Stage 18, Turin to Grenoble, including Mont-Cenis, col de la Croix de Fer, and the Luitel
9 min read
The Revival of Charly Gaul, and the Man Who Wasn't There
The Crash, The Bandit, The Pursuit
Chapters A Time To Say Goodbye Gaston’s Curse The Attack They Missed Walko’s Doubts Classement
Soundtrack Sa Jeunesses Entre Ses Mains, Charles Aznavour
A Time To Say Goodbye
There comes a time in every Tour to say goodbye. Yesterday, we said goodbye rather early on in the proceedings to Nello Laurédi, who was sharply and unceremoniously returned to the middling ambitions of the peloton. Today, everyone is certain that we’ll be saying goodbye to Wout Wagtmans.
As the peloton leaves Turin, Wagtmans is sweating more than usual. Finally, it seems we have found ‘the stage too far’ for our Dutch friend, and it appears to be only a matter of time before the yellow jersey has to give up his maillot, at least virtually.
Sauveur Ducazeaux knows this, and he is eager to inform Roger Walkowiak, who is as usual hidden in the wheels of the climbers. The peloton has, for once, opted to stay together and there is no room for team cars to pull alongside their men yet.
We have three Alpine climbs today – the col du Mont-Cenis, which stands at 2,038m, the col de la Croix-de-Fer at 2,087m, and the Luitel which is minuscule at just 1,235m.
It is at the foot of the Mont-Cenis that things start to develop, finally. Bahamontes is followed by the little Belgian Van Genechten, and the man who seeks the cold, Charly Gaul. That’s the order in which they pass over the summit, but the developments further down the mountain are causing ripples. Wagtmans, as expected, is being pushed by his teammates. The Clown is in no mood for joking around today, he is shaking his head, flicking beads of sweat into the faces of his fellow riders.
This is one hill too many.
André Chassaignon and Gaston Bénac have been admiring the scenery of the entre-deux-cols from the back of their car, but a technical problem means their radio has broken. They pull into St. Jean-de-Maurienne for lunch with one of the Tour dignitaries, a Mr Pierre Ruais from Paris.
“What’s his name again?” enquires Bénac, never one for a non-cyclist.
“Ruais, Gaston. And eat quickly, will you?”
Bénac is a journalist fast going out of style, and he knows it. His era ended with the war. The era of the Maes brothers, Speicher, Magne and Leducq, the era of inner tubes around the shoulders and of goggles over the eyes, an altogether slower, grittier era than the athletic dynamism of the ’50s. But Bénac is not given to Leducq-esque reminiscing. Cycling is a feast, and a feast takes on many courses, each to be savoured in its own way. The Pélissiers provided him with his starter, the Maes brothers his main course, and for pudding, Bartali, Coppi, Bobet and the two K’s from Switzerland.
We’re into digestif territory here, and Bénac has had a hearty meal.
The food arrives, quicker than in most towns, and the three men give a hearty gallic welcome to the plates of chicken leg, pommes dauphinoises and green beans.
“So Monsieur Raisu,” chews Bénac, intentionally getting the name wrong, “do you know who went over the Croix-de-Fer first?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. But you’ll never guess who it was.”
Chassaignon interjects. “It must be Lampre. Or Guitard. One of those boys. Yes?”
Ruais shakes his head, flecks of daupinoise sauce dropping from his beard. “Nn-hn,” he utters. “You’re nowhere near.”
The dignitary smiles a smug smile. I know and they don’t, it says.
He’s ready now. “Hassenforder.”
“Fuck right off!” shouts Bénac, dropping his fork in the process.
The smug look turns to appalled horror. They’ve heard old Bénac can be a bit fruity. Some of the other diners have recoiled in shock as well. They probably don’t hear many curses in St. Jean-de-Maurienne.
“Get back in the car,” yells Chassaignon, already heading for the exit. Another bill unpaid, forwarded to Miroir des Sports. Bénac apologises, makes his excuses, and waddles after his more agile colleague who is already in the car.
They race through the back markers and take several risks around tighter bends than their car can usually handle, flying past surprised riders before finding Hassenforder who is joking around with a few breakaway compatriots.
“Bravo! Roger, Bravo! What you’re doing is magnificent!”
“I had a bet with Caput that I could distance him!” yells the over-excited cyclist.
“Well you won, he’s miles back!”
The Attack They Missed
While Chassaignon and Bénac are celebrating Hassenforder’s bet, they’re missing perhaps the most important move of the day. Roger Walkowiak has attacked.
