Stage 21, Lyon to Montluçon, 331km - mostly flat with the Col de Luère the final opportunity for mountains points
16 min read
Déjeuner sur l'herbe, or Walko's Time Trials
Take Me Back to Montluçon
The Heat and the Cold One Crazy Last Escapade Les Dames Walkowiak Leave Me Here in Montluçon Sauveur Ducazeaux’s Long Night In Les Ivrognes Classement
Litanies Pour Un Retour, Jacques Brel L’Ivrogne, Jacques Brel
The Heat and the Cold
It is hot. It has been hot for weeks, now, at least in these parts. A Tour that started under grey skies in Reims has mostly baked under a scorching sun, and is now showing signs. Tan lines are more defined. Riders are participating in the traditional chasse à la canette – the chase for the can of sugared beer. It helps on these long, hot, flat stages.
The heat didn’t help Walko sleep last night. Sauveur Ducazeaux had kept his windows closed during the day to keep the hot air out, and he’d have even sung his rider a lullaby if he could. It wasn’t really the heat that had got to Walko, it was the pressure. 1’25” could be wiped out in the flattening of an inner tube. After all this work, after all this confidence…
The heat doesn’t help Charly Gaul, either. While most riders turn southwards for their strength, Gaul turns skywards. The cooler the better, and his late surge in the Alps has seen him climb the mountains classification which – realistically – was his only aim in this Tour. A climb over a relative molehill early on in this stage outside Lyon would see him clinch the title ahead of poor Valentin Huot whose dominance earlier on in the race – at least over mountains – faded somewhat as Gaul discovered the Alpine cool, and – of course – Italy.
His victory was met with a smattering of unwitting applause. Did anyone realise? Did anyone actually care? Even Charly Gaul might admit that he didn’t.
The real question of the day was, of course, whether Gilbert Bauvin or Jan Adriaenssens would attack. Bauvin would require the support of the French team, of course. Adriaenssens would naturally rely on a strong Belgian team. Walko only had Adolphe Deledda.
One Last Crazy Escapade
Surveying the situation was none other than Roger Hassenforder. Hassen felt good. Hassen felt confident. He looked round and saw the yellow jersey safely in the wheel of Bauvin. He saw Adriaenssens head down, applying little effort. The riders had looked each other in the whites of the eyes, and had decided not to attack, not to ride.
It’s my day, declared Hassenforder, before leaping from the peloton with over 180km to go. A few heads bobbed up. One or two may have noticed that Hassen had tied a small doll to the back of his saddle. A lucky charm, Hassen would say.
20km into his escape, Hassen receives the visit of André Leducq in the Miroir des Sports car.
Leducq looked impressed. “You’re telling me. That’s what we’d use to ride behind motorbikes in my day. Keep it up, boy. Keep it up.”
Leducq winds his head in and turns to Chassaignon. “He’s riding a 54 x 14, the fool. He’ll never last like that.”
“André, it’s something to write about. We need him.”
50km into Hassenforder’s breakaway, he receives a visit from Tour director Félix Lévitan himself. It’s clearly serious.
“Will I win if I carry on like this?” asks the Alsacien.
“Why of course you will, my boy. And you’ll get the combativity prize again. You’re over 4 minutes up on the peloton. They’re all dozing.”
With 35km to go, Lévitan pulls up alongside once more.
“Come on, Roger. I can see you’re flagging. Don’t give in now.”
Hassenforder can barely bring himself to look up from his handlebars. “I’m cooked, Félix. Cooked.”
“Rubbish, boy. You’ve got barely an hour’s riding to go.”
With 20km to go, cars are overtaking him, but Lévitan makes sure to inform his man that he has 14 minutes on the next rider. Hassenforder takes his doll in his hands, clenches it and finds something extra as the false flat that has been sapping his energy turns into the false descent, and Montluçon appears on the horizon, imperceptible at first, but a collection of church spires and somewhere along that road, the velodrome where this 180km breakaway would end.
Les Dames Walkowiak
In this velodrome, two women sit side-by-side. One, younger, wears a light pink dress and sits behind a display of dark pink roses, and a sign that proclaims “La Rose Walkowiak”. One could argue that she is the Walko Rose herself, but a local horticulturalist has created the flower especially for her husband, Roger Walkowiak. Or, he created the flower and has now found a name for it, because not even the most clairvoyant of horticulturalists would have known that Roger Walkowiak would soon become the winner of the Tour de France.
The way Pierrette is shifting in her seat, you could argue that not even Pierrette is confident her husband would soon become the winner of the Tour de France.
From her position, she can see the gap between the stands in the velodrome, and between that gap, she can see the bridge over the river Cher.
Pierrette turns to the lady next to her. “Did you see that?” She points. “A rider has just crossed the bridge. Look.”
The lady in grey crosses and uncrosses her hands. Wipes the sweat from her palms. She is Roger Walkowiak’s mother. She has the look of a Walkowiak: round cheeks, small eyes, kindly. Only this Walkowiak has stuck to the diet of lard, beef and carrot, fried potatoes, andouillette. She envies the hold Pierrette has over her son’s diet, but if pushed, would grudgingly accept that she has been a good influence on her boy.
