I am currently working on the twin biographies of Hugo Koblet and Ferdy Kübler. Why so?
While the world was transfixed by the Coppi / Bartali rivalry, two Swiss riders were embroiled in a rivalry that was equally as fierce. You could not have found two more polarising riders.
Hugo Koblet was handsome, and for a while, he was unbeatable. He rode with a comb in his back pocket, and washed before interviews. He charmed the ladies, and was profligate with his money.
Ferdy Kübler had a large nose, and for a while, he too was unbeatable. He rode like a madman, attacking almost at random, but lived his life like a saint, saving every penny he earned.
Their rivalry peaked in the early 1950s when each rider won the Tour de France and Koblet won the Giro d’Italia. They rode together, but mostly against each other, and even their fans formed rival camps, installing themselves in Zurich’s bars which were either Kobletiste or Kübleriste.
And relatively little has been told of their stories, at least in English.
If you’d like exclusive extracts as I’m writing, and updates on when the book will be released, just fill in this little form – and there’s a first extract below!
Koblet + Kubler – An Extract
Without Koblet, there is no Kubler. And without Kubler, there is no Koblet.
Hugo, it doesn’t matter which of us is the greater. All that matters is that we
were there, at the same time and in the same country. Yes, yes, I know what you
are saying, this is a little late. Better late than not at all.
We have lived
much of our lives in diametric opposition to each other. You are handsome, I am
ugly. You are calm and collected, I am irrational and impulsive. You are the
town, and I am the country.
And yet there
was a time when I had no Hugo Koblet against whom others would define me. I was
not very different. I still had this big nose and this funny hairstyle. I still
rode with an arched back and I still made crazy bursts from the peloton just
because I felt like it, because I felt I had the legs.
around, and I was still the same man I have been and am today. So how are we so
firmly rooted in opposition to each other?
I would argue
that this opposition is a myth, and that despite our obvious differences, we
are not unlike. Indeed, I originally defined myself in opposition to my father.
It’s not a story unusual to most of our fellow riders, this is true. Every day
we are lining up against men whose fathers did all they could to prevent them
from becoming professional cyclists, but did any of them have a father as awful
as Alfred Kubler?
Kubler, my father, would beat us so frequently that the neighbours would ignore
our screams. They would say they were too scared for their own safety to
intervene. He was not a big drinker, in fact alcohol seemed to take the edge
off his moods. He was a labourer, a man who used his hands. He would repair
shoes, engines, machines, bicycles even. But he never had enough money,
certainly not enough to buy us shoes other than the wooden clogs we had to wear
in winter. You won’t have worn these in Zurich, Hugo, but imagine the callouses
your feet would develop. Imagine the clappety-clop of your clogs alternated
with the laughter of children whose fathers could afford proper shoes.
worked day and night to feed us. At Christmas, we would roast a sausage to go
with our potatoes, but only after father had thrown the Christmas tree out of
the window in one of his habitual fits of rage.
think I am exaggerating, but ask any of our neighbours of the day, and they’ll
tell you that they threatened their own children with taunts such as “behave
yourself or you’ll end up at the Kubler’s!”
once I discovered the bicycle, I did all I could to get as far away from home
as possible. I found work in bakeries, much like yourself Hugo, delivering the
daily bread as far and wide as I could. You can imagine in the mountains, there
were climbs that you would dream of, and descents that a boy with a basket full
of plum tarts should not be tackling on a rustbucket like mine.
I was twelve
years old when I decided that I would become a professional cyclist. I made my
own bike, you know. My handlebars were made from an inner tube filled with sand
and welded together under a lamp. They had a lot of flex.
notebook after notebook with scraps of newspaper reports about Georges
Speicher, Antonin Magne, Romain and Sylvere Maes… much as children would fill
scrapbooks of our antics, but they were legends in grainy black and white,
stolen from newspapers left lying around on café tables or in bins. Father
discovered my scrapbooks and flung them to the other side of the room, yelling
at me that I would never become a professional cyclist so long as he was alive.
He took a saw and split my bike in two.
That day I
ran, Hugo. I ran so far, I knew I would never go back.
I went to work
at the Schneebeli bakery, which I suppose you must know, it’s in Mannedorf on
Lake Zurich. You would probably know the Pfannestiel, if you ever bothered
training, I know that wasn’t your idea of fun. That climb, I swear, it taught
me everything I know about climbing and descending. My first encounter left me
breathless. I had 30 kilos of bread and tarts and croissants in my basket, I
had sweat dripping onto the bags and I pretended it was the butter from the
croissants when I finally delivered them. And then, coming back down, taking
the Pfannestiel relieved of all this weight – oh the delight, Hugo, the
delight. I would take the racing line, I would frequently knock over a pedestrian
and often force a car onto the pavement, sometimes clipping it myself and
ending in the ditch by the side of the road. And each time I got up, I laughed,
and I got back on my bike and rode as hard as I could down the Pfannestiel. I
broke pedals, I broke my chain multiple times but did I ever complain?
I had a taste
for racing already.
