Soundtrack La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel
Sauveur Ducazeaux looked upon the happy couple yesterday as they embraced in the velodrome and he will freely admit, a tear came to his eye. He had allowed his young charge to keep the yellow jersey until this moment and next came his part of the bargain – lose it.
Lose the yellow jersey, and you lose the target on your back. Let someone else suffer the constant attacks, maybe a Belgian or a Dutchman. We don’t have the team to defend this yellow jersey, so it doesn’t matter how much you enjoy wearing it and how much your wife admires you in it, you have to lose it.
But first – lose the wife.
Pierrette and Roger had met at a ball organised after the Grand Prix de Commentry two years ago, close to their home town of Montluçon. Pierrette was a secretary at the Miner’s Welfare Society in Montluçon, Roger a former metalworker turned professional cyclist. Turned water-carrier.
Earlier in the day, Roger had participated in the traditional Grand Prix, hoping to win in front of his friends and family. No such luck. A puncture, a minor fall, and a chase to get back to the front group left Roger sweaty, tired and cursing his bad luck. Well, he thought, my day can’t get any worse.
Roger the wallflower supped at his drink, desperately holding conversations with friends so that he didn’t have to dance. An introduction followed a further introduction, and by multiple degrees of friendship, Roger was introduced to a girl someone knows called Pierrette.
Slender-faced, gracious and intensely pretty, Pierrette Lajarge made effortless small talk. Yes, I noticed you in the race earlier (she did not), ah I think I saw you in the crowd earlier (he did not), would you care to dance (he cannot), perhaps you’d be able to meet me again, maybe at the ball in Montluçon itself in two weeks’ time, organised by my club, but only if you’re able (she is).
This time, Roger made sure to wash, comb his hair, wear his finest suit. They agreed to meet again, this time sooner, and then more frequently. Mme Walkowiak was introduced to Mlle Lajarge, Mme Walkowiak approved, although she could do with a little fattening up, those aren’t child-bearing hips, a girl could do with some weight around her, Roger.
It is not a coincidence that Roger’s bounce in form came shortly after meeting Pierrette; Roger had not been living the life of a dedicated sportsman. Living at home with his mother, Roger ate whatever his mother prepared for him. If it’s lard, it’s lard, and plenty of it. If it’s andouillette, it’s andouillette. And so on. Old Mother Walkowiak had no time for the sporting life and its demands upon her kitchen. It was her kitchen, after all. Boy, you will eat and you will eat until you burst, because God alone knows when there may not be food on this table again.
Pierrette understood the needs of the professional cyclist, and took part in the transformation of Roger Walkowiak from also-ran to yellow jersey and – in the eyes of Sauveur Ducazeaux at least – potential Tour de France winner. Pierrette took charge the day they moved in together, and everything from sleep to exercise and diet was carefully managed and based around Roger’s racing calendar.
The happy couple moved quickly and married over Christmas of 1955; the young Walkowiak’s sporting career had already taken an upward curve with a brave performance in the Dauphiné that year. The new, slimmer Roger Walkowiak had matched Louison Bobet in the mountains for every pedal stroke. Bobet shook his hand, commented that few men had pushed him this hard. Nobody else noticed, but Pierrette did.
And so, knowing the importance of Pierrette in Roger Walkowiak’s life, and indeed the affection he holds for her, it is a wrench for Sauveur Ducazeaux. He admires Pierrette, principally for her culinary skills.
Nonetheless, the wife has to go.
Interrupting the two lovers, Ducazeaux is himself interrupted.
“Monsieur,” interjects the wife, silencing Ducazeaux before he can speak, pressing two palms to his chest.
“I’ve come by car with friends. They’re leaving this evening and quite naturally they suggested I go with them. But I think I’ll stay twenty-four hours and leave tomorrow evening.”
Ducazeaux looks across at the disturbingly approving face of his yellow jersey. He looks back at Pierrette and inhales. This is going to be hard.
“Out of the question. You’ve seen your husband, and you’ve embraced him. You will have noticed that he’s in good health. I know that you’ve communicated to him your confidence and your faith in his abilities. But that’s enough. Your job here is done. Now you have to leave.”
Calm, but firm. That’s the way to deal with it, he reassures himself. The lovers’ faces have fallen.
“Oh come, come. Don’t wallow in melancholy. Compare this small sacrifice I’m asking of you with the greater satisfaction that awaits you. You don’t win the Tour de France on your honeymoon now, do you?”
Four cow-eyes are still pleading with him.
“Madame, you have to leave.”
Ducazeaux himself accompanies Pierrette out of the hotel, offering assurances as they walk.
“But Mr Ducazeaux, Roger and I…”
“Yes, yes, I know. We have, on the one hand, what I understand… and on the other, we have the Tour. A rider who is trying to win the Tour should only think of victory. I know you’re a reasonable woman, but that is not enough. Your presence alone is enough to soften my rider. He shouldn’t feel like he’s on holiday when I want him to feel like he’s going into battle.”
Ducazeaux sat down later that evening to write in his diary. He wrote:
“Now is the time to reflect on a job well done, so far. The rest day must not break the rhythm we have created. Tomorrow, I’ll make them ride. I’ll be with them. We’ll talk. I’ll remind Roger of his promise to return to the ranks. Mario Bertolo and Pierre Scribante will help Roger in the Pyrenees, and I’ll keep Adolphe Deledda for the end. If everything goes as I have planned, we’ll need him.”
He then walked down to the kitchens and ordered the chefs out. Dégagez-vous, non j’ai pas besoin d’aide, allez.
There was work to do.
From now on, fini the drinks at the back of the peloton. Fini the second helpings at the dinner table. Fini the champagne, at least until Paris.