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So, Charly Gaul, do you have it?
Stage 11 - Bayonne to Pau, 255km including the climbs of the Soulor, and the Aubisque
10 min read
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Bayonne to Pau

Ducazeaux’s Kitchen

Sauveur Ducazeaux is no stranger to the kitchen, owning a restaurant that keeps him busy during the winter months and, he’ll be the first to admit he hasn’t exactly held back from partaking in good meals since he retired from his professional cycling career. A couple of stage wins earned him enough notoriety to open his restaurant and fill it with locals keen to rub shoulders with a cycling celebrity, at least until Sauveur-le-cycliste became Sauveur-le-restaurateur, by which time Sauveur was missing cycling, and cycling was missing him.

He woke at 5am this morning to chase out the head chef at the Hotel de la Gare in Bayonne, so that he could prepare the bidons and the food for his team.

With the form shown by Walkowiak, a change had come over Ducazeaux. His approach to being regional team manager had been to let the riders pretty much eat whatever they liked, so long as they stayed within the portion guidelines laid out at the start of the Tour. They could also drink during the race, but not any more. The possibility of a Tour winner meant that a new regime had to be imposed upon the team – and every man had to be at peak condition to support Ducazeaux’s ambition.

In the evenings, grilled meat, salads and the occasional fistful of pasta. During the race, rice and orange juice (mixed together in a bidon), and single mouthful sandwiches made with pain d’epices and honey. Enough to get you through the stage, and no more than that.

With these supplies, words of advice: “Drink as little as possible. You’ll feel thirsty, but resist as much as you can the desire to drink. Wet your lips, no more than that. You see those riders falling back down the first mountainside? They’ll be the ones who’ve been drinking. Stick to what’s in your bidons and you’ll cope.”

A little more strategically, Ducazeaux has told Walkowiak to keep as close to the two Belgians Ockers and Brankart as he can. See how he feels on the first climb of the day, the Soulor, before taking on the Aubisque which is 500m above the peak of the Soulor. Ducazeaux has supreme confidence in his man. Writing to his wife before the stage, he expresses his absolute belief that Roger is going to win the race, and that everything is going to plan. 

Is Ducazeaux deluded? The press, after all, are clamouring for a Nello Laurédi win or a Charly Gaul comeback.

The Climbers Come Back

In fact, despite Ducazeaux’s insouciance, it’s the latter that the riders fear most. Having seen or read about Charly’s exploits in the Giro, and knowing that the young Luxembourg rider has time to make up on them all, the plan is to put nails in Gaul’s coffin before he even reaches the mountains.

Gaul, in his favoured snow

Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, is one of the first to break away early in the stage to Pau, alongside Barbotin the tricolore, Defilippis the Italian, Van Genechten from Belgium and Le Ber the over-sized Breton. With the Spaniard leading the assault on Gaul, the five men create a 25-second gap.

Together, they are an elite hit squad, a band of brothers aligned against the dangerous Gaul. Eliminate him, before he becomes a danger to us all. They are strangers to each other. Bahamontes is a man who goes it alone. He doesn’t do breakaways. Le Ber doesn’t mind an escape from the peloton, but it’s usually with other regionals. He knows Barbotin, but not the Italian lad. Van Genechten is here to give Ockers a chance. He doesn’t care who’s with him.

Their escapade doesn’t last long. As the roads tighten and the overhanging trees hide chasing packs from view, the slim, slight figure of Gaul appears as if from nowhere.

“Bastards,” he mutters as he slots onto their wheels, and almost as one, the band of brothers disbands. Hands are placed on top of handlebars, Le Ber sits up and Van Genechten shrugs. They made me do it. Gaul whispers something about having worked in an abattoir, and Le Ber promises not to do it again.

It won’t be long before the peloton catches up and everyone is back together, so backs are slapped and Gaul is ignored and the men admire the scenery. For once, no wide roads or cobblestones, no poplar-lined avenues promising the warmth of the south, but instead the smell of burning rubber, cut hay, warm oil and the delicate scent of acacia, an assault on the senses.

The roads have narrowed, and then through valleys they widen as they run alongside babbling rivers and streams, and the road narrows again as it takes the first true ascent of this 1956 Tour de France, the Soulor. A group detaches itself from the peloton, and it includes the usual climbing suspects: Bahamontes, Gaul, Brankart, Ockers, and… Walkowiak. 

