André Darrigade has the look of a man brought up under a burning sun. Stocky, square-jawed, sun-tanned and – usually – of bright disposition, Darrigade is France’s great sprinting hope. Some would say (André included) that he’s more than that. They’d call him a routier-sprinter, fast at the finish but more than capable of organising a peloton and chasing down breakaways.
Andre is from the Landes region of France, a land of duck fat and goose liver, of sunlit uplands and cornfields, of hearty meals and heartier wines. And while all around André have lived life at the languid pace the temperature often demands of them, André has lived his life in a hurry. Nothing could happen quickly enough. Which is, if you think about it, apt for a sprinter.
Today however, as the Tour prepares to get underway, André is under a cloud. The team have noticed it, the journalists have made a point of it. His mind is elsewhere. The grey clouds have gathered just for André.
Just days ago, his brother Roger – another (lesser) cyclist – had been marched out of the family home on military service. There were tears that day. They came unannounced, as they often do, in their numbers. They filtered into the kitchen and read out their proclamation that Roger Darrigade would be serving with the French army. It’s 1956, not 1812, his mother had cried, tears in her eyes, plates broken on the terracotta floor of their farmhouse kitchen. When they call, you can’t refuse, and you can’t delay. They’ll send him to Algeria. Some boys don’t come back.
Roger didn’t even look over his shoulder.
Roger wasn’t alone. Jacques Anquetil had also received the call-up just weeks ago. Jacques and André had become good friends; they had hoped to ride the Tour together. But Jacques wouldn’t get Algeria, surely. Someone would put a word in.
This was no way to start a Tour.
Gilbert Bauvin leans across, breaking André’s reverie. “Seen those Belgians?” he conspires. “Getting done for logos on their shorts. Goddet’s fuming.”
André looks across at Stan Ockers who is wearing more logos than the caravane publicitaire. Ah yes, Ockers. Rainbow jersey. Got to watch him, him and his logos.
André checks his shorts.
Bauvin was one of those riders he couldn’t wait to see the back of. Or, to be more precise, one of those riders he wanted to show his back to. He wasn’t meant to be in the French team this year – it should have been Louison, or any number of other riders. But Gilbert Bauvin was a regional rider, not a tricolore. Fidgeting, André Darrigade turns away from Bauvin and taps his handlebars. Race, damnit, start the race.
No, André was not a patient man. He turned up at the Velodrome d’Hiver in 1950 wearing a pair of loose shorts and a white shirt. He just wanted to race, wanted to show the world beyond his small town or Narrosse that he could ride, and ride fast. No rules against that, they said, laughing.
Round after round went by, the young André winning each one by several bike lengths. They weren’t laughing any more. Until he came up against the world champion Maspès. The Italian, who was unbeaten, looked him up and down and mentally chalked up another win, yet another payment in the bank. André beat him on the line, a whole wheel length in front.
Nothing could come quickly enough.
The Tour starts off with a neutralised départ fictif, a leisurely bike ride through the streets of Reims, at first some wide boulevards, a couple of roundabouts and the buildings start to shrink in size. André Darrigade is at the front, avoiding his teammates and avoiding eye contact with any other rider, fixing his eyes on the handlebars and the solitary wheel in front of him.
Outside Reims, Jacques Goddet waves from atop the Peugeot, and the Tour is underway. At last.
Wout Wagtmans, the miniature Dutchman known as De Clown makes the first break for it, only to be hauled in – request for breakaway refused. Voorting, another Dutchman, makes a burst off the front just two kilometres later, only to be reeled back in by Darrigade who is setting a furious pace. At 55km per hour, it’s hard to break free. He settles back in alongside his compatriot.
Yes, I tried too. It didn’t work.
An actual breakaway would form when Brian Robinson – the only Englishman in the Tour – found a gap and ploughed straight through it. Nello Laurédi entered his slipstream almost by accident and found himself three or four metres ahead of the peloton. Make your mind up time. Darrigade’s mind was made up, and his move was the signal for others to join. Voorting, Walkowiak, Barbosa, Van der Pluym, Vlaeyen, Baffi… and Fritz Schär, the dangerous Swiss rider, the last to bridge the gap. Within three kilometres, the peloton had given up hope and the Tour’s first breakaway was set.
It is normal for a breakaway to operate in silence. A tacit acknowledgement from each man that in order to stay away, the breakaway must work together and work hard. This, however, is a Darrigade breakaway. Any break with André Darrigade in it is – by definition – a Darrigade breakaway. The last thing any other rider wants is to do all the work and end up being overtaken by Darrigade on the line. So the routier-sprinter has to do the bulk of the work, which means sitting on the front and forcing a pace that would break lesser men.
That pace started to tell. After 77km, the gap to the peloton had extended to 3’35”. Once over the Rocroi climb and through the feeding zone, the chalk boards had the gap up to 5 minutes. At the Belgian border, the peloton was an astonishing 8 minutes behind.
Some men succumbed to bike problems. Walkowiak had been looking good but a puncture saw to his chances and the peloton would soon provide him with a home. Voorting and Lauredi had given too much, too soon, and Vlaeyen soon followed with Baffi not far behind.
That left three men…
That left three men: André himself, Brian Robinson and Fritz Schär. A Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German-speaking Swiss.
