An immediate analysis of this Tour de France would underline Antonin Magne’s theory that you don’t win the Tour unless you’re involved every day.
Gaul, Bahamontes, Ockers and Brankart had left Reims believing that they would be competing for the yellow jersey in the mountains, but did any of them believe that they’d be so far behind by the time the Tour reached the Pyrenees? Losing ten minutes one day could be considered a mistake, but to lose ten minutes every day is foolish.
Remember, these men – Gaul, winner of the Giro d’Italia. Ockers – world champion. Brankart – 2nd in the previous Tour. Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, one of the world’s finest climbers. These were not régionales.
Jan Adriaenssens may be the rider who came closest, despite finishing behind Gilbert Bauvin. But for some ‘bad fish’ (we all know it was drugs), Sterke Jan could have won this Tour, and perhaps by a handsome distance. That day, he lost 8 minutes to Walkowiak, and clawed back five of those minutes subsequently to finish just three back.
But to focus on the errors of others, or the lack of previous Tour winners, would be to discredit Roger Walkowiak’s victory. Find a Tour winner who hasn’t benefited from the errors of others. Indeed, find any sporting hero who hasn’t taken advantage of his opponents’ misfortunes at some point. The Tour, even in its heroic era, was about consistency. Be there every day, stick to your plan, and your chance will come.
Sauveur Ducazeaux would take credit, and indeed he would welcome credit for having helped Walko win the Tour. Does this devalue Walko’s victory in any way? To Walkowiak, it did. As the Tour settled in the memory, Ducazeaux began to embellish here and exaggerate there. Just a little, but enough to rub Walkowiak up the wrong way. It was almost as if Walkowiak were Ducazeaux’s toy cyclist, riding entirely at the whim of a master strategist who was moving his armies on the battlefield.
The initial response to Walko’s win was one of elation among the journalistic community. Antoine Blondin had previously written witheringly in L’Equipe that Walkowiak was a poujadiste egaré dans le bottin mondain, a country boy lost in the city (among other available translations). He was the first to change his tune. And, indeed, he apologised as he recognised that cycling itself was undergoing a significant transformation. More athletic, more technical, cycling has evolved from a sport of pure talent to a sport of hard work. “Walkowiak embodied this more than anyone, showing courage and consistency.”
Jacques Goddet was rapturous, waxing lyrical about the democratisation of cycling and the élargissement du droit à l’accession – the widening of the right of succession. Walkowiak was not a bargain-bin winner – this was a man who has blossomed at precisely the right time.
Louison Bobet was the first to warn Walkowiak of what was to come, however.
“The hard part starts now. The second win is always the toughest – if it comes at all. The esteem in which one rider holds another who has followed the same path only grows. I would love to help him avoid the pitfalls of victory, those that I have myself had to circumvent and navigate my way through. I was like you, Roger, in 1948. I had never won the Tour but I had known, for the first time, what popularity could do to a man. It places demands upon you, and once popularity has its grip on you, it won’t let go. You’ll be tempted by what’s on offer. I suffered that year, I suffered terribly. But you have more experience than I had then. But watch yourself now, a new life has begun, a life strewn with obstacles and hurdles. Don’t make the same mistakes I made.”
Others would go as far as to suggest that Walkowiak’s victory was that of a sniper. Hidden from view, Walkowiak could win the Tour, but in uniform? Without the benefit of surprise, could Walko repeat 1956?
The manner in which Walko became Walkowiak again is worth telling…
Dousset and Piel
Cycling in 1956 was managed by two men. Daniel Dousset and Roger Piel. These two former riders claimed the majority of post-Tour criteriums for themselves. When a town decides to hold a criterium, they call either Dousset or Piel to organise it. The riders give the organiser 10% of their earnings, which make up more than enough to get them through the winter and into the early spring training.
Dousset had been around longer than Piel. Their rivalry began in 1954 when Piel quit cycling and went into competition with Dousset. But Dousset had the champions. The little black book.
In 1955, Walkowiak made a decision that a fair few other cyclists made, given that his former teammate Piel was popular among the riders and was offering better terms. He jumped from Dousset to Piel. After all, if Dousset has all the stars, what chance do I have, wondered Walkowiak.
A year later, as the Tour entered La Rochelle, Dousset turns up in person and meets the organisers of the La Rochelle post-tour criterium. “We’d like the stars of this Tour,” they declared, “and if Walkowiak wins the Tour overall, then we’ll double – no, triple – his fee.”
Dousset is delighted. Walko signs.
Walkowiak is worried that Piel will find out about his criterium contract, and had also neglected to inform Dousset of his arrangement with Piel.
On writing to Piel, Walkowiak is clearly embarrassed, but decides to break off his contract with Piel, who writes back warning him that he is acting against his own interests.
Dousset remained unaware of the on-off relationship, but cared little for Walkowiak. The organisers at La Rochelle – and indeed, organisers around the country – could hold their criteriums without Walkowiak. After all, he didn’t come with a huge value attached. There would be Bobet, Géminiani and the tricolores. Who wants a regional rider? He got lucky anyway, didn’t he?
Time, and journalists, had tainted the yellow jersey – we’ll have Ockers instead.
So Roger Walkowiak didn’t win a single post-Tour criterium, nor did he win as much money as, say, a Bobet or a Coppi. He was beginning to find out that life as a Tour winner was tough, as Louison predicted.
So poor Roger Walkowiak went back to Montluçon without the promised riches, and without a manager. To make a bad situation worse, his beloved locals falsely believed that he was living the high life. “He’s making 400,000 francs a race,” they would say, “he’s bought a new car, just look at him, he’s not our Walkowiak any more,” all of which is unfortunate. Not even Louison earned 400,000 francs a race, and Roger’s new car was a simple 403, which he bought to replace the 203.
