Tom Simpsons own story of his 1964 Milan-San Remo win

First '64 Classic goes to Simpson - New record in Milan-San Remo after 20 mile breakaway

MILAN-SAN REMO was much harder for me to win than Bordeaux-Paris last year, and this time I started the favourite and knew that I was going to win it once the final break had been made after 157 miles. But before this break, I wondered if I was going to get to the end of the road that leads to San Remo, let alone be in a winning position, the race was so dangerous. Theoretically, 150 riders maximum is the rule for the top races counting for the World Cup, but in Italy, where this is also the first big national classic, and where the Italians have been hunting for a winner for 11 years, everybody gets into the act. In all 230 started, including the most hopeless lot of cowboys you could ever meet. I started the race with a 32-spoke front wheel and a 28-spoke rear, but when I came to examine my front wheel after the event, I found four bent spokes; English riders cannot imagine the crowding that goes on when a huge peloton tries to go through a narrow village street that winds, and riders try to get to the front so as not to run any risks. We rode this race not to the nearest foot, but to within centimetres of the next chap’s wheel most of the way. In 1960, when I was just starting and I was scared, I tried to get out of this by going off on my own in a solo break for 45 miles before being caught. This time I knew better.

A mere 170

I knew that if I could keep my head and my skin I was strong enough to get away from the others in the bunch when the going got hard, as it always does when the hills come. These are three steep, winding climbs, the Mele, the Cervo and the Berta, which take you from sea level to 400 feet in a few kilometres and which really test the riders. Well then, I waited until the field had begun to thin out, a mere 170 or so riders, and then I thought I would try a little harder on the Capo Berta. This was only intended as a try-out, but I had evidently under-estimated by own fitness by comparison with the others, as only Poulidor came back. I saw he was not on top form, he was blowing heavily, and I decided that we would work together and not try too hard; I still have memories of the 1960 race. Then Willy Bocklandt, one of the Flemish Flandria team who have orders to watch me carefully, got on, and Meco, a new young Italian, who was trying to make a name.

Four teams

We all worked together, but it was obvious to me that the others were feeling the effects of their counter-attack;  nevertheless we got a 1-20 lead on the bunch, in which Van Looy and his Solo team were working furiously to catch us, and Peter Post and the Flandria team were working just as hard to protect Bocklandt. It was quite deliberate on my part;  I could easily have shaken Willy off, but I knew that with four different teams in our four-man break we stood quite a fair chance of lasting out, and I was the best of the four. Came the last big climb, the Poggio, and Poulidor decided to throw everything into a climbing attack as he had done when he won the race in 1961. He almost surprised me, and I lost a couple of lengths but he couldn’t force it any more and I got him back, though Bocklandt and Meco were shattered by his second and third tries, and soon we were left alone. Apparently Poulidor thought he still stood a chance of winning the sprint, which is on a straight, wide road, the Via Roma in San Remo. I might point out that all I ate for the whole 180 miles were a few honey cakes and a couple of bread rolls with honey, and I drank nothing;  in fact I threw out my two bidons of tea and oats and raisins in water. I attacked Poulidor at the entrance to the Via Roma, gained a quick couple of lengths on him, and then led him right in for the last 500 metres. At first, he tried hard to get by, but towards the end, realising he wouldn’t do it, and knowing there was no one else behind, he sat up and gave me best. It was chaotic, because I have always bee popular in Italy, and the crowd went wild with joy, and I had to escape in a car for fear of being suffocated. I learned afterwards that I had broken the record for the event at more than 27.1 mph against the previous record of 26.6 mph. What did I get?  Not a penny, though I won £400.

Gave away £400

I gave it all to my team-mates, Jean Forestier, Claude Valdois, Francois Hamon, Pierre Nedelec and Alain Vera of France and Emile Daems and George Van Coningsloo of Belgium. The others would have done the same;  it’s good business, because then you all work harder for the chap at the front. Another problem I don’t intend to encounter is that of having everyone teamed up against me, as Rik Van Looy did through trying to win everything at once. During the next few weeks I shall take things a little easier, get seconds and thirds, and save my energy for a big one. The next one? That’s easy, just go back to 1960 and remember how I missed Paris-Roubaix;  well that’s on April 19, and that’s one I really want to get. But for the moment I still haven’t recovered from the reception I got in Ghent when I returned on Friday evening. I got out of the train, and there was the local brass band playing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and other songs from the first world war, before carting me and Helen off to a reception at the traditional cyclist’s Café den Engels where Keith Butler was waiting to give me a good old British handshake of congratulation. If you’ve ever seen 150 Belgians singing and drinking beer you’ll know what happened afterwards;  that’s what “cycling club” means to Belgians! To show  you  how  strong I was,  I rode the last 20 miles with only the 14-18-20 working on my freewheel (53 x 45 chainwheel) because of a plastic bag that had become jammed in it, yet despite the jump in ratios I could still hold Poulidor on the Poggio. But I’m forgetting all about Bordeaux-Paris this year;  I’m going all out to ride a good Tour de France instead.  I’ve gained five pounds of muscular weight this winter, swimming and ski-ing, and I should be able to ride a good one.  Then in 1965 I shall probably give it a miss and concentrate on the classics.

Tom Simpson winning the 1964 Sanremo
Story © Cycling and Mopeds (March 28 1964)