The Revival of Charly Gaul, and the Man Who Wasn't There
Stage 17, Gap to Turin, including the climbs of the Izoard, Mont Génèvre and Sestriere.
15 min read
Dotto and Lerda Leave Laurédi In The Lurch
The Attack They All Missed
Welcome to Izoard Le Jeune Vieux The Man Who Wasn’t There Classement
La quete, Jacques Brel
“The Tour de France is over. Now we’ve got a Six Day race…”
Welcome to Izoard
Roger Hassenforder is not often quoted as a Tour de France sage. More of a goon, even though 1956 is proving to be a turning point for the man from Sausheim. And he’s right, in a way. The preliminaries are, at least, over. With only 6 days of racing left, we are effectively starting anew. A fresh challenge awaits – that of the Alps and notably the Izoard.
The Izoard is a fearsome – and feared – climb. The highest point of this year’s Tour comes early in the stage, perhaps too early, but is followed by Sestrières on the run-in to Turin, which will give the GC contenders plenty to think about in terms of tactics.
For Sauveur Ducazeaux and Roger Walkowiak, there are no teammates that can help in the Alps. It’s very much a case of managing time gaps and sticking to the wheels of the right men. Bahamontes is a useful foil, suggests Ducazeaux. He’s right in between King of the Mountains and General Classification, so he’ll be there for all the important breaks.
For Walkowiak, Ducazeaux has prepared two bidons with orange juice and rice. Ducazeaux is a restaurateur, and if he has learned anything about preparing for a race, it is that food matters. Grilled meat, mineral water and very little else is served at the table in the evening. And above all, he warns the riders, do not drink during the race.
If you accept water from the crowd, take it – they have been waiting all day for you, it will mean a lot to them. But use it to cool yourself. Use it to wet your lips but no more than that. Do not drink.
Today’s early breakaway features 9 men, notably Valentin Huot who wants to mop up as many of the mountain points as he can before Charly Gaul finds his form. If Charly Gaul ever finds his form. Within the breakaway, Huot is joined by Robinson, Close, Jean Dotto (once more) and a handful of others who would have no bearing on the result, including two as yet unknowns – Siguenza and Mirando.
Mirando is another of Nello Laurédi’s teammates, incapably stepping in for the hapless Lerda after yesterday’s double breakaway, leaving the yellow jersey contender to fight in vain against attacks from Bahamontes and his team. With two men once more in the breakaway ahead of the Izoard, you would forgive Nello Laurédi for thinking that he doesn’t have a team at all.
Mirando pretends not to be dreaming of glory for himself, and is currently trying to slow the break down, preventing Siguenza from riding off the front. An argument has developed. At first, it’s handbags at dawn – a few mediterranean gestures, a shrug of the shoulders, a couple of curse words, and Mirando lashes out.
Siguenza thinks better of responding, but looks across to the director’s car which has pulled up like the mysterious teacher in the playground who always knows when a fight is likely to break out. Pointing at his temple, Siguenza suggests that Mirando is mad. Mirando suggests that Siguenza is something unprintable, and the episode is best forgotten.
Behind, Raphaël Géminiani has decided to break from the peloton in an attempt to catch the 9 escapees. It’s perhaps the first time we’ve seen ‘Top Gun’ make any kind of move this year. After complaining to Louison Bobet about the first 9 stages, “Gem” has accepted that this year – like every year – is not going to be his year, and has taken on the mantle of also-ran. He was never in great shape anyway, and without Louison, he was downbeat.
As the riders pass between two walls of granite, the landscape begins to morph from one scene to another. The climbing has started and the Arvieux is the first opportunity for mountain points – mountain points that Valentin Huot mops up with disregard for his 9 companions. From Arvieux, the hairpins lead to Izoard, and Huot can start to look down on his breakaway buddies, their silver bikes shining like fish in the bright sunlight of a cloudless day.
Further below, if he cared to notice, Huot would have seen the first skirmishes between the yellow jersey groups. Adriaenssens has time to make up after stage 15’s défaillance, and is followed by his teammate Stan Ockers. Bahamontes is on Ockers’ wheel and right behind him is Walkowiak who has Gaul in close pursuit.
Once more, the landscape morphs from the green trees and tufts of grass to the casse déserte, the sand-brown, oppresive, glacial peak. From down below, the air is burning hot today, but up in the casse, Huot feels the freshness on his face, the sweat starting to chill. He feels the encouragement of the crowd, in parts several people deep and now closing in on him, running alongside, pushing him and breathing their winey breath in his face, hurling themselves alongside the new King of the Mountains.