Hugo Koblet would have grimaced at the thought of a 403.
The 1957 Tour saw Roger Walkowiak integrated into the French team for the first time in France. It also saw the first appearance in a Grand Tour for the young starlet Jacques Anquetil. Once more André Darrigade won the first stage, and the first yellow jersey, and throughout the first few stages, Roger Walkowiak found himself at the front once more.
He was even starting to assume the position of an experienced old hand. On the stage into Rouen, Jacques Anquetil was desperate to win in front of his home crowd. So desperate, in fact, that he took more turns on the front than was healthy, and nearly broke himself while Bahamontes took a free ride on his wheel. The 1956 champion put his arm around the youngster and gave him some friendly advice that he should save his energy and let riders like Bahamontes do some work, too.
As the Tour reached Flanders, Roger Walkowiak found himself in a group of 13 riders including Anquetil and Bauvin. They had climbed the Muur van Geraardsbergen and crested the Kapelmuur at which point, mathematically, Roger Walkowiak became the virtual yellow jersey on the road with the current leader having suffered a fall. Could it all be happening again?
Unfortunately not. A fall 7km from the finish saw Walkowiak without a wheel, and without help. Of all people, it was Sauveur Ducazeaux, still Technical Director of the Nord-Est-Centre team, who handed the unlucky Walkowiak a wheel. That day, Walkowiak lost 5 minutes on Bauvin, but was praised for his calm, his sang-froid.
Health problems arose as Walkowiak tumbled down the general classification. Bronchitis didn’t stop him from riding, but as the Tour reached the Pyrenees, Walkowiak felt the old form returning. He attacked over the col de Port and on the Portet d’Aspet and finished in the leading bunch. Was Walko back?
Alas, no. The French team was struck by a stomach bug. No drugs this time, the riders had been subjected to severe changes in temperature, from blistering heat to a glacial cold on the descent of the Puymorens. A bug brought over from North Africa had started to spread among the team, and was worsened by the sudden climactic changes. Of those to suffer, Walkowiak suffered the most. Unable to sleep, vomiting all night, Walko pulled out of the Tour and was never the same.
Almost immediately – and without shame – the French press went to work. “He clearly didn’t deserve to win the 1956 Tour,” they wrote.
Roger went from Walko to Walkowiak. And his Tour went from a glorious victory to the now-fabled Tour à la Walkowiak – a derogatory term for a Tour that was won by chance. A casual insult born from the short memories of revisionist historians. Over time, the insult has morphed a little. Any victory à la Walkowiak is unexpected at best, unwarranted at worst. It’s an insult to the Roger Walkowiak of 1956 who fought every day to be in the right moves, to hold on to his yellow jersey or to win back yellow. To the Roger Walkowiak who fought for his yellow jersey on the Oeillon, who slid quietly into the breakaway to Angers and who climbed the Croix de Fer.
Roger Walkowiak would always refuse to discuss the 1956 Tour, tainted as it was by the words of those journalists in 1957 who refused to believe he should have won the year before.
They murdered the yellow jersey, he would say. And that’s it.
And so ends my own revisionist history. I have spent months poring over old editions of newspapers, of biographies of the likes of Darrigade, Hassenforder and of course Walko himself. I have irritated my wife by scattering old Miroir des Sports around the living room, and leaving my cycling books in various nooks and crannies around the house.
I chose, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, to publish this ahead of time, a stage a day, and this has encouraged me to look afresh at a book that I had mostly written over Christmas last year. Walko (the book) is more a collection of short stories from the same Tour than an actual book, and that kind of fits. A Tour is a tapestry of tales woven together against the backdrop of the French countryside, its towns and villages coming together in the heat of summer. And that’s what I wanted to portray, almost as much as I wanted to emphasise the value of Roger Walkowiak’s victory.
And as I ride my bike around the Chilterns, submitting meekly after just 50km, I think of how Roger Walkowiak could win a Tour 5,000km long and then be called lucky. Of how he could beat the World Champion, the Giro winner, and over 100 other men all seeking individual glory, and be saddled with one of the greatest insults in cycling. To win à la Walkowiak.
And so, I suggest that we reclaim the phrase à la Walkowiak: to win while nobody is looking.
And if it’s the only success you have, then that’s fine.
A final note
Many of the men and women written about in Walko have since passed away, as you might expect. Some left us sooner than others. Stan Ockers was riding his final Tour de France, although he didn’t know it at the time. He died after falling in a track event in Antwerp later the same year. He was only 36 – old, perhaps, for a Tour cyclist, but far too young.
Both Bénac and Chassaignon were to die within five years. Bénac sooner than his younger colleague, Chassaignon, who died unexpectedly in 1961 at the age of just 47. Sports writing was poorer for the lack of both men.
Roger Walkowiak left us in 2017, at the age of 89. He was eventually coaxed into talking about his Tour victory, something he had successfully avoided talking about for most of his life. He spoke bitterly of the bastard journalists who poisoned his yellow jersey, and if these pages have done anything, I hope they have set the record straight, and righted a wrong.
If you enjoyed Walko, please do sign up for updates on my next book, Koblet + Kübler!
If you’d like some reading – and you read French, do try the following books from Jean-Paul Ollivier, whose writing on the cyclists of the era is unparalleled:
La Véridique Histoire d’André Darrigade
Le Maillot Jaune Assassiné
La Véridique Histoire de Roger Hassenforder
Le Grand Fusil – La Véridique Histoire de Raphaël Géminiani
Also make sure to read Tours de France by Antoine Blondin, who I quote a few times in this tome. ’56 passes by quickly, but the other Tours are worth reading. Of course.