The keen observer would have noticed that Roger Hassenforder is riding for the Ouest team, which is to all intents and purposes, the Breton team. There are notable exceptions, but the general rule is that if you’re from the region, you ride for the region. And that had almost always been the case. Hassenforder, being from Alsace, would usually have found a place in the Nord-Est-Centre team.
So why is he riding for the Bretons?
Or more pertinently, why is he not riding for the Nord-Est-Centre team?
The answer to that is: because he’s Roger Hassenforder. A trouble-maker. An enigma wrapped in a joke wrapped in a superstar wrapped in a ticking timebomb.
Hassenforder was born in Sausheim, not far from Colmar in the Alsace region. His formative years were spent in the shadow of German occupation, which gave the young Roger plenty of opportunity for mischief. His teacher was a small, bald, frail-looking German man the children named ‘Popeye’. Suspecting that Popeye was vulnerable to the occasional bribe, Roger would sneak him some of the family rations of lard, resulting in marks that were indirectly proportionate to Roger’s academic aptitude.
When Popeye was replaced by a slim, younger German lady who was immune to Roger’s lard, he simply replied: “She wants it really. She’s just trying to watch her weight”, and Roger’s marks returned to normal.
For many years, Roger simply didn’t bother going to school. When he did, he was caught burning petrol in the ink pots and was shown the door.
The Germans came and went, came back again – and then left in the liberation, but left behind a number of landmines. Roger, of course, had been watching them place the landmines, and scurried over to retrieve the liquid and the detonators inside each one. Simply tap on the top with a screwdriver, and the landmine revealed its treasure to you. Perfect for fishing, so it turned out – simply detonate in the water, and the dead fish rise to the surface.
Roger survived this expedition, but one of his best friends returned from landmine-gathering without his leg.
As the occupation went on, Roger got more adventurous. There were revolvers, grenades, cigarettes and a whole host of weapons and explosives that Roger kept hidden in the tomb of an old priest Roger had a particular affection for. The Germans had long suspected him, and even caught him red-handed stealing cigarettes one day, but never found his little arsenal.
Roger particularly liked a swing-barrel revolver that he found on one of his expeditions into enemy territory. The revolver failed to fire when Roger pulled the trigger, aiming carelessly at a tree. He pulled again, but once more, the revolver failed. He pointed it as his sister and then at his grand-mother, both of whom ran away screaming.
It was only later that day, when the revolver was in Roger’s pocket that it finally fired. The bullet penetrated Roger’s hand, blood flowed down his leg. It was a fall, he told his mother. Some raised ironworks, quite a bad cut. His father only found out what happened two days later, and ordered him to go to hospital.
With the Germans still occupying Sausheim, the only way to get to the hospital in Mulhouse was through the forest, hoping the Germans wouldn’t see him. Carrying a white flag, Roger stumbled head-down through the trees. German voices called out, gunshots were fired, bullets whistled past Roger’s ears. Finally, Roger was caught by a German officer and beaten severely, before being told to go to Colmar hospital instead.
Returning home, Roger takes his mother’s bike and so begins his love of cycling. Or, to be more precise at this stage in his cycling career, cyclo-cross. Riding through the mud and the bomb craters with one good hand, one bad, Roger reaches Colmar hospital to find the war-wounded naturally given preference over a boy with a bullet in his hand.
By 4am, a delirious Roger is singing La Marseillaise while a German surgeon removes the bullet. He is ordered to stay in the hospital.
As you’re beginning to get an impression of the type of boy Roger Hassenforder was, you can probably imagine that Roger was not the type to take orders. With fighting raging around the hospital, Roger was forced to stay put.
Finally, with Christmas approaching, he escaped the hospital through the kitchen window, searched for his mother’s bike in vain and ran into the town square, finding another bike. He ripped the bag off the handlebars and rode the 40km back to Sausheim to find that the fighting had spread to his home town. It would have been an apocalyptic scene as Roger approached Sausheim; the flames would have been visible from miles away. The family home had not been spared, and Mrs Hassenforder was hiding at a neighbours house.
On spotting him, she did a double-take. Who was this fat-faced child staring through the window? Roger had been gone for six weeks and had gained 10 kilos in the process.
Come summer, and with the Germans out of the way, Roger went back to the priest’s tomb to discover that his small arsenal had been left untouched. Bingo. Time to have some fun.
There was a small temporary toilet in the forest, miraculously untouched by the retreating army. Roger moved his arsenal to the toilet in the forest and promised his friends a fireworks show. Over several days, he continued to douse the toilet with petrol and sulphates until finally, with invites sent, Roger was ready to detonate the stolen loot.
