We are just four stages into this Tour de France, and the Tour physician, Dr. Dumas, has hardly slept. First of all, Fritz Schär, the Swiss ratagasse, is suffering from his injuries after a fall yesterday. An innocent slip at the time, no more than that, but Schär landed on his brakes. A contortionist’s fall, but one that has led to him spitting blood this morning and Dr. Dumas has told him he can continue – but at the risk of several weeks’ suffering.
“Speak slowly,” insists Schär. “I understand French, but only if you speak slowly.”
Dr. Dumas does his best, but the doctor’s habit of machine-gun diagnosis takes over, and Schär understands the meaning, if not the words. His Tour is over.
Nello Laurédi is next in the Doctor’s waiting room. He has been coughing since the start of the Tour, but not at the expense of speed. He finds himself third in the General Classification, so Dr. Dumas is wondering why he has been visited.
“But I also have a pain, just here,” says Laurédi, pointing at his heart.
Dr. Dumas studies the electrocardiogram taken in Reims ahead of the Tour. “There’s nothing wrong with you. And you’ve been riding rather well, have you not?”
Dr. Dumas doesn’t care for cycling. He’d rather be walking in the Pyrenees, but he makes more money doing the Tour than he makes all year. He is making an effort.
“Come to think of it,” muses the third-placed rider, “I took this tonic in Italy during the Giro. My cough stopped after the Giro when I stopped taking it.”
Dumas has heard this one before. “You’re using it again, aren’t you.”
He nods. “You know what to do.”
Jean Dotto is next, although Dotto is made of tough stuff. He fell on yesterday’s stage, hurting his head.
“Please, no bandages this year, Doctor. It’s hot out there.”
Dumas is pleased. This one’s simple. In fact, as it turns out, only the Belgians and the Italians have failed to take advantage of the Doctor’s services, and he’s beginning to wonder how the likes of Brankart are getting by without him.
Brankart, he knows, is suffering from a knee injury, and Dr. Dumas, having taken a slight interest in the event this year, knows that the Belgian rider has been losing time even to his own teammates, and all this after he finished 2nd in the Tour last year. Falling ten minutes behind Stan Ockers is embarrassing for someone like Brankart, so much so that on today’s stage from Caen to Saint Malo, Brankart is supposed to play the part of the faithful lieutenant to Ockers. He’s having none of it, refusing to drop back for water.
Gégène Serves The Drinks
As we travel from Normandy to Brittany, the Breton riders are in good heart. Yesterday’s escapade saw Roger Hassenforder take the green jersey, and his teammate Eugène Letendre spent the morning passing Calvados around the peloton. A stimulant perhaps not recommended by the Doctor himself, but the Ouest team’s resident Norman is not passing up his moment in the sunshine. Vous êtes chez moi he proffers. Drink.
Nicknamed Gégène, Letendre is a stocky, round-faced rider making his Tour debut. He’s a country boy. His only dalliance with the big city was a few minutes at the Gare Saint-Lazare, before – so he says – returning back to Normandy from whence he came. Eugène is a cyclist by necessity as much as talent. When his father died, Eugène felt a certain responsibility to provide for his family – his mother and his three brothers, who all lived together in relative poverty.
He watched bike races on Sundays and thought to himself – they’re earning a pretty packet. I can do that. And he did, using his savings to buy a rusty race bike with one pedal. He swung a lamp over the front of his bike and trained until late at night after work. Every bike race was for his family, every penny he earned went towards filling the soup pot at night and buying bread in the morning.
His one victory to date was in Bobet country – Brittany. With one lap to go before the finish, Gégène was exhausted. At the time, he was doing military service, and had slept little. He hid behind a bale of hay, took some rest, and rode out to discover that he was the first man to cross the line. Everyone else was still on that last lap.
But Letendre could not take the prize that day. He was too much of a good man to let everyone think he had won fairly. And that’s Gégène all over – a good man. A man who looks after others. The perfect teammate, in other words. And for anyone who thought that handing out some Calvados was his way of knocking the peloton out ahead of a long slog into Brittany, they had misread the man.
Vous êtes chez moi, he says, et j’en suis fier.
And I’m proud to have you here.
Joseph’s Ride Home
There is, for once, no rush. The riders are rolling through the slightly fermented Normandy countryside at a modest 38km/h. Normandy is cycling country, if you really love cycling. The Bretons might lay their claim, but Normandy is rolling hills, with long, quiet roads, sharp climbs and steep drops, before ironing itself out into false flats among low hedgerows. The weather may not play ball, but Normandy is a region where cycling is taken seriously, and very often, is taken slower in order to take in the view.
And the odour of rotting apples, which is pleasing. In a way.
The majority of this stage takes place in Normandy, in fact. It’s only after Avranches that the softer-sounding Normandy village names turn into slightly stranger Breton towns such as Baguer-Pican. It’s before Avranches that the breakaway forms. Nolten and Bertolo think they could make a day of it before they’re joined by Walkowiak, Fantini, Morvan (a Breton), and a few others.
Behind, Darrigade keeps an eye on the blackboards, making sure not to let this one get too far ahead. He marshalls the troops, and even sends Forestier up ahead to join them, if he can. Put the brakes on.
Forestier is young, but wily. He sees the French team car pulling out from the group of cars ahead, and drafts behind. Marcel Bidot looks in his rear view mirror and slows slightly to let Forestier catch his slipstream. The two men nod at each other.
Almost immediately, Felix Lévitan pulls out of the group of cars and speeds up alongside Bidot.
“Nice work, Marcel,” he shouts. “But a little bit… obvious?”
Yellow cap pulled over his face, Bidot pulls the most gallic of gallic shrugs. What? Me? What do you mean? Oh, the rider behind? I had not seen him!
“You can tell your rider he’s got a 1,000 franc fine when he arrives,” screams Lévitan over the noise of their engines.
Knobhead, thinks Bidot, as he withdraws back into his 203.
The break has entered Brittany and shows no signs of slowing up. Joseph Morvan has been putting the pressure on the other riders. The man from Morbihan is a Breton thoroughbred. Wider than other riders, Morvan was brought up on the farm. His girth has been earned not through excessive crêpe-eating and cider drinking, but hard labour.
1956 has been a good year for Morvan. He has won multiple regional competitions, as well as Paris-Bourges and Rennes-Potivy. As he passes under the flamme rouge, he senses another big win is coming his way. What’s more, he knows that the velodrome at which this stages finishes is an ash velodrome. Overtaking is fiendishly difficult, so if you can enter it first, you’ve won. Nobody else seems to know this.
It’s not hard, reading the road book. Many riders take a casual glance and look for climbs, descents, feeding stations, any areas of difficulty. Few take the initiative to look at the nature of the finish line. They just think it’s the same every time. Ash makes you keep your line, makes you stick to it.
And that’s just what Morvan does as he enters the velodrome. Fantini, the Italian, has mysteriously appeared behind him, as well as de Groot, the Dutchman. But Morvan knows, as does every Breton, that he won’t be overtaken, and he’s beaming as he takes the first bend. He’s laughing as he takes the second, and he’s punching the air before he reaches the finish line, chest out, screaming with every ounce of his soul.
This is my stage, this is my land, this is my day.
Joseph Morvan puts Brittany first, and the night has only just begun.