Has any Tour been approached at such a furious pace? The riders, heading east into the Loire valley today, may be forgiven for taking today’s stage at a slightly slower speed. The sun is shining, there’s barely a hint of a breeze, the mercury is rising. The road to Angers lies ahead and Andre Darrigade dreams of wearing yellow in front of friends and family when the caravan reaches Bordeaux in a few days’ time.
Roger Walkowiak has no such hopes. A regular in chasing groups in between peloton and breakaway, the man from Montlucon appears never to carry any particular aspirations. Walkowiak is smaller than most riders. His round cheeks, wiry hair and unassuming stare make him the perfect breakaway companion –generally not noticed by others. The avid reader may have noticed his name in various breakaways, but Walkowiak rides for others, not for himself.
A mention in L’Equipe or Miroir des Sports is as good as it gets for the water-carrier. For Walkowiak, a day spent shuttling between riders with bidons full of water or sugared beer is as good as it gets.
And so, when the peloton fractures early in this stage to the Loire Valley, Roger Walkowiak’s presence in the second of three groups is taken at face value. He’s not trying to win, so just why is he riding so prominently? Indeed, when the front two groups join to form what is possibly the Tour’s largest breakaway yet, nobody questions Walkowiak’s presence. Together, these twenty-plus men set about putting a gap between themselves and their chasers, and our angel-faced Walkowiak is putting in the hard shifts.
By the time the peloton reaches Hérac, the gap has reached nearly 5 minutes and is growing. Some day for lounging around on bikes in the sunshine – the lead group went through town a full 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The locals, thankfully, were forewarned.
Darrigade’s Nightmare Scenario
On any other day, that would be that. André Darrigade would be leading the chase, pulling the peloton back to within breathing distance of the breakaway, ably supported by his tricolore teammates. But today is fast becoming far from normal.
For André Darrigade, the nightmare is just beginning.
It takes twenty men to chase down a breakaway of this size. Twenty men taking shifts on the front and putting in maximum effort – that will keep the pace up to around 50km/h.
The Belgians are not helping. They’re looking after Ockers and Brankart who have mountains aspirations, and both are eyeing up Gaul who is tucked safely behind them. A pleasant checkmate. The Italians have got Fantini up at the front. They’re not going to chase down one of their own.
The French themselves are torn. Gilbert Bauvin is in the breakaway, but the aim at the start of the day was to keep Darrigade in yellow. For the time being, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t keep his jersey. However, without the support of competing nations, there’s a risk that the gap will grow, and Bauvin might gain some time ahead of the mountains.
Perhaps they should start defending Gilbert instead?
Darrigade is hitting the front in vain. The gap levels out for a while, but almost as one, Darrigade included, the peloton gives up. Waves the white flag. And that gap grows to ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. There’s nothing left in the tank. Marcel Bidot pulls up alongside in the white 203 and yells his encouragement at the yellow jersey, but Darrigade feels it slipping away and shakes his head, sweat flicking Bidot in the face.
“No one’s riding for us, Marcel. Forget it.”
“Keep the gap down, André,” he insists. “You can hang on to the jersey. Stay focused.”
At the front, the blackboards relay the size of the gap. Every few kilometres, the board is taken down, wiped furiously and the number increases. 25 minutes. The wily Gilbert Bauvin – usually a teammate of Walkowiak’s in the Nord-Est-Centre team – realises faster than anyone else and draws up alongside.
“Yellow jersey, eh Roger?” he winks.
“You’re virtual yellow. Have you not been looking at the gaps?”
He had not.
The man with no aspirations, the man with no hope had not been reading the blackboards and had not been monitoring the gap at all. All of a sudden, under the beating sun in the Loire valley, Roger Walkowiak is riding into first place of the Tour. Dousing himself with water, he realises that Sauveur Ducazeaux is alongside in the Nord-Est-Centre team car, eyes closed in the passenger seat, a picture of calm.
And perhaps a smile playing on that undulating face of his?
With the realisation that he would be leading the Tour, Roger Walkowiak runs through the scenarios of how he might not become leader. He might puncture. But even then, the team car is nearby and punctures are quick to repair this year. Change a wheel. Scodeller is up there too, so a teammate can even offer his wheel. He might veer off the side of the road. Injure himself. But he’s ridden over a thousand kilometres without much incident. Why would that happen now?