With his friends hiding behind an embankment, Roger lit the fuse and jumped on his bike. The explosion was ferocious; reports stated that the noise could be heard over ten kilometres away. Roger was found 20 metres from his bike, his clothes and his skin charred black by the fire. At first, the pain didn’t even occur to him. His friends gawped, stupefied at the figure standing before them. And then a scream. The pain seared from toenail to scalp and back again, and Roger ran. He ran, hoping to outpace the pain, back to his mother. Back to the hospital in Mulhouse where he would spend the next 6 months suffering skin grafts and painkillers and crutches.
And the discovery, later that summer, that some of the more potent explosives had failed to detonate. Had they succeeded, there would surely have been no Roger Hassenforder at the 1956 Tour de France.
Just One Year Ago…
Throughout his career as a cyclist, Roger Hassenforder would prove no less explosive. He rode mainly for himself, abandoning when he had had enough, attacking when he felt like it, and wasting his energy to the detriment of his teammates.
In 1955, Hassenforder was selected for Saveur Ducazeaux’s North-East-Centre team alongside Gilbert Bauvin. After participating in the breakaway in the first stage, he took it upon himself to attempt to bridge the gap in the second stage. Bauvin was furious at the Alsacien for wasting his energy and that of his teammates.
“Watch my back wheel tomorrow, Bauvin,” he yelled at the dinner table. “I’ll be done with my massage by the time you finish.”
The next morning, it was Louison Bobet who broke away at the very start of the stage. Having spent his early career fomenting a venomous rivalry with “Bobette”, it was highly unlikely Hassenforder would go with him. But go with him he did, and the two put aside their differences to force a pace that the peloton would find too much to bear.
Hassenforder lost his bidons at a railway crossing, which meant he had to accept whatever he could from the crowds lining the road. 20 kilometres from the finish in Roubaix, Roger felt so good that he hit the bottom of a short but steep hill alone, only to reach the top having been hit with the hammer. He finished back in 12th, but more importantly, Gilbert Bauvin finished a whole 30 minutes behind.
That night at the dinner table, only Roger Walkowiak and Gilbert Scodeller would talk to him. The rest of the team had already shunned Hassenforder for his alliance with Bobet and the manner with which he had forced the pace all day.
Roger’s attitude was more of a serene “screw them”, promising to give his teammates another thrashing the next day on the stage from Metz to Colmar. And he was indeed true to his word, forming the early breakaway and then insisting that the pace of the breakaway was too slow, charging ahead and taking with him a handful of men. Some refused to ride with him. Jean Bobet, brother of Louison, declined to work on the front – his teammate was in yellow, and his job was to slow things down. But alone, Hassenforder won the stage, entering his home velodrome of Colmar with 9 minutes ahead of the peloton.
Roger Hassenforder was 2nd in the Tour de France.
Colmar expoded with joy. Parties went on well into the night, and Roger was naturally the life and soul of Colmar that evening.
However, in the North-East-Centre team, the fractures were widening. They blamed him for taking Jean Bobet higher up the general classification with him. They blamed him for riding against Gilbert Bauvin. And they were right – he was riding against Bauvin. He was riding against all 9 teammates, and even his technical director Ducazeaux declared “we are 9 now.”
All this, of course, despite Roger Hassenforder regularly filling the communal coffers.
On the stage from Colmar to Zurich, Roger was beginning to feel the strain of the previous day’s efforts. He was shunned not just by his teammates, but by the whole peloton. Not a soul spoke to Hassenforder, whose rumbustious behaviour hid a sensitive soul for whom isolation is punishment. He had no allies, and little by little, kilometre by kilometre, the heart went out of Hassen’s tour.
In the 8th stage, from Thonon-les-Bains to Briancon, Roger immediately falls out of the back of the peloton and stops at the side of the road.
“Get me the doctor. I’ve got ulcers in my mouth.”
Marius Dupin, race commissioner, eyes Hassenforder with suspicion: “Doctor, is he really ill?”
Dr Dumas takes one look at the fallen rider and says,
“As a man, I’d have to say he’s taking the piss out of us all. As a doctor, I’d have to concur that he does have ulcers.”
Dr. Dumas, 1955
And so ended Roger Hassenforder’s tumultuous Tour of 1955. Isolated by the peloton, adored and despised by the fans in equal measure, and eventually poorer for the lack of post-Tour contracts, Roger Hassenforder locked his bike away and returned to his true passion: hunting. He would speak of 1956 and his desire to return to the Tour, but not under the tutelage of Sauveur Ducazeaux, and especially not alongside that rat Gilbert Bauvin.
Perhaps being ostracised from his regional team had a mollifying effect on Hassenforder. With the help of team director Francis Pelissier, the Alsacien discovered a lighter, more race-ready diet. More liquid, less fat. Shorter training rides, more discipline.
