Soundtrack La Mauvaise Reputation, Georges Brassens
Yellow, Not Walkowiak
There’s the yellow jersey! Look – it’s the yellow jersey!
The peloton rolls out of La Rochelle and still hardly anybody knows the name of Roger Walkowiak. Or at least, hardly anyone can pronounce Walkowiak.
Still, he’s just keeping the jersey warm for someone else, so there won’t be any need to remember the name.
The newspapers have made clear that this is a temporary exercise:
Walkowiak is a country-boy lost in the city. His boss Sauveur Ducazeaux is an inn-keeper in civilian’s clothing. Together, the two of them are tilting at windmills. They’ll think that they’ve come a long way, especially after the Vuelta where Walkowiak walked out on the French team halfway between signing-on and departing.
Antoine Blondin, L’Equipe
Blondin is one of France’s finest sportswriters, but – thinks Ducazeaux – he’s also a twat. The Nord-Ouest-Centre technical director is a former Tour stage winner who retired to the Basque country to run a restaurant but found himself wanted in the sport he loved so much. An inn-keeper in civilian’s clothing, he huffs. And my boy, a country boy lost in the city, he fumes. I’ll show them.
Blondin has hit a nerve, however. He’s right about the Vuelta, which was one of Ducazeaux’s lowest moments in cycling. And Walkowiak’s, come to mention it.
While Marcel Bidot takes charge of the French team in the Tour de France, Ducazeaux takes charge for the Giro and the Vuelta. Lesser competitions, lesser management, so they might say. Ducazeaux takes them just as seriously, which is more than could be said for his team. Having won the Vuelta with Jean Dotto the year before, Ducazeaux had gone into the ’56 edition with confidence. Bobet had shown signs that he would maintain his ’55 form, and Walkowiak’s 2nd place in the Dauphiné last year meant that he would be a valuable lieutenant.
Walkowiak had won the stage into Pampluna, but Louison Bobet’s saddle sores were causing him no shortage of trouble, and the French team’s morale dipped along with Bobet’s form. As Bobet pulled out of the Vuelta, so did a number of his colleagues, leaving Ducazeaux furious with his riders.
On the road to Bilbao, Jean Dotto turns to Roger Walkowiak and says:
“You know what Roger, my wife’s here and what are we doing? Dragging ourselves to the finish line? Louison’s gone, and so am I.”
Dotto knew he had got lucky last year and there was no chance of a repeat.
With Gilbert Bauvin in the top 10, Ducazeaux needed support for his team leader. But Telotte and Bergaud pulled out the next morning, claiming injuries. Dotto himself had given up, while Jean Bobet and Claude Le Ber were riding like it was a Sunday afternoon ride. Every man could claim some kind of injury – even Dotto had suffered a fall – except for Walkowiak.
So when Walkowiak got off his bike and walked away from the Vuelta, Ducazeaux exploded with rage.
“You have no excuse, young man. No injury. You have disappointed me. You’ll never ride for me again. Ever. Don’t you forget that. I’ll never select you for any of my teams ever again.”
So why did Roger Walkowiak give up? Perhaps because everyone else had. It seemed to be the thing to do. Bauvin was never going to win the Vuelta, and the rest of the team had already taken the train. Ducazeaux’s reaction had shocked him, though. Walkowiak sat down to write an apology, and with Raphaël Géminiani pleading his case, Ducazeaux quickly calmed.
Perhaps I was hasty, he thought. I’m prone to the odd outburst. He’s a good boy, Roger.
I’ll let him stew for a while, though. And then I’ll pick him for the Nord-Est-Centre team. After all, I’m a man down without Hassenforder.
Ducazeaux throws L’Equipe out of the car window for some lucky fan to collect, and swears never to read Antoine Blondin ever again. And if Roger wins the Tour, he’ll ram his article right down his throat.
A Dutch Escape
Van der Pluym, another name the locals struggle to pronounce, is rather typically the first man out of the blocks. The Dutch have made a name for themselves of getting away in breakaways and trying to pull the Tour along at a high pace. They’re trying to capture as much bonus money and as many places as they can before the mountains arrive and they can position Gerrit Voorting for a tilt at the big prize.
He’s quickly joined though, as 17 men break out of the peloton – most notably the yellow jersey himself, and we go through the motions of what has become something of a standard during this Tour – chasers escape the peloton and attempt to close down the gap. Roger Hassenforder, who else, is leading the third charge to close down the 18-strong lead group, and between 60km and 70km, he does so, dragging along a clutch of out-of-breath hangers-on. Roger smiles. This might be his kind of day.
Next, the peloton shatters once more. Brankart, Ockers, Darrigade and Laurédi break free and bridge the gap from peloton to breakaway, but where is Charly Gaul? Once more, as has become the custom, the Luxembourg rider is idling away at the back of the peloton. Murmurs of “who does he think he is” are whispered among the journalistic community. Who indeed, does Gaul think he is? He wins the Giro and thinks he can dawdle every day losing 10 minutes on average?