It doesn’t take a language degree to understand the language of the roadman. A flicked elbow, a shake of the head, an outstretched hand and an exasperated sigh. Darrigade pufs out his cheeks and sucks it up. It’s his breakaway.
He looks behind. Robinson, he looks tough but those aren’t sprinter’s legs. You’d worry about him if you were in a fight though. Riding for Luxembourg this year – the English experiment failed last year, although he still finished 24th and therefore he’s a danger. Rides for Raymond Louviot and the St. Raphaël team, so the boy’s got some talent. And Charly Gaul must like him if he’s riding for Luxembourg.
And if Charly Gaul likes him, then he must be good.
And Schär. He’s wily. You have to be wily if you’ve spent your entire career trying to nick wins from under the noses of Koblet and Kübler. He’s worn the yellow jersey before, Darrigade thinks, and he’s a doper. Everyone knows he’s a doper. Worse than that, he’s what the French would call ratagasse – a wheel-sucker. He never participates, he just sits on your wheel and takes the draft. He even looks like a ratagasse. Small, scrawny and balding, the type of B-class rider who lives in the shadows of greater men hoping to pick off the scraps they occasionally throw. Hugo Koblet, now there was a rider. A gentleman, too. Always carried a comb in his back pocket, always had a kind word, and who was always on his wheel, waiting for him to bonk? Old Fritzi Schär.
André looks ahead. A break in the clouds at last and André can pretend, in his mind, that he’s riding south towards the sun. The gloom of Reims has lifted. Gone are the grey skies of Champagne, blown on the breeze. Belgium has bathed itself in warm, fuzzy yellow sunlight to welcome the Tour. Dinant, it is – a pretty town, cathedral reflected in the Meuse river as the three companions cross the bridge. Its inhabitants had gathered early, decking the town out in yellow, none of them expecting the leaders to pass through what turned out to be a full 36 minutes ahead of schedule. They were still putting up the hanging baskets.
A full ten minutes later, those who had sneaked into the bar and missed the trio of breakaway hopefuls burning up the fresh tarmac would get the opportunity to see the peloton. Fans ten deep hurled their appreciation – some hurled more than that. De Bruyne, Impanis, Ockers, Brankart – our boys! Our boys – ten minutes back.
It took Belgium to make the Tour come alive. As it often does.
Deeper into Belgium they rode. Occasionally, Darrigade would get a break as Schär or Robinson took pity on him and bore some of the workload, each man maintaining that brutal pace that Darrigade had insisted on from morning onwards. The outskirts of Liège took on a more industrial tone as the tarmac deteriorated and straight roads became roundabouts and corners. It’s almost as if Liège were still at war. The air was heavier and dirtier than anything the riders had encountered on the route north.
The chalkboards reassured the three men that one of them would be wearing the yellow jersey, and if they were honest with each other, they all knew who. On entering the velodrome, both Robinson and Schär instinctively drop back behind Darrigade. We’ll find your slipstream, they imply, and we’ll take you on the line.
This, to André, is like a red rag to a bull.
He hits the bank hard and leaves them two, three bike lengths behind. Four, five and six bike lengths and finally they break and there’s still half the velodrome to ride.
Of course, André takes the stage, even slowing down as he reaches the line to throw his arms in the air and celebrate. A smile, at last. Schär and Robinson barely have the energy to fight it out for second place. The result was never really in doubt – and if you think about it, the result probably wasn’t in doubt from the minute the riders left Reims. Perhaps hindsight is a wonderful thing, but not once did André Darrigade let the pace drop. A procession at 50km per hour.
And so, as André Darrigade pulls on the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, does he have pretentions to take it any further? Does he think it’s his to keep? After all, his team director Marcel Bidot had confidently declared that there is no team leader this year. They’ll support the man who leads. Find me a leader, he might as well have said, for I have not a clue.
Could that man be André?
No, he would retort. I’m your sprinter. I’m your routier-sprinter. I’m here to win stages, and I’m here to be useful. I’ll distract attention from your star riders, whoever they may be this year, and that’s my job. I’ll stick to it.
André had caught his breath, had a drink and had even carried out some of his first interviews with the press when the peloton belatedly entered the velodrome, a blur of colour and disappointment. The Belgians were meant to win their stage, but they were taken by surprise, unable to get anyone other than Vlaeyen into the first break and he couldn’t keep up. Brankart would keep himself for the mountains, but Ockers – the rainbow jersey – where was he?
The Italians, led by the giant Alfredo Binda, were hugely disappointing. They might point to the lack of a Coppi or a Bartali, but Nencini and De Filippis were meant to do better than this. Their race tactics would certainly come in for scrutiny from the local press.
But the truth is that André Darrigade had raced them all off his back wheel. And there were many reasons why this was one of the fastest stages in Tour history. You could point to the roads, as good as they have been since the first World War. Reparations had taken some time, as Liège could attest, but give a man smooth tarmac and you’ll hear the hum of skinny tyres and you’ll feel the machine take flight. For the first time ever, a puncture could be solved by simply changing a wheel. No need to carry your inner tubes around your shoulders any more.
The frenzy, however, could only really be attributed to the man who rode off his problems. How better to put your worries to one side than to ride the hell out of your bike and make other men suffer?