Stage 19, Grenoble to Saint-Etienne, including the climb of the Oeillon
11 min read
The Attack They All Missed
Déjeuner sur l'herbe, or Walko's Time Trials
Conjecture Cometh The Moment The Chase Top Gun & Bidot Classement
La Chasse aux Papillons, Georges Brassens
While Walko has been having his doubts, there are others who – whisper it – are not convinced that he could, or even should, win the Tour de France.
The man is a water-carrier who got lucky in a breakaway that nobody chased down.
Had Louison been racing, he would have been ten minutes ahead by now.
He hasn’t even won a stage.
Conjecture, many might counter. And indeed, many are enthralled by the performance of Roger Walkowiak, as the crowds on the Croix-de-Fer yesterday will have demonstrated.
But aside from yesterday’s attack against a man several minutes behind him, has there been a moment to define Roger Walkowiak’s Tour? One that everyone will remember even fifty years from now? Ah…
Cometh the moment
The stage from Grenoble to Saint-Etienne is not meant to trouble the leaders of the Tour unduly. With two climbs, the Oeillon and the Grand Bois, measuring just 1,434m and 1,160m respectively, with the last climb descending towards the finish line in Saint-Etienne, the stage is the last Alpine stage, and shouldn’t carry much threat. It almost doesn’t deserve the label ‘Alpine’.
And yet… 112km into the stage, around Pélussin, Walkowiak is giving reason to his critics. He has settled into the middle of the peloton, rather than listening to the advice of Ducazeaux and Deledda, who have insisted that he ride prominently. The water-carrier has little experience of defending a yellow jersey, and has put himself at risk.
It’s hard to say how the crash happened. A wheel touching another, a swerve from a régionale, a brake out of the blue. Who knows, but around thirty riders are caught up in a mangled, tangled mess of shining silver bike frames, legs and multi-coloured shirts. And shining bright in the middle of this morass of men – on the floor – the yellow jersey.
Immediately, the Nord-Est-Centre team react in shock. Bertolo and Chupin are caught up in the mess. Huyghe and Scribante stand by with their hands on their heads, caught in shock. Only the old head of Deledda is quick enough to react to the situation. In seconds, he is off his bike, hauling the yellow jersey out of the writhing remains of the crash, fixing the saddle and checking the wheels at high speed. Walkowiak is up, on his bike, and Deledda pushes with all his might, running alongside for a full ten seconds until Walkowiak is back up to full speed.
The commissaires have noticed, and have noted that Walkowiak will require a penalty of 30 seconds.
The team is around Walkowiak, only for the yellow jersey’s tyre to puncture almost instantly.
“Shit, Scodeller, give me your wheel – quick!” cries Walkowiak, visibly panicked. Another push from Deledda, this time away from the gaze of the commissaires who are furiously scribbling notes from the last incident, and Pierre Scribante pulls Walkowiak away for the chase.
Gilbert Bauvin, then.
It had to be him.
Unshaven, wearing James Dean sunglasses, Gilbert Bauvin has the look of a bandit, and a bandit he is today, having heard the clash of wheels behind him just before Pélussin. It hardly took a split second for the tricolore to accelerate. With him went Gaul, Ockers and Bahamontes, all three after mountains points and all three worried that Gilbert Bauvin might spoil their day.
It was meant to be so simple – climb the two mountains, mop up the points, give up the ghost on the descent and let someone like DeFilippis win. But no. And if Gilbert Bauvin wants the yellow jersey so much, then he’s going to have to work for it – their competition is of an entirely different order.
Walkowiak understands what’s going through Bauvin’s mind right now. The opportunity has presented itself, and he has attacked the Oeillon with everything in his arsenal. He knows that Bauvin can climb, but he doesn’t know that Bauvin has gone alone, without teammates. An opportunist he might be, but he’s a lone opportunist.
Another rider has left the peloton sensing that his time has come. Jan Adriaenssens, the former yellow jersey, SterkeJan. Ockers has waited for him, and having brought his teammate into the fold, takes on Bahamontes and Ockers for the mountains points.
The blackboards put Walkowiak at 1’30” back. Deledda has gone, unable to keep up with his teammate’s furious pace up the Oeillon. Once more, Walko finds himself alone, unable to take the time to admire the scenery, the chestnut trees and the acacias, unable to feel the welcome relief of the shade from the burning sunlight.
Walkowiak is out of the saddle, pounding at every pedal stroke. Ahead, Bauvin is doing the same, hoping that his pedal strokes are harder, hoping that Walkowiak is weakening. The chase is on, up the Oeillon.
It’s a pretty climb, the Oeillon, if you have the time to notice it.
At the peak, Walkowiak has brought the gap down to just 40 seconds. Journalists’ pens are out already. This could be something.
Blackboards are being hastily redrawn, and cars are withdrawn as Gilbert Bauvin hits the descent à tombeau ouverte, caring little for his companions who have fought their first battle of the day and who care little for Bauvin and his dreams of yellow. Bauvin takes a full hairpin on them, and then two, his unshaven chin riding into the breeze. Behind, Walkowiak can see his prey down the hill, in between trees, in flashes.
