Stage 14 - Toulouse to Montpellier, a break from the climbs of the Pyrenees and a flat stage for the sprinters
13 min read
Treason Among The Tricolores
The Physician, The Belgians, and the Fishy Excuses
Chapters P’tit Louis Decides Constantine’s Error A Roger Hassenforder Type of Day Can I Not Have A Wazz? Hassen and De Clown Classement
Soundtrack Les Copains D’Abord, Georges Brassens
P’tit Louis Decides
Louis Caput’s career is coming to an end. Mind you, they’ve been saying that for several years and despite these regular proclamations, ‘P’tit Louis’ rode over 30,000km last year including all three Grand Tours and the 6 days of Paris at the end of the season, just to round things off and prove to everyone that Louis Caput was not kaput.
Louis had always been the boss of the peloton, whichever team he rode for. But rather than instilling fear into other riders around him, he instilled respect. When Louis Caput said ride, you rode, and you rode all day. He was clever, too. A brain that worked overtime, calculating average speeds and time gaps, knowing just when to push the button and release a breakaway, knowing who to let go, and knowing which men had their little deals – who was on the take, who was doped, who needed a helping hand. The peloton of the late 40s and early 50s was a Caput peloton, and it was all the better for it.
He was made for hard work – Louis was brought up on a farm in typical pre-war hardship, waking up at 3 every morning to milk the cows and then delivering the milk on his bike. For every rider, a unique story of hardship that built them into the man they are today. For Louis, there was no story of redemption, no rags to riches glory, there was just hard work and pleasure from it. He’d take the same attitude from the farm straight to the bike race, putting in the shifts.
And so, with age, P’tit Louis has become Le Professeur, a wise old sage within the cycling community. To emphasise his professorial acumen, Louis Caput has taken to spending more time with the Velo-Club Sannois, accompanying the young cycling graduates on training sessions. Perhaps fatherhood has played its part. His six-year-old son has already taken up cycling and regularly plays the 6 days of Paris with his friends. But not for 6 days, and not in Paris.
They say that Roger Hassenforder’s form so far in this Tour can be put down to one man, and one man alone: P’tit Louis.
This is, let’s not forget, the Roger Hassenforder that drove ‘Tonin le Sage’ (Antonin Magne) to distraction. The Roger Hassenforder who, just one year ago, drove his most loyal fans to distraction and wound up penniless at the end of a wretched, selfish season of showboating and capitulation.
In Pau, Caput commended Hassenforder on his performance in the mountains:
“So you see, you got over the Aubisque. Not so bad, is it? You just take a smaller gear, take your own time and you get there in the end.”
“I’ll get over all of them P’tit Louis. I’ll definitely finish this Tour now. And you know what – I’m going to win more stages,” beamed his pupil. “You’ll see. We’ve already got 3 million francs in the bank. We’ll have 5 by the time we reach Paris. They said they didn’t want Hassen, well I’m showing them plenty of Hassen!”
Louis turned over in his bed, not wanting to show his protégé that he was smiling. Sometimes, however, you need to bring Hassen down from his cloud…
“You know what, the French cycling federation were right to punish you after what you did last year. There are some things a rider should never do. That cost you selection for the World Championships. Next time, you’ll pipe down.”
“You’re right,” nodded Hassenforder. “I was an idiot.”
Caput nearly somersaulted on the bed. Roger Hassenforder is accepting his advice.
“And there’s no reason you can’t climb the Alps,” he carries on. “You’ll never climb like Charly Gaul, but do everything I ask of you and you’ll finish this Tour. Stay by my side and don’t look to hold on to guys who are going quicker than you. The only thing you need to do is get there before the cut-off. Make time up on the descent and you’ll be OK.”
Caput looked across. His student was already asleep. Student or friend? It’s a curious friendship, he thought to himself.
