British man to a win stage of the Tour de France won more and became Simpson’s successor as Britain’s best-known cyclist.

It is often erroneously reported that Simpson was the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France when he did so in 1962. In fact Brian Robinson had beaten him to it in 1958, but Simpson was the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey, the famous mark of the Tour leader. Yet all the time he was competing in the various grand tour races, Tom Simpson hid a dark secret. Less than three weeks after his death – his funeral in Nottinghamshire attracted 5,000 mourners – stories began to emerge of his use of drugs and alcohol as a stimulant to better his performance.

Indeed it turned out that his racing kit contained two empty ampoules of methamphetamine and his water bottle turned out to have been full of brandy.

It seems astonishing now, but prior to the death of Simpson, sports people could inject themselves with just about anything to enhance their performance and the authorities turned a blind eye to it almost all the time. It was his tragic death which brought in the drug testing regime at the Tour de France and other major cycle races.

I have my own theory as to why Sampson risked his life on that fateful tour. He knew that the greatest cyclist of the era, the legendary Jacques Anquetil of France, had almost finished his fantastic career which included five victories in the Tour de France. He also knew that coming up fast was a young Belgian, a member of his own Peugeot commercial team, called Eddie Merckx who would go on to win five Tours in six years from 1969. Simpson knew that he really only had one or two chances to win the Tour de France and that is why he drove himself to superhuman efforts in 1967.

The real tragedy of Sampson was that he left a young widow, Helen, and two young daughters, Jane and Joanne.

They never forgot their father, however, and added their own plaque to to the newly refurbished stone memorial to him that is located at the spot where he fell and died on Mont Ventoux.

It is a place of pilgrimage for cyclists, professional and amateur, who come to dwell on the memory of the Englishman who gave his life for his sport, not knowing that the drugs he was taking were clouding his judgement about what his slim body could take – the main reason why they must always be banned.

His daughters’ plaque reads: “There is no mountain too high.” Sadly for Tom Simpson, there was one Mont that was insurmountable.