You could argue that the Tour de France is being played out right here, right now, in this moment. Down the Oeillon, something magical is taking place. An opportunist attack is being culled, hairpin by hairpin, by the yellow jersey, despite Bauvin’s greatest ever ride.
Bauvin looks up. You should never look up. Look ahead, only look ahead, he tells himself. Stop thinking about the man in pursuit, start thinking about the finish line in Saint-Etienne. Think of your objective. Forget Walkowiak.
Walkowiak can only think of one thing – getting back to Bauvin, hauling him in. If you thought Walkowiak was incapable of anger, incapable of bring startled from his habitual nonchalance, you are being proven wrong. He can see the gap shrinking in front of his eyes, literally being displayed in front of him as if by magic, cast upon the tarmac: 30 seconds, 29 seconds, 28 seconds. A few more pedal strokes and it’s 25. What’s that in metres?
And Bauvin has given everything for this escapade. Nothing has been held in reserve, but he has been nervously glancing over his shoulder, anxiously looking up the hill at the man in yellow in hot pursuit, getting ever closer. How is he getting closer? How is he doing this?
The chase effectively ends in Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette, a pretty-sounding village of a few hundred inhabitants, a few of whom have turned out today, gingham tablecloths and vin de table, baguette and cheese, a few French flags here and there. They are unaware of what has just happened, unaware of the pursuit that has just taken place. It has lasted just over 20km, and is a huge moral setback for the tricolore Bauvin who has given his all for this attack only to see a 1’30” lead wiped out in the space of just 20 measly kilometres. How did Walkowiak do it?
And worst of all, the yellow jersey has the cheek to pat him on the back and offer him a bidon full of water, noticing that he’s run out. Why does he have to be so nice?
The residents of Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette cheer on the peloton, the cars, the police and the broom wagon, before returning to their newspapers, their idle chat and their lazy afternoon. Bales of hay flutter at the edges as a breeze whips up around the town which quickly returns to normality. The ladies of Saint-Julien-Molin-Molette have all returned indoors, the men have got the cards out. The children are playing Tour de France on the now empty roads – c’est moi Bauvin, et toi t‘es Walko.
The Tour has cast its magic upon the town, and left a little dust.
The fact that Stan Ockers won this stage, 4’41” ahead of the yellow jersey group which included Bauvin, Huot and Forestier, is a footnote to this stage. Over the space of those 20km, Roger Walkowiak has written a page in Tour de France history. He could have lost it all, and some may argue later on that he should have lost it all – he would have deserved it – but he fought with every muscle in his body to keep his yellow jersey and risked his life descending the Oeillon.
André Chassaignon is ecstatic. For him, Roger Walkowiak is the latest in a long line of champions, and deserves to win the Tour de France right here, today, in Saint-Etienne.
“To hell with the chronological order! I’ll say it now – Roger Walkowiak deserves to win the Tour. I’m still shaking at what I’ve seen today. I lost my impartiality, I lost my passivity, I lost all professionalism watching this, when I cried ‘bravo Roger!’ the moment he caught up with Bauvin. I shouldn’t do this, I know. A journalist must be objective in all circumstances. But I couldn’t help myself. It would have been wrong, it would have been unjust if Walko had been beaten because of this fall. This pursuit on the Oeillon was so poignant, so enthralling, that I say to hell with neutrality – I wanted with all my heart that Walko win. I hope that Bauvin forgives me. If the situation were reversed, I would have wished him the same.”
Top Gun And Bidot
Raphaël Géminiani appears to feel the same way. Overheard in conversation with his technical director Marcel Bidot, ‘Top Gun’ is – as always – open and honest.
“You want to know how I feel? Walko has won the Tour. Don’t tell Bauvin. He thought he was in yellow, I can’t imagine how he feels.”
Bidot is shocked. “Raph, you can’t say that. Gilbert is your teammate. If you don’t believe he can win, what will become of us? Confidence matters!”
“Look Marcel, I’m a Tour veteran now. I’ve seen everything. I saw Koblet climbing trees as your brother Jean would have said. I saw Coppi, I never thought I’d see the like of him again. I saw Ferdy Kübler and his “Hop, Ferdi” attacks. I’ve seen Louison ride through the pain to win even just last year, you remember that don’t you. But I’ll tell you this, clear as day, Walko is a great champion. What he did there on the Oeillon, that’s as good as anything I’ve ever seen in the Tour. Don’t tell me you think otherwise.”
“You can’t compare Walko to Louison, Gem. Louison’s your friend, you admire him so much.”
“Why not? That was Louison all over. Losing 1’30” in a crash and chasing them down over 20km. He’s won it, and he deserves it.”
“But Gilbert is only 3’26” behind, with a time trial to come. And remember, Walko was pushed by Deledda.”
“And he got 30 seconds for it. But that changes nothing. Walko did everything else on his own. Everything.”
Bidot is appalled. “But you’re Gilbert’s teammate. You have to help him!”
“Oh, I’ll help him. I’ll do all I can to help him win, but if you want to know what I’m thinking – it wouldn’t be fair. Bauvin failed today. Walko did what he did without his teammates. He won it the right way, fair and square.”
Bidot shakes Gem’s hand. He knows that ‘Top Gun’ is a romantic at heart, and he loves adventure. He loves panache. He loves a story.