And so, on the start line in Toulouse, Roger Hassenforder has ensured that he is behind P’tit Louis, who is dishing out instructions to the Bretons around him. Picot – wearing the green jersey after two successive second-place finishes in Luchon and Toulouse last night – is to watch the Belgians for their intentions and report back. Le Ber is told to get himself into any breakaway that happens – he’ll try to keep the gap down for Hassen who will take things up later in the stage.
If all goes to plan, Caput says, then we’ll be drinking champagne in Montpellier tonight.
The traditional skirmishes at the start of a stage are once more being marshalled by Stan Ockers, who has become domestique de luxe for Jan Adriaenssens, and now self-proclaimed hard man of the peloton.
Raymond Elena, the French-Algerian rider from the South-West team, breaks away and is told in no uncertain terms by Ockers that he is to return to the ranks right now, or find himself frozen out of any deals.
Elena’s perhaps too young to understand the complexities of the 1950s peloton. When the world champion tells you to get back or lose your future bargaining power, generally speaking you withdraw.
But he pleads with Ockers – just let me go – I want to ride – and Ockers spends some time considering this. Does it matter if Elena goes? He’s no threat to our yellow jersey, and what’s more – letting him go would deprive Laurédi of a teammate when it comes down to a straight-out fight between Laurédi and Adriaenssens.
OK, you can go this time, concedes Ockers, and Elena is allowed to leap away like a rabbit freed from a trap.
This moment of lassitude is perhaps a misjudgement as others look ahead and see Raymond Elena distancing himself. Le Ber goes, just as P’tit Louis instructed him, and then off goes Wout Wagtmans – the Clown – and the Spaniard Bahamontes, along with a handful of other non-threatening riders. Stay close, says Caput, we’ll form a chase group later, there’s plenty of time to ride.
Ockers is forced to join the group himself, and the Belgians at the front of the peloton start to panic. This wasn’t meant to happen. This wasn’t part of the plan. Stan, bring them back. But Stan wouldn’t bring them back, and Jan Adriaenssens found himself isolated in the chase.
Like a thread pulled at a sweater, the race was coming apart in front of his eyes.
A Roger Hassenforder Type of Day
In front of Adriaenssens went three more riders, and one of them was Roger Hassenforder. Leave them, shouts Brankart, taking the role of Ockers in the main group. None of them matter.
The announcement of a chasing group had gone through the radios and had found its way onto the blackboards ahead of the lead group. Only 50km had been raced, and we are already 23 minutes ahead of schedule. With the Pyrenees left behind, the race is returning to Classics mode.
Behind, Adriaanssens shakes his head and digs deep. Only his teammates are willing to work with him, the others know that this is probably a Roger Hassenforder type of day and it’s not worth chasing him down.
By 81 kilometres, the chase group has caught the breakaway and we now have a group of 18 men and a peloton that has largely given up the ghost. For Adriaenssens, it’s a case of minimising losses against two men: Bahamontes and, of all people, the Dutchman Wagtmans. Who let him go up ahead? There are arguments within the team. Ockers is the man to blame, someone says, he let this happen. But you were meant to watch for escapees, shouts Desmet to no one in particular. But who would have thought of Wout Wagtmans at the start of the day? Indeed, in this Tour, who are you supposed to mark? Everyone’s riding for themselves today, except for the Belgians.
The journalists have taken advantage of this entente to slow down and admire the scenery a little. Zaaf, the photographer, has forgotten his camera and has to report back to the Miroir des Sports car to convey the beauty of the scenery further down the road. The advantage, Zaaf adds, is that he can take the road less travelled, navigate the roadblocks in town centres and do a little tourism on the side. Sun-burnt hills, he reports. I’d retire here if I could. The real Midi, the beating heart of the south, a place where man has conquered rock – a wild land, replete with the sound of cicadas, the Orb valley in flower and its small parcels of land broken up by low stone walls, the scent of lavender… ahhh, Zaaf says, there’s no camera that can capture the majesty of the Midi.