Even Gaul is stirred into action, however. A few more kilometres and everyone would be together once more.
Louis Caput had already proved himself to be an excellent influence on Roger Hassenforder. After Francis Pelissier and Antonin Magne had both tried – and failed – to rein in the Alsacien’s worst and most destructive instincts, Caput the teammate was turning into Caput the man-manager.
“You know what happens next…” he suggests to Hassenforder.
Roger shrugs a daft shrug.
“The peloton’s back together. We’re going to slow down.”
A look of realisation falls upon Roger Hassenforder’s face.
“Don’t waste any time. Go.”
And go he did, leaving the somnolent peloton behind, looking back to find only Trexel and Arie Van der Pluym had responded. With 100km to go, this would have to be one of Roger Hassenforder’s deepest efforts. Nose into the wind, Hassenforder launches attack after attack, trying to distance the peloton even further. One minute, two minutes, up to three minutes, with Trexel and Van der Pluym gasping in his wake.
The Alsacien barely has time to acknowledge the blackboards and doesn’t want to know the number of kilometres left to Bordeaux. He’s head down, determined.
Hassenforder pulls up alongside Felix Levitan’s car and yells:
“Oi, what about the combativity prize? You giving it to Darrigade – again?”
Levitan laughs. “You’ve got three minutes on them, lad.”
“Merci Monsieur Levitan,” beams Hassenforder. A smile that could melt the ice caps. It’s hard not to forgive Hassenforder when he’s at his peak. Eccentric, perhaps, and a character the Tour would be weaker without.
Trexel is suffering. Hassenforder offers him some water from his bidon and the two men acknowledge each other, silently, before the Swiss rider acknowledges his day is over and drops back, towards the peloton, through the peloton itself and into anonymity, from whence he came.
Van der Pluym attacks, but Hassenforder is straight on to him. The lingua franca here is German:
“Do that once more and I’ll stick to your wheel all the way to the finish and I won’t give you an inch.”
The Dutchman falls into line, and there’s even a moment for the riders to acknowledge the vines as they pass through Blaye. Côtes de Blaye, insists Hassenforder, proferring an imaginary glass to his breakaway colleagues. Rouge. But it’s better where I come from. Du blanc. Du bon. They wave at the wine stalls lining the road, the local vignerons of the day hoping to attract a Gaston Bénac or an André Leducq, perhaps a photo with somebody famous to hang in their vestibule for people who come along to taste of a Saturday afternoon. And then there’s so many vignerons that it becomes boring, and they focus on their riding again.
25,000 spectators welcomed Roger Hassenforder into the velodrome for what was a formality. A solo breakaway of two men, if such a thing were possible, and one of Roger Hassenforder’s finest moments. Van der Pluym finds it almost rude to compete against him, but he tries, for show.
In all this, the Tour has passed through the vineyards of Bordeaux, it has run parallel to the Atlantic with its sumptuous greens and its majestic greys, it has gone through Royan, within sight of the old Cordouan lighthouse in the estuary, the beach and the sunshine poking through grey clouds amongst blue skies and yet no one speaks of any sight other than that of Roger Hassenforder, Hassen-le-Magnifique.
The peloton has pulled back to within one minute of the valiant winner, and that peloton includes the mild-mannered Roger Walkowiak, still in yellow, still in disbelief, and welcomed by his wife Pierrette, into whose arms he falls, tears falling down his face.
“You made it, Roger, you made it.”
“I did. And have you seen my jersey? I wore it for you.”
Sauveur Ducazeaux looks on at the happy couple and thinks to himself: “Ahhh young love. Well, I’ve held my part of the bargain. Despite my better instincts. Now you need to lose that jersey, boy.”
Bobet and Gem
Louison Bobet is on his hunches, knees either side of Raphaël Géminiani’s head, which is lying – with the rest of his prostrate body – on the inner field of the Bordeaux velodrome. The crowds have departed. The Walkowiaks have departed, arm in arm. A day of rest lies ahead, but for Raphaël Géminiani, a week of rest would be insufficient.
“They’re killing us, Louison. Killing us,” he cries.
Bobet pulls himself to the ground. A week without riding the bike has left him creaky and uncertain of his own body. The saddle sores don’t help either.
“You’re not yourself, are you?”
“I am myself. I’m very much myself, Louison. But I’ve just ridden 9 classics in 9 days. 9 classics! You think you can ride a Tour like this? You’d have to do it without me.”
Bobet sits and sighs. This is a Tour that he could have controlled, by force of personality. There would be no fighting in the French team. Géminiani would have been put to use. Bauvin would have been a régionale, where he belongs. Hassenforder would never have been given such a long leash.
Instead, it’s chaos. Nobody is working for anybody, it’s every man for himself. He looks at his best friend Top Gun, le Grand Fusil stretched out on the grass and thinks, what have they done to him? What are they doing to each other?