What both women share is a belief that this was Roger’s destiny. Unlike most people here in Montluçon, or indeed around France itself, they have both always believed that Roger had what it takes to win a major race. Perhaps it’s blind faith, but perhaps they knew something. Only they were watching him in the Dauphiné while others were watching Louison. Only they read about his stage win in the Vuelta last year. Only they connected the dots.
Mother Walkowiak nudges her daughter-in-law. The man who crossed the bridge, he’s coming into the velodrome now. White jersey, red hoop.
What the Walkowiak women don’t notice is that Roger Hassenforder has emptied himself of all his resources. He has nothing left but adrenaline. He’s heaving himself around the bends, desperate to stay upright and not embarrass himself. He feels the salty tears fall from his eyes. Of all the breakaways, of all the lone, madcap escapades Roger Hassenforder has attempted, this is the craziest, the maddest, the finest.
“He’s called Roger,” shouts Pierrette, excited. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
The old lady isn’t convinced. Yet.
The Hassenforder Roger collapses into the arms of Leon Le Calvez, his technical director, and at a distance, he is just another tired cyclist forced to the extremities of his abilities for our entertainment. A small man in the distance who has won a stage of a bike race. Eyes are mostly now focused on the bridge in the gap between buildings.
Rumours have gone round. Walko has fallen. Walko is fine. Bauvin has attacked. Bauvin has not attacked. Adriaenssens is in a breakaway. There is no breakaway. How would anyone know? It feels like an age since the Hassenforder Roger came into the velodrome. Look at him now, he’s laid out on the grass, he’s even joking around. It’s been five minutes.
Another lone cyclist has gone over the bridge. He’s not wearing a yellow jersey. It looks like a red one. A Spaniard.
He is welcomed into the velodrome with warmth and appreciation, if not fervour. He’s not our boy.
And time still expands in front of our eyes. Every second is observed.
And then, in the distance, a barely perceptible roar. It grows, quickly, like a virus spreading from person to person, exponentially. And from the side of a building, over the bridge over the river Cher, a whole peloton of Tour de France competitors, and safely among them is one man in a yellow jersey.
“Walko!” shout the crowd, almost as one, but not quite. “He’s there! He’s coming home!”
The ladies Walkowiak have to rise, not because their view is obstructed, but because it feels the right thing to do, given that everyone else has done. There is a clapping of boards, a waving of hands, a demonstration of pride that their home town boy, Roger Walkowiak, has come good at the ripe age of 29.
The townsfolk had spent the morning decking the town of Montluçon out in yellow. Yellow drapes. Any yellow flowers they could harvest. Yellow ribbons. The townspeople are wearing any yellow clothes they can find. It is this display that welcomes Walko. He had promised himself no tears, but he can’t stop them from falling as he enters the roads he knows so well. Training rides through town and out into country, back through town and into the hills. He knows every turn, every pothole, every cobblestone. He knows to avoid the slight camber. He knows the angle to approach the velodrome. But he doesn’t know Montluçon like this. So many people. So much love.
There are signs hanging from balconies. We love Walko. Allez Walko. He is a rider transformed, not just in performance, but in name. The transformation is complete, he is no longer Walkowiak, but Walko – shortened and adored in equal measure. The same number of letters as Bobet and Coppi, he thinks, as he looks up at one banner which has the ‘O’ of Walko turned into a heart. And yet still he doubts. And he doubts all the way to the finish line, two banks around the velodrome. He doubts they’ve come for him, despite the clamour and the noise. Surely not. This can’t be happening.
And it is. Towns like Montluçon need moments like this. Local heroes in moments of serendipity – bringing the yellow jersey to the town of his birth and his childhood, the town in which he worked as a metalworker for so many years, the town in which he married. Few would admit that the name Walkowiak meant anything to them before this Tour, but few would begrudge Walko his moment, because his moment is their moment. A Montluçien explosion of civic pride.
The Walkowiak Roger has left his bike, and has found the Hassenforder Roger. Both men are crying, and fall into each others’ arms. What are we doing? they ask each other. What is going on?
“How long have you been here?” asks the Walkowiak Roger.
“I don’t know, but I think I’ve grown a beard since I arrived,” jokes the Hassenforder Roger.
“You’re nuts,” adds the Walkowiak Roger, to which the Hassenforder Roger just nods and laughs. “But your team – please thank them from me. They stopped every attack today trying to protect your escape.”
And this last bit is a little-known fact about the penultimate stage of the 1956 Tour de France. That the Breton team, in trying to protect their man, effectively neutralised the peloton, protecting the Walkowiak Roger as well as the Hassenforder Roger. A French team too disinterested in helping Gilbert Bauvin had a go – but found themselves marked. The Belgians gave up quickly, with Adriaenssens seemingly happy with a place on the podium.