Very well, says Chassaignon, leaning out of the Peugeot. Beautiful words, but no photographs. I’ll just have to add in a few more paragraphs.
Gaston Bénac proffers an imaginary coupe of Champagne towards the photographer-poet. The old man has a smaller column these days, but Zaaf has just added some colour.
Can I Not Have A Wazz?
In the front group, the instigator of the breakaway, Raymond Elena, has gone far enough without the call of nature. “I need to piss,” he screams to his breakaway colleagues. “Can we have a wee break?”
“Piss off,” shouts Dotto, to general laughter.
“Ah come on, can I not have a wazz?”
“We’re not stopping,” Dotto insists, “so piss on your bike or hold it until we get to Montpellier. Got that?”
Elena mopes. This was his breakaway and now they’ve stolen it from him. But he can’t hold.
He stands while pedalling, one hand on the left handlebar, the other forcing his shorts up on the right-hand side, trying to find a gap for his member so that he doesn’t piss in his shorts, but manages to find a way through, preferably without pissing on himself.
Warm piss splashes off the bike frame, half of it back onto Raymond’s leg, the other half onto the road, with some splash going onto his shoes. Ah shit, he says, I’m going to stink. They’ll never ride with me.
The call of nature, when it comes, lasts longer than it should. It always does when you need to move.
When Raymond looks up, they’ve gone 200 metres up the road. He stashes his cock back in his pants, wipes his hand on the back of his shorts and pumps hard down on the pedals, shouting at them – get back here, stop fucking with me, come on, I’ve done the work. I deserve this.
Nobody turns round. Elena’s day is done, a piss too far.
Hassen and De Clown
Of the 17 men up ahead, six have found a little space by switching to the left-hand side of the road. Bahamontes is among them, so too is Wout Wagtmans and of course, Roger Hassenforder. Le Ber is with him and the two know full well that Hassen is the man to bring home the money. Stick to my wheel, he says. I’ll ride you home. Hassenforder nods and rides his tailwind.
The top six enter the velodrome in Montpellier, and Federico Bahamontes gives the sign that he’s not going to compete. Wagtmans goes first, the little man arching his back over his handlebars into the first corner. Game on, shouts Le Ber, pulling Hassenforder with him into fourth, then third place. De Groot, the Dutchman, takes over from his friend and colleague, hoping he’ll latch on, but the Le Ber-Hassenforder combination is far faster, and Le Ber pulls off, allowing Roger Hassenforder to sprint for the line – a formality, in hindsight – but a majestic one for the man from Alsace who celebrates arms in the air, as the bank balance of the Breton team ker-chings itself another notch higher.
The Dutch pair of De Groot and Wagtmans have taken advice – the peloton is so far behind that a miracle might be happening. Wout Wagtmans might be in yellow tonight. Calculations are made. If the peloton doesn’t arrive within 19 minutes, then Wagtmans is in yellow. Roger Hassenforder pokes his nose in between the two men as they study the roadmap once more on the grass.
“Reckon you’re in yellow, Clown?”
“Dunno, Rog. They’ve stopped giving us the time gaps.”
“You see Elena pissed himself?” he laughs, and they all laugh before Wout and his teammate return nervously to the road map. Remember this bit? That’ll slow them down. And this bit here, that’s fast. They’ll make up time here. There’s no purpose to this debating, other than to pass the time.
And time does pass, as it always does, just not enough for Wout Wagtmans to take the yellow he had barely dared dream of before today’s stage. 18 minutes was the gap between the breakaway group and the peloton, 18 minutes of waiting for Wout until Jan Adriaanssens and his teammates, including the man who misread the whole stage, Stan Ockers, roll into the velodrome and compete for the peloton sprint.
Wout doesn’t see who won it. He doesn’t care. But he knows that while he’s not in yellow tonight, he’s as close as he has been thanks to Stan Ockers’ marvellous mistake.
And this is a chance he doesn’t want to pass up on.