As Huot dips, the crowds thin almost instantly, and he takes a newspaper to thrust down his jersey. It gets warmer down at the bottom, but it gets colder as you ride downhill.
The crowds have over 1’40” to wait for Bahamontes and Ockers, and five seconds behind them is Roger Walkowiak, riding effortlessly and calmly, finding a cadence and a rhythm that better riders might envy. Gaul is about 20 seconds behind him, and Adriaenssens is weakening.
Laurédi is starting to see his yellow jersey ambitions fall like rocks from the Izoard. With each push, Laurédi sees lesser men accelerate beyond him and he tucks his chin into his chest, focuses on the metre in front of him and gives in, gently. The gap grows between Gaul and Laurédi, and for his own sake, the man with the blackboard quietly retires from view.
Back up front, the descent has seen the men come back together, and around 15 have grouped together to get a better look at each other. Walkowiak, insouciant, looks the freshest, his small eyes like raisins in a snowman, staring straight ahead, focused on the backs of his prey, Ockers and Bahamontes.
As the Izoard turns from rocks to hairpins and eventually to forest, a sharp turn as the road flattens out takes a few riders by surprise. Walkowiak’s back wheel juts out and a crunching sound is quickly followed by a fall. Instinct takes over. He quickly pulls on the steel brakes and manages the fall, but the wheel is broken. Ockers and Bahamontes have gone, hardly at a great pace as they haven’t noticed.
Ducazeaux is quickly on the scene with the spare wheel, fetched from the back of the Peugeot. He is everything a Technical Director needs to be in a moment of crisis like this. Quiet, assured. Nothing is wrong here. We’ll fix the wheel, you go chase those two. Dust yourself down. Take a breather. Ready? Interally, Ducazeaux is doing somersaults, reassuring himself that all will be well, that Roger is fine, that the bike is fine, there are no further technical issues here. All is well.
And thankfully, all is well. Walkowiak is back on the bike, and from now on, he would ride with a little more prudence.
Le Jeune Vieux
Charly Gaul is looking healthier, and as the descent into Briançon turns abruptly into a climb, he follows the attack of Valentin Huot as if seized by instinct.
Huot is good, though. Gaul fails to latch on to his wheel and only a regional rider called Le Guilly is able to go with him. With Sestrières still to come, Gaul realises that it’s worth keeping something in the tank while Huot empties his.
This is Mont Génèvre, the penultimate climb of the day and beyond the peak is Italy. From the rugged, pointy, threatening climb of the Izoard, we are entering what you might term the Pyrenean Alps. A calmer scenery unfolds before our riders. The grass grows greener, the bumps roll more gently. Huot ascends peacefully and realises, in these Italian lands, that he has finally emptied his tank and Charly Gaul is on his back, at long last. He has hunted him down all afternoon and finally, Huot gives up the ghost. Not before taking all mountains points.
The journalists have a new name for Charly Gaul. Le Jeune Vieux, they have called him. The young oldie. He rides like a man from yesteryear. A pre-war rider in modern clothes. Look at him, cries Chassaignon to Bénac. Look at him go, dancing on his pedals. He’s looking back to see the gap. He sits. He stands. He’s beautiful.
Gaul, hero of the Giro, miraculously finds his feet the minute the Tour crosses the border into Italy. It was obvious, if you think about it.
This is Sestrières and half of Italy has climbed the mountain to witness Charly Gaul, the man they’ve claimed as their own, climb mountains as other men breathe air. Effortless, angelic, serene, this is vintage Gaul already, the jeune vieux stretching even further ahead the chasing group, which includes Ockers, Bahamontes, Walkowiak. Three minutes, now four minutes, and the peak is marked by the Albergo Duca D’Aosta, a cylindrical hotel that has none of the aesthetic glory of the Izoard, none of the pleasure you would receive from witnessing the Chapel at the end of a hard climb up the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen. It is white as snow, and as ugly as hell.
Gaul leaves it behind and believes from the team cars that only Ockers and Bahamontes are in his wake, and indeed that they are many minutes behind. As the Luxemburger drops towards the plains that lead to Turin, he knows that he has 80km to survive if he is to win the stage, and even with the lead he has built up on Sestrière, this is unlikely.