The climb to the Soulor

It also includes Andre Darrigade, as well as Defilippis, one of the day’s early Gaul-stabbers, and Adriaansens, the Belgian climber who has been climbing the general classification quietly and effectively. For Darrigade, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate to Marcel Bidot that he is the man to support for the yellow jersey. There is talk of Gilbert Bauvin taking that role, but Andre has to prove himself to Bidot first. The Soulor is his first opportunity.

The climb of the Soulor lulls the non-climbers into a false sense of security. It’s hard, they think, but as it levels out, lesser men believe they’ve conquered it. A false flat leads to a few skirmishes, but Bahamontes and Ockers take charge when the gradient accentuates. 9% and then 15% for a short while before settling at a still lung-busting 8%. A thick fog has descended as the Spaniard leaps out of his saddle and away from Ockers. 

The world champion Ockers looks to his side and looks Charly Gaul straight in the eyes. Then ahead at Bahamontes. Then back at Gaul. Do you have it? 

So, Charly Gaul, Do You Have It?

And then it dawns on him. He doesn’t have it. Charly Gaul has nothing in the tank. He tests him, three hard pushes and he distances Gaul who has no response. Gaul’s humiliation is only just beginning. Meyzenq, lanterne rouge and a pale, sick-looking youngster, is next to follow. Raymond Meyzenq, of all people, the last man in the Tour, distancing Charly Gaul, hero of the Giro. Then Valentin Huot, a climber from the less-than-successful South-West team, is another to put the sword to Charly Gaul. 

Behind, a group has formed with Adriaansens, Darrigade, Brankart and Walkowiak, among others. They’re just 42 seconds behind on the Aubisque, which like the Soulor, has seen the clouds descend upon it.

A few years back, Wim Van Est came off around here. There’s a few nervous looks in the Dutch team, and a couple of riders point down the ravine. Don’t look, they say. If you look, you’ll end up down there.

From the safety of the team car, Sauveur Ducazeaux monitors his man, carefully scrutinising every facial gesture, every movement. He’s climbing well, he thinks. He’s not going into the red and yet he’s just 42 seconds behind the leaders.

My boy’s doing everything I’d asked of him.

It’s Valentin Huot who emerges from the clouds to reach the peak of the Aubisque. The crowds know to recognise Gaul and Ockers – but Huot? Who is this? Fans five deep line the mountainside as the cheer past Huot, Bahamontes, Ockers, some young lad they’ve never seen before – who is this guy – check his number. Papers are rustled – Meyzenq, someone cries. Raymond Meyzenq, the lanterne rouge! Allez Raymond, the cry goes up, all too late. Some try to run after him, encourage him, Allez Raymond!

But where’s Charly Gaul?

They all came out to see Charly Gaul. The papers promised Charly Gaul. They’d have 40 seconds to wait, and quietly, ever so quietly, a man in violet rides past them, his cheeks puffed out, as always, but a picture of calm. We’re into the regional riders, someone would say, not knowing this was the man who held yellow just a few days ago. 

On the descent of the Aubisque, the lead group is caught without necessarily making too much effort not to be caught. Together, they make a cosmopolitan, multi-talented peloton, one that includes André Darrigade and Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes and Roger Walkowiak. Raymond Meyzenq and Valentin Huot.

A Tentative Agreement

There’s a tentative agreement that the sprinter should be left to compete for the prize and for André Darrigade, there’s the possibility – calculations permitting – that the yellow jersey is returning to his broad shoulders. Who would have thought that this sprinter-routier would have tackled the double climbs of the Soulor and the Aubisque, and then descend the mountain to wrest the yellow jersey from the absent Dutchman Voorting? 

Alas, no stage win for Darrigade – the Italian Defilippis has the edge on him today, but Marcel Bidot is beaming as his sprinter makes it home in third. 

“You’re in yellow, André! You’ve done it again, my boy.”

“I told you I could climb, Marcel. I told you, didn’t I?”

They embrace, and Bidot’s job is made a little easier for him. Perhaps Darrigade could take the yellow jersey all the way across the Alps and all the way to Paris. The boy’s done the Aubisque and has descended like a demon all the way in to Pau. Over his shoulder, he sees Nello Laurédi, he sees Jan Adriaenssens, he sees his own teammate Gilbert Bauvin. Instead of seeing those who might wear yellow tomorrow, he sees those who might steal yellow from him tomorrow.

For André, everything is possible.


Stage results

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General Classification

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