He thinks of Sauveur Ducazeaux. How could he stay so calm? How can he sleep? Sauveur my saviour, he thinks.
Even in the velodrome at Angers, no one seems to be aware that Roger Walkowiak is the virtual leader. He crosses the line with a few backslaps from his breakaway colleagues – Bauvin included. Fantini appears to have won, he’s already on his victory lap, arms thrust in the air.
The Long Wait
Roger sits and watches the chronometer. It’s true what they say. Time does slow down when you’re watching the clock. He pre-consoles himself with the thought of Darrigade coming through the entrance of the velodrome, staying in yellow, but with himself just a minute behind. The man with no ambition is slowly discovering what it’s like to win.
19 minutes, and still no Darrigade. He fixes his eyes on the clock and to distract himself, looks away towards the entrance. No riders. Not even the crowd noise from an oncoming peloton. How could they be so far behind? He gets up and tears start falling from his eyes. Not many, but enough for team director Ducazeaux to notice.
“I said you could ride a big one,” he says, pulling Walkowiak towards him.
“What do I do now?”
“Well, like the rest of us. You keep watching and waiting for Darrigade, and then you go up on stage to collect your jersey. Compose yourself, son. It’s not as if you don’t deserve it.”
You’ll Have To Lose That Jersey
That evening, Roger Walkowiak looked at himself in the mirror in his hotel bedroom. Alone with the yellow jersey for the first time in his life, he pulled it on for the second time that day and studied himself. It’s not so unusual, he thought. It’s not so out of place. And if I can keep it a few stages, Pierrette will be there in Bordeaux to welcome me. If I’m wearing yellow then, she’ll be ever so proud. We can spend the rest day together.
Pierrette is everything to Roger.
Roger hadn’t noticed Ducazeaux at the door.
“You’ll have to lose that jersey, Roger”, he pronounced in a solemn tone, as if he’d been preparing this speech.
And, indeed, he had.
“That jersey. You can’t keep it.”
“But I’ve only just got it Sauveur! I can’t give it up now.”
“Give it up you shall,” replied Ducazeaux, sitting his protégé down on the bed. “And listen… because this is what we’re going to do. You’re a target now. Every man in the peloton will recognise that you’re a danger. You went toe-to-toe with Bobet in the mountains at the Dauphiné, do you think they won’t remember that? Do you think they don’t see you as a danger? You have a target on your back and they won’t let you in any breakaways. You’re not going to win the Tour carrying the jersey all the way to Paris. It doesn’t work like that.”
“But…” blubbed Walkowiak.
“No buts. You have to give it up. We’ll get it back later. I have a plan”
“But I want to wear it into Bordeaux. So Pierrette can see me in yellow. It’s all she’ll ever have wanted. She’ll be there at the velodrome, she’s holidaying there. Please, Sauveur. Please, sir.”
“Bordeaux,” repeated Ducazeaux, pensively.
“It’s just two stages. Please, I beg you.”
Those cow eyes. It’s like dealing with a puppy, not a bike rider.
“Very well,” sighed Ducazeaux. “Very well. Bordeaux it is.”
Later that evening, Ducazeaux sat down with Adolphe Deledda to firm out his plans. Deledda was a veteran of the Tour – he’d ridden alongside Bobet and Geminiani and had carried water himself for the best of the tricolores. A step back to regional teams was inevitable given his age, but Deledda now had a major – and unexpected – role to play.
“He wants to keep the jersey until Bordeaux, Adolphe.”
Deledda looked stunned. “Is he mad?”
“Quite possibly. But you know, having the yellow jersey can do strange things to a man. I need your help.”
“Protect him until Bordeaux. Then make sure that he loses the jersey after the rest day. Not too much time, but make it retrievable. Five minutes will do. We’ll chip away in the mountains. The climbers like Gaul and Bahamontes are too far out to make any sort of difference now. You’ll then pull him through on the flat stages back to Paris. I actually think we can win this Tour, Adolphe. I really do.”
Deledda nodded. Ducazeaux might be mad, but it wasn’t unreasonable.
The only problem might be convincing Roger Walkowiak that he could win the Tour.