Stage 22, Montluçon to Paris, a long, flat stage - supposedly ceremonial
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Leave Me Here In Montluçon, My Dear
Winning à la Walkowiak - a Post-Tour analysis
Chapters Lunch in the Heart of France (Almost) Twenty Men A Warm Welcome for Walko Classement
Lunch In The Heart of France (Almost)
Bruère-Allichamps is the very heart of France. Its geographical centre. Like many towns of the region, it is a drive-through town. A place you stop if you’re unfortunate enough to run out of petrol, or if you’ve made the wrong decision.
For André Chassaignon, Miroir des Sports journalist, it is a place of pilgrimage.
André Leducq, former Tour winner tourned journalist, is not happy.
“André, give up, will you? The peloton is too close. We’ll never find anywhere to eat round here.”
“If we get ahead of them… take the back roads, put your foot down.”
“No, we’ll find somewhere nearby for lunch.”
Chassaignon huffs. He had visions of himself, propping up the bar at the geographical heart of his country, with a fresh glass of white, the glass speckled with condensation. He’d raise the glass to la France, reflect on the Tour that is coming to its close. Chassaignon is a romantic.
He is stuck with Leducq and Bénac in a bistro 2km north of his country’s heart. The Tour doesn’t pass by here. It doesn’t even so much as touch upon it. There are no cycling posters, there is no cycling chit-chat. There are no bikes outside. The men are unrecognised. To improve this pitiful situation, the former Tour de France winner André Leducq tears into Roger Walkowiak’s teammates.
“Not good enough, none of them. They wouldn’t get into my team, I tell you.”
“Do go on,” mumbles Bénac as he gorges himself on the free baguette.
“Have you seen them at all since we left Reims? Hm?”
Chassaignon admits he had, once or twice. But the point has been made.
“They left Reims with modest ambitions,” he continues, “and modest careers if we’re to be fully honest with ourselves. Not one of them wanted anything other than to reach Paris, take some bonus money here and there, and go home.
“Now, one of them – I won’t say who – but we all know the man I’m talking about, he’s used to abandoning when it gets too hard. But with Walko earning him a fortune, he’s spent half the Tour lolling around at the back of the peloton drinking sugared beer. But look at them today, just like yesterday, they’re at the front of the peloton, proving that it’s just as easy to ride at the front sucking up the dust for the other riders as it is to ride at the back drinking beer and fetching water.
“It’s a question of attitude. That’s all it is. Attitude. If they wanted to do this for themselves, they’d have done it – but they haven’t had the attitude until now. Why is that? They’re lazy, that’s why.”
Bénac has run out of baguette, and has run out of patience with Leducq.
“You’ve lost your romanticism, Leducq.”
“Fiddlesticks!” he exclaims, visibly offended. “I’m as romantic as they get!”
“Don’t talk shit. You rode the Tour. You know the difference between the men at the front and the men at the back. They’re worth just as much in any Tour, they write our words for us. They’re the best men from their towns and they’re part of the colour, the scenery of the Tour. Leave them alone.”
“They could have done this all along, that’s all I’m saying!”
“Phooey! Ah…”, he breaks off. “Here’s the food.”
The three munch happily, in the knowledge that the breakaway has called off its skirmishes and that Roger Walkowiak is riding to victory in Paris without much of a fuss. Chassaignon writes up notes from the morning.
Darrigade attacked first. Bauvin followed. Walkowiak took to his wheel with Scribante his teammate. Some Belgians – who were they – Impanis, Adriaenssens too of course, Deledda was in there wasn’t he? Yes, old Adolphe, he would have to be up there.
“How many did you count, Gaston?”
Mouth full of chicken leg. “Mmf, twenty or so?”
Bénac was right. Twenty riders took the initiative, 331km away from Paris, to break away from the dozing peloton and ride hard. 50km per hour, some men bent over their handlebars, attacking each other and more importantly, attacking Roger Walkowiak. Darrigade, offering a neat coda to a Tour that he so effortlessly tore apart upon its departure from Reims, was either leading out Gilbert Bauvin for an attack, or he was hoping for more personal glory. A repeat of Reims, perhaps. It was too soon for that.
The rain had started falling, the road was slippy, the wind had risen. After 20km of trying to kill each other with bicycles, the leading men called off the attack. Let’s just ride. Roger’s won.
And so they ride through the anonymous fields of central France. Straight roads, bursts of rain, like a family returning from holiday. The way south, everything holds promise. The weather improves with each kilometre, hopes rise. The way north, the hope fades, the light disappears, the clouds mass. Let’s just get home, unpack the bags, put the washing on. Finish this thing.