Rebuilding His Reputation
Roger had returned to riding in 1956 with the aim of re-building his reputation both with the fans and his peers in the peloton. The financial difficulties he suffered at the end of 1955 were – perhaps – the final straw for a man whose impetuous behaviour had nearly ruined him. After all, how could he hunt elephants in Cameroon on the pittance he earned from last season?
The problem remained, however. None of the Technical Directors of the Tour teams would take on Hassenforder after last year’s antics. For Ducazeaux, it was a flat “non”. But fate would have mercy on Roger. Albert Bouvet, one of the first names on Leon Le Calvez’s Ouest teamsheet, pulled out of the Tour due to a knee injury. Le Calvez turned to Roger Hassenforder.
“I’m a little bit Breton”, he joked to reporters. “Why, my grandmother used to play the bagpipes.”
Under Le Calvez, Roger Hassenforder had found a new lease of life. In stage 1, Roger was frequently at the front of the peloton trying to reduce Andre Darrigade’s lead. He led the counter-attack on the second stage, successfully pegging back the breakaway of Debruyne, Mallejac and Pardoen.
And so, here at the fourth stage, fate is ready to pounce on Roger Hassenforder once more.
The Broken Pedal
Today’s stage is broken up into two parts. Firstly, and very early in the morning, a time trial around the Essarts circuit.
Not Roger’s favourite discipline, and certainly not a time trial that would suit him. This would be an opportunity for Gaul, Brankart, Bahamontes and Geminiani – the climbers will have a chance to earn back some of the significant losses they have incurred over the first few stages.
Roger’s aim is simply to get through the morning.
However, just a few hundred metres into Roger’s effort, a pedal breaks. Instantly, he’s off his bike, fiddling with the pedal, trying to fix it back, but there’s no way Roger can ride like this.
“What am I meant to do?” he pleads with the race commissioner.
“Take your bike back – you can’t replace it during a time trial. Go ask Felix for the rule book.”
Is this it, he wonders. Is this the end of my Tour? Unable to complete a time trial, unable to complete a stage because of a broken pedal?
“No Hassen,” Felix reassures him. “You’ll just have to take the time of the last man over the line.”
“Is that all? That’s brilliant!” beams Roger.
“Plus 5%, of course. As a penalty.”
He shrugs. He really doesn’t care.
The first men are returning to the tents prepared for the riders who have to face the 125km from Rouen to Caen in the afternoon. The effort has visibly put a strain on some riders, especially the rouleurs and the support men not used to tackling such steep hills so early in a tour. One by one, they drape themselves over armchairs, stuff their mouths with breakfast and for some – sleep.
The new Roger Hassenforder, the 1956 model, is having none of this. For Roger, it’s an opportunity to take his revenge on fate. A fresh rider – with a proper warm-up – would be no contest for the time-trial-weary peloton. So while the other riders are draped over chaise longues, some sleeping, others reading or being massaged by their soigneurs, Roger Hassenforder is out on the course warming up.
Just 40km into the 125km stage from Rouen to Caen, Roger makes his move, and it’s his teammates Amande Audaire and Fernand Picot, along with Barbotin and Privat from the French national team, followed by Voorting and Close, who follow in his wake.
Just one year ago, Hassenforder was without friends and had been shunned by his teammates who refused to talk to him. Today, he is the captain of a group of three Bretons, both of whom are putting in hard turns on the front for Hassen. What has happened behind is a fracturing of the peloton. Walkowiak, Wagtmans and Bauvin are part of a group of five behind, with the Italian Nencini and Hassenforder’s teammate and mentor Louis Caput.
Further back, there’s a Darrigade group which is the only group not to include a Breton. Darrigade knows that behind him, the yellow jersey of Desmet is struggling. He latches onto the team car and enquires about the gap between his group and the peloton. The car drops back and makes enquiries over the radio, before pulling back in. Darrigade leans in, and from his demeanour, it is obvious that the yellow jersey is back in play.
At the front, Hassenforder’s advantage is growing. His teammates Audaire and Picot are hunched over their handlebars, gritting their teeth. The French riders are clinging on, and at times even pull from the front as well. The kilometres tick down and the two chasing groups come together, mostly through Darrigade’s insistence.
It is inevitable, then, that Roger Hassenforder wins this stage, in what was not so much a sprint as a coronation. His teammates have given their all for Hassen, and they are richly rewarded as the Ouest team take the lead in the team classification, also known as the Martini challenge. That means more money in the Breton coffers.
And so, as André Darrigade pulls on the yellow jersey with Gilbert Desmet finishing over 15 minutes behind, the man from Narrosse is almost a footnote. He still hopes, of course, that he can hold the jersey until the Pyrenees and beyond, which is a stretch given that there isn’t a single member of his team who doesn’t hope to steal the jersey from his back.
The cheers are not for Darrigade. They are entirely for Roger Hassenforder – popular once more.