The man who wasn’t there has silently launched his claim for the yellow jersey, distancing all but Gaul and Ockers who have latched on to his back wheel, but they aren’t challenging for the yellow jersey. The attack is the final nail in the coffin for Wout Wagtmans who now finds himself five minutes behind Walkowiak on the day, and the descent of the Croix-de-Fer is taken at breakneck speed.
The French have an expression for a descent like this. They call it a descente à tombeau ouverte. An open-tombed descent. It’s a frightening drop, but Walkowiak has wings. Nose into the wind, the new virtual yellow jersey is doing everything that Ducazeaux has asked of him. No longer managing every ounce of effort, Walkowiak is giving everything he has – emptying the fuel tank.
So when Gaul and Ockers detach themselves from the tiring Walkowiak, it barely matters. The job is done, and the yellow jersey – should he hang on – is his. Finally. And as promised. He tells himself to ignore the two climbers, and to focus on keeping a cadence, beating the tiredness that is now inflitrating his lungs, spreading through his legs, eating its way into his feet. A pain the like of which he hasn’t experienced in this Tour so far, the pain of an extended effort, of a concerted attack.
The Luitel, supposedly minuscule, feels harder than the Croix-de-Fer, and the wind is now in Walkowiak’s face. Like a boxer who has taken upper cut after upper cut, the man from Montluçon keeps rolling with the punches, slugging against himself, and yet he still rides.
Ducazeaux would protect his rider from the wind, were it from the side. Team cars have their uses. Instead, the Saviour leans out of the window and warns his rider not to put in an effort that might turn out to be fatal. For once, he is worried, although he takes care not to show it to his rider.
Walkowiak enters the Grenoble velodrome with Bahamontes and Nencini, a full nine minutes after Gaul, who eventually came in with over 3 minutes on Stan Ockers, which doesn’t really matter, not in the big scheme of things. Walkowiak hauls his bike towards the central grassy area, leans against the metal barriers, and remains on his bike for several minutes. His eyes are red, his face haggard. Tears (once more) have formed at the corners of his eyes as the announcement goes out over the tannoy that he now leads the Tour de France officially.
The yellow jersey is back, on his back.
“It’s over”, proclaims Ducazeaux, arm around his back. “It’s finished. You’ll be wearing yellow in Paris, smoking your pipe.”
There has been a transformation today. Roger Walkowiak has become Walko. Newspaper headlines may have helped. It is easier to write Walko than it is to spell Walkowiak multiple times per report. And it helps French tongues get round the multiple non-native ‘w’ sounds.
And Walko could hardly not have noticed the encouragement of the crowds atop the Croix de Fer, the multiple shouts of “Allez Walko”. Finally, some recognition.
However, Walko has doubts. The night is hot in Grenoble. The windows are open, and both Walko and Adolphe Deledda are still awake.
“You know what,” offers Walko into the silence. “If Marcel Bidot had picked me ahead of Lily Bergaud, I’d be Gilbert Bauvin’s domestique. He’d be in yellow and I’d be an hour back. And now I’ve got four minutes on him. Almost.”
Deledda offers a listening silence.
“He’s got his teammates, and I’ve got nobody in the mountains. I’m always alone up there. But we’ve still got 815km to go. Four days… and I’m used to carrying water bottles. That’s my job. I’ve always done it. I’ve never won a stage race.”
Deledda acknowledges the monologue once more, in silence. The best counsellors do that, he thinks.
“Walkowiak, though. It’s hardly the name of a great champion is it? It smells Polish. It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t sound like a winning name like Bobet, Koblet, Kübler, Coppi…”
Deledda’s not having this. “What about Kopa? Kopaszewski is even harder to pronounce than Walkowiak and yet we all called him Kopa, just as people called you Walko today. And remember, you’ve done everything right so far. You’ve been in the right breakaways, you’ve followed the right wheels, you attacked at the right moment. Nobody took you seriously, and here you are. Nothing will ever be the same again. Nobody will ever let you into another breakaway. You’ll be marked like Ockers. This is the chance of your life, Roger. 800km to go and you can take this chance.”
“Bauvin’s got his teammates. So has Wagtmans. Adriaenssens too. I’m out there on my own.”
Deledda doesn’t take offence. He’ll be there when Walkowiak needs him, so long as it’s not up at the top of a major climb. He’ll be there for the wheel changes he needs, he’ll be up at 2 in the morning listening to Walko’s doubts, and he’ll be there in the morning with Walko’s coffee.