Next, the Walkowiak Roger enters the stands, finding his way through the barriers, and embraces wife then mother. The correct order, he thinks to himself. He spots the roses on his way past and thinks to himself, this really is happening. They’ve named a rose after me.
Sauveur Ducazeaux has missed much of the party. The team cars had been held up, but the yellow jersey did at least mean that the Nord-Est-Centre car was well-positioned in the peloton des bagnoles that had to re-form some miles outside of Montluçon, as is the tradition.
He would allow his rider some adulation. After all, this is his patch and these are his people. But is the yellow jersey really his?
Bauvin and Adriaenssens failed to attack today, but he remembers Robic and the Tour won 100km from Paris. He knows how this Tour has been ridden in bursts of personal ambition and knows that neither man will allow Walkowiak to be crowned the winner one night before they reach Paris. There is still distance to be covered.
Sauveur Ducazeaux’s Long Night In
There is a crowd of clamouring admirers outside the team hotel. Sauveur Ducazeaux has taken on a new role tonight, that of doorman. Visitors keep on coming.
“But sir, I’m a childhood friend of Walko, I have to see him.”
“Yeah, and I’m Grace Kelly. Go away,” shouts Ducazeaux.
“When he finds out, he’ll be furious with you,” shouts the childhood friend. “You’ll see!”
“You can talk to him after the Tour. He’s asleep now, and absolutely nobody shall disturb him, do you understand?”
Another upstart wants to shake Roger’s hand.
“And you – out of here. No one is going down this corridor.”
“But we went to school together, he’ll understand.”
“Yes, yes, he’ll understand very well when you come and shake his hand after he’s got back from Paris. Now scoot.”
Ducazeaux wonders aloud – why, oh why, this year of all years, did they have to end the penultimate stage in Montluçon? There are 2,000 people outside waving flags and chanting Walko’s name. Why, I’d bet at least half of them had never heard of him until yesterday.
Ducazeaux has been wily, however. He has draped the yellow jersey over the balcony of what was Roger Walkowiak’s bedroom which looks out over the main square, where the crowds are gathered. Roger himself is sleeping in Ducazeaux’s room, towards the back of the hotel.
He has positioned Adolphe Deledda in the foyer of the hotel to catch any rogue ‘childhood friends’ of Roger’s, with the instructions that he is to tell any intruder that Roger and Sauveur have driven to Néris-les-Bains by car.
“But he said he’d meet me here,” one pleads. “He’s waiting for me.”
“Ah,” nods Deledda. “He’ll have forgotten.”
Sauveur Ducazeaux tiptoes into his own bedroom to spy on his rider. Realising he’s fast asleep, Ducazeaux tiptoes back out, ruffles around in his pockets for those earplugs he bought from the pharmacy earlier, and heads to Walko’s room for, perhaps, a few hours’ sleep.
As the crowds thin out, discussions turn to tomorrow and whether Walko can hold on. There’s talk about finding the French team’s hotel and keeping Bauvin awake all night, but loyalty to Darrigade and Géminiani forbids this. The songs and the ribaldry carry on long into the night in the bars and clubs of Montluçon. The restaurants have given away more bottles of wine than they would have sold in a week, and the agneau bourbonnais has been flying out of the kitchens since early evening.
Gaston Bénac has enjoyed a local pudding as part of his café gourmande, perhaps his twentieth such pudding, notes Chassaignon. Three weeks on the road with Gaston is enough to turn a man into a vegetarian hermit, he muses, but he knows that within two hours of returning to Paris, he’ll be itching for the road again. Itching for moments like this evening in Montluçon, and tonight has an end-of-holiday feel for the journalists. How marvellous, he acknowledges, that we landed here in this delightful town, in this delightful restaurant, with this delightful yellow jersey.
“Such serendipity”, muses Bénac, not for the first time. Chassaignon watches his colleague attack the Café Gourmande. Three small puddings and a coffee.
“Such wonderful serendipity,” he insists. “Ah, André, I’ve seen Tours come and I’ve seen Tours go, I’ve seen the Maes brothers, I’ve seen Speicher, I’ve seen Coppi, but never have we landed in the birth town of the winning rider the night before Paris.”
Chassaignon runs through the previous winners in his head, noting that it would have been geographically impossible. Coppi and Bartali, forget it. Bobet, Robic, both in Brittany – forget it. Koblet and Kübler, both in Switzerland, forget it. Perhaps if Anquetil were to win a Tour when he’s older. Rouen, isn’t it? He’s lost in thoughts.
Serendipity, he agrees. Indeed. There are precious few people in the restaurant now, most have stumbled home.
A little digestif, perhaps, Bénac wonders instructively to the waiter who just happened to be passing, who now nods appreciatively. Chassaignon makes the sign that there will be two digestifs, and the night carries on a little longer.
The bands have played their last, and the revelry is played out to a backdrop of drunken songs outside, edging gradually into the distance. Slowly, the fountains disgorge themselves of drunken revellers, the sound of songs echoing in the distance as the sound of fountain water hitting ground returns, alone once more. And back home, alone too, Pierrette in pink dreams of Paris, and finally being reunited with her husband.