It was in
1937 that I took part in my first race. I was not yet eighteen, so I signed up
as a debutant for the Affoltern Am Albis criterium. I had borrowed a road bike,
I remember it still today, so light, so shiny. I also remember the laughter
from my fellow competitors, this big nosed boy with the floppy hair who was
wearing a simple shirt and a pair of shorts. They laughed at my shoes, but I thought
to myself, at least I’m wearing shoes. I’ll show them. So I attacked from the
very first moment. How very Ferdy, you are thinking, his first race ever and
he’s already being as Ferdy as he can be. You would never have done this, would
Hans Hug, you may have known him at the time, he came up to me, built like a
brick outhouse, and threatened me if I didn’t get back into the main group as
quickly as possible. I won a few sprints that day, and a week later I won a
huge ball of Emmental for coming third of all the debutants. I had to ride home
in the dark with the cheese weighing my backpack down.
If I wanted
to ride, and ride seriously, then I only had one option. I had to go to Zurich.
Oh shut up,
opposite. Where do you get language like this? Sometimes you are so…. Swiss.
your time in Zurich. I must have been, what, 13 years old when you descended
from your mountains? I have this image of you in my mind, the madman on wheels
hurtling down the Pfannestiel, all arms and legs and pastry.
I will let
you into a secret, Ferdy. All this talk of us being rivals, of us defining two
sides of our country’s culture. It’s bullshit. When I rode my bike, much like
yourself with a basket laden with bread, croissants, patisseries and cream
tarts, I wasn’t Speicher or Egli or Leo Amberg, none of these guys. I was you. Arms
outstretched, eyes closed… in my head, I was Ferdy Kubler, although I could
never quite get the action right. I didn’t have the frame for the full Kubler
impersonation, but I was you alright. I’d come and watch you ride and I’d
marvel at how you attacked every centimetre of the race. Man, you could shred a
race into tiny particles at such a young age, you could explode a peloton into minute
fragments with just one stamp of your pedals. It didn’t always work out and
you’d do that Ferdy thing where you look exhausted, wipe the froth from your
lips and retreat back into the group only then to burst out again like a comet
when everyone thinks you’re cooked.
perhaps wouldn’t have noticed me watching, I was so tall and so slim, it was as
if I would never fill out. My dear mother worried about my weight all the time.
Hugo, she would say, please eat some of the cakes, you really do need to put on
weight, and I’d reply “mother, stop making me clean the windows, I’m wasting
away here,” and she’d laugh and throw her dirty rag at me and we’d laugh,
because that’s what we did.
when I was nine years old. What can you do other than laugh? It keeps you from
the pain of remembering his long, slow decline which as a child, is the
longest, slowest decline imaginable. And of course, you don’t even realise
until it happens. I suppose you’re raising your finger now, Ferdy, ready to
tell me about the parallels with my own decline. Wait your turn.
So my mother
raised me herself, working early mornings in the bakery to feed the well-heeled
residents of Aussersihl. And so, when I hear the plaintive cries of “oh, father
didn’t want me to ride my bike” every single race, every Tour, every criterium,
I just think of how my mother reminded me so frequently that my own father
would not have wanted me to race. She was transposing, of course. Her own
worries about losing another man about the house, holding on to me and wishing
for me to find a trade, a craft, maybe even take on the bakery from her
brother, the man who was all thumbs. No artistry. Ah but Ferdy, I had
discovered – like you – I was rather quick.
had a bike shop not far from the bakery. I remember the fuss about Leo coming
third in the Tour de France, and he did what every rider of his time did – he
opened a bike shop where he could recount his marvellous exploits to all and
sundry, maybe even sell a bike or two. I always thought to myself, why pass
into such provincial anonymity? You have become something, become something
more, don’t retreat into your achievement and live through the memory for the
rest of your years. Go big.
Leo, he took a look at this skinny beanpole of a boy and saw that I could ride
a little bit. OK, more than just a little bit. And he encouraged me, taking me
out for little races around town before dropping me off around the corner from
the bakery. Not a word to the old lady.
You can be
too protective. I won my first race in Dietikon, my first race ever. A time
trial, one of my favourite events, and yet my greatest worry was how could I
explain the trophy and the flowers to my mother. All the way home, this was
what was playing on my mind. A little lie: I told her it was from the factory I
had been working at, and the flowers were for her. I remember her looking over
those half-moon glasses at me, and then down at the flowers, and then she
simply shrugged her shoulders and gave in.
pushing me, especially now that he knew my mother was on-side. I could only see
things getting better, Ferdy. Isn’t that short-sighted? I could only see
improvement. I would crack at 80km out, having done my best Ferdy impression,
but I knew that next time, I’d crack at 90km, and then I’d get a better bike
and I’d crack at 120km, and then I’d get better again and I wouldn’t crack. And
I kept on believing that things would always get better, that there was no way
I wouldn’t keep improving, that there was no actual destination beyond which
there would be no improvement and decline awaited, I just kept on going. I rode
the Four Cantons race on Giusti Grabs’ own bike, as a junior, and I rode alone
for 135km. Not once did I crack, not once did I look back and not once did I
think: this might not last forever. I just rode, and I won by such a time gap
that Gottfried Weilenmann himself called by the bakery the next day and asked
to talk to my mother, of all people.