What he doesn’t know is that Ockers and Bahamontes are joined by 13 others in a sort-of-peloton that has grown in size and has grown in speed, and together they are tackling the hairpins that are carelessly strewn down the side of the mountain with Gaul in full view, if not immediately within catching distance. But catch they shall, and together into Turin they shall ride.
And so it is, with 20km left to ride, for those of a romantic disposition, one of the moments of the Tour.
Gaul is caught. Hauled back into the group, Gaul receives a few nods and, from the Italian riders, not very much at all in the way of acknowledgement. But one man recognises Gaul’s effort, and that one man is Roger Walkowiak. He puts an arm around Gaul, and says:
“Come, Charly. Ride with us.”
It’s a rare moment of warmth in this do-or-die, stab-or-be-stabbed Tour de France. An opportunity for one rider to put aside the contest for a while and treat his fellow competitor as a human being. For all the cruel words spoken of Roger Walkowiak by the press and the fans alike so far during this race, this offers proof that Walkowiak is not just a good bike rider, but also a good man.
And so, as the peloton enters the Community Stadium in Turin, does its traditional lap around the velodrome in front of 10,000 people, most of whom work for FIAT, and most of whom have been given the day off by their kind bosses, does it really matter who wins this stage? For the record, it is local hero Nino Defilippis, but does that matter at all?
You may argue that Valentin Huot won the stage. At least, if you’re counting the number of mountain-top finishes. Or you may argue that Charly Gaul won the stage, if you’re awarding stages for elegance and sheer natural ability.
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Or, you may argue that the true winner of this stage – and this is the direction in which the journalist community is heading – is one who barely broke sweat while ensuring that he stayed with some of the world’s finest climbers. This man, Roger Walkowiak, rode nearly the perfect stage, carefully managing his opponents, carefully matching their every stride and carefully managing his time gaps. He has seen Laurédi flop, Wagtmans in yellow has lost time, Adriaenssens too. Roger did just what he did in the Dauphiné last year, even though nobody noticed him matching Bobet all the way – their eyes were all on Louison. He climbed majestically. Quietly. In a manner that is entirely Roger Walkowiak. No fuss, no fireworks. Just a quiet efficiency.
Walkowiak is now 2nd in the Tour de France, and people have started to take note.
Sauveur Ducazeaux watches Walkowiak take the plaudits from his teammates when they arrive. Deledda is the first to shake his hand. Scodeller next.
And he is more certain than ever that Roger Walkowiak is going to take yellow tomorrow, and that he is going to win the Tour de France.
Suddenly, Ducazeaux is no longer alone in this point of view. In his personal diary, Jacques Goddet writes the following:
What impressed me most was his calm, the ease with which he rode today. I asked Jacques Marchand, Tour de France correspondant with L’Équipe, to run with Walkowiak as his headline tomorrow morning. Everything must be about Walkowiak. This Tour has proven that he can ride with the greatest of riders, and he is capable of being a star. But also, Jacques must emphasise the fact that Walkowiak’s performance puts the spotlight on those men who have served their time, and who have served the sport of cycling. Our task is to reveal the personality as yet unknown of a 29-year-old man who has taken on all of the great races, and now stands on the precipice of his greatest result.
That night, in his Turin hotel, Roger Walkowiak studies himself once more in the mirror. He makes a circle with his head, stretching his neck muscles, as Sauveur Ducazeaux sits back on the single bed, racebook in hand.
“It’s between Turin and Grenoble that you’re going to win this Tour”, he asserts. “You’ll attack. You’ll put everything you’ve got into this one.”
“I’m saying nothing,” he responds. “But I do believe I can do it.”
In a phrase, we have found the essence of Roger Walkowiak. A quiet confidence. A man whose personal quest may not have been long in the making, but a man who has found a new confidence.
No fuss, no fireworks.
This is a man who prefers gardening to nightclubs. While Wout Wagtmans is out partying, you’d likely find Walkowiak sitting by the lake, line fishing.
Perhaps we have all been tricked. Perhaps Roger Walkowiak was our Tour winner all along, and we just never noticed. We were taken in by his rosy red cheeks, his country boy appearance, his lack of a palmarès. But we forgot the Dauphiné. We ignored the fact that he’s now 29 and reaching his peak. We forgot the breakaway to Angers. Our gaze was averted. We were watching Louison in ’55, we were watching Charly Gaul today. On the road to Angers, we were watching André Darrigade.
Roger Walkowiak has pulled off the greatest trick of all – to convince us that he didn’t even exist.