When you’re returning from holiday, passing attractions are wilfully ignored. Fun for somebody else, perhaps, emptied of holidaymakers. The riders are unaware that the Foire aux Sorcières takes place in one of these villages they pass through. They say that such a festival has taken place here since Medieval times. Locals dress as witches and shamans, they beat drums, they boil vegetables in a cauldron and drink soup the colour of blood (beetroot, of course), and dance until moon-down.
They are perhaps also unaware of the castle at Sully-sur-Loire and the Saint-Benoit Abbey. If the Tour is a pilgrimage, it is apt, perhaps, that it should pass by one of France’s most sacred lieux de pélerinage.
The Tour is breathing its last. Adriaenssens has a last-gasp attempt at glory around Etampes, but it’s embarrassing. Walkowiak hovers behind on his wheel and gives him a look as if to say “why?”. Bauvin has punctured – perhaps it was a claim for second place – but Bergaud has given him his wheel and the encyclopaedia salesman is back in the group.
A small group breaks away, but no one really important is in it, and they are left to compete for the day’s prizes while the real prize awaits. Nencini takes the stage by a nose length ahead of Desmet, Le Ber and Mirando, and the Parc des Princes falls silent as it awaits the yellow jersey.
A Warm Welcome For Walko
Now, there are those who might say that Roger Walkowiak was booed on his entrance into the Parc des Princes velodrome, and they would be wrong. The reception he received was warm, if not adulatory. This is the yellow jersey, after all. He has been transformed from the humble nobody Walkowiak to the five-lettered superstar Walko, and there are those who stand for Walko, there are those who shout his name, but this is not Montluçon. It is muted in comparison.
The boos, they were reserved for Marcel Bidot. The Parisians expected better. They expected Louison Bobet, and if not Louison then they expected Géminiani. Surely it was his turn? Or Bauvin, for Christ’s sake, anyone in a French shirt. In Paris, they don’t do regional teams, even if they do have an Ile-de-France team lost somewhere in that peloton.
Bidot deserved his boos, they say, he let us all down. He let a regional rider win.
For Walko, then, the spoils. He is carried by the crowd and his teammates, he is showered with flowers. He is, somehow, underwhelmed. They aren’t celebrating me, not like my friends in Montluçon, he thinks. They’re celebrating the yellow jersey. The ritual of the Tour. And it’s fine to be a part of that, he thinks. Everything is fine. But it’s not what he thought it might be. They didn’t want me, they wanted someone else – anyone else. They wanted a tricolore or a grande champion like Bobet, Coppi, Koblet, Kübler. Not a metalworker from Montluçon.
And so, in anticlimax, ends what may be one of the finest and most competitive Tours ever ridden. Few other than Felix Goddet and a handful of journalists will recognise this. The French public wanted a hero in the mould of Bobet, and instead they found an unassuming 29-year-old from the countryside, a man who would rather go fishing or spend time with his wife Pierrette than celebrate at the casino or the restaurant. A man whose name they could barely pronounce. A man they had never heard of.
Over the last three weeks, the fans have seen multiple yellow jerseys. They’ve seen racing as fast as the Tour has ever seen. They’ve witnessed Charly Gaul at his majestic best – and his woeful worst. They’ve seen the mother of all breakaways on the road to Angers, and they’ve seen the renaissance of Roger Hassenforder – four stages, all of them magnificent in their own crazy way.
And they’ve seen Roger Walkowiak. And some who hold a longer view of the sport have hopes that Walko is the new Bobet. However, a decade of golden era heroics has ill-prepared the cycling fan for this technical, athletic Tour. Some wonder if this is the future. Will it always be like this? A Tour winner who doesn’t win stages, who seeks a mathematical advantage by quietly slipping into the right breaks and staying consistent?
Few would realise that they had seen one of the Tour’s legends. Many thought that this would pass. A new hero would come next year. Young Anquetil, perhaps. Or that Bobet would return, fitter than ever. This is temporary.
Roger says to himself: Everything is fine. He looks at the sour faces of the Parisians and he feels that despite their applause, they resent him. He’s not one of them, and he never will be.
Take me back to Montluçon, Pierrette. To my fishing rod and my hearth. To my people. To my local criteriums and my agneau bourbonnais. Take me back to the wooden buildings and the wide, open spaces, to the rolling hills and the long evenings spent riding with friends as the blood-orange sun fails to drop below the skyline, to the quiet of my Montluçon. Take this yellow jersey off me, take me back to the anonymous man I was. Take me home.