There are those around le Tour who miss those days where the riders would roll along at 30km per hour. Andre Leducq, French legend and multiple Tour winner, is one such man.
Why do they have to go so quickly? Why can’t they enjoy the scenery?
Leducq is one of many journalists who have gone ahead to the 20km mark in Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay where the winegrowers of the region are lining the roads for some widely advertised degustation – wine-tasting. Coteaux de Layon makes some of the finest sweet wine in all of France, what an opportunity not to miss out on. The old men of Tours gone past can gather here and make small talk with the vignerons and wile away a good half hour complaining about the riders of the day.
Darrigade? He’s solid, he’s impressed many. He’ll want his yellow jersey back and that boy he deserves it. Gaul? He’ll never claw back the minutes he’s lost. Too tired, they say, far too tired after the Giro and the effort he put in.
No, another pipes up, it’s old boy Gaston Bénac – he’ll find those minutes in the Pyrenees alone. Just you watch him.
The rest of the French team? Regional riders at best this year. With no one to ride for, they’re showing their true colours and riding for themselves, it’s just that they’re not good enough. Mallejac, the boy’s a doper. Mahe, he’s just a big lad from Morbihan. No class. Not like Bobet.
Walkowiak – that pup? He’s just keeping the yellow jersey warm for someone. OK, so he’s ridden well and got himself in the right breakaways but you’d be insane if you think that chubby-cheeked regional rider is going to join the likes of Coppi, Kubler, Bartali, Bobet and Leducq himself.
Perhaps Laurédi, he’s getting to the right age now. Without Louison around, he’s just the sort who could make a difference.
But why, Leducq wonders, why do they have to go so quickly? They’re ahead of the schedule every day, it’s as if they’re all trying to shake each other off. All this speed. There was a time when the Tour was attritional. You’d grind your opponents down, you’d grit your teeth and stop occasionally – always together – trying to psych out your rivals.
Why, you’d probably stop at one of these vignerons.
A top-up? Why, I don’t mind if I do.
You see, Leducq wonders, they’re missing out on so much. This stage – Angers to La Rochelle. The history, the ground on which so many battles were fought. Did you know, for instance, that 90km in, the riders would be crossing the Ponts-de-Cé, scene of one of France’s most famous battles.
Journalist and colleague Andre Chassaignon agrees.
“Louis XIII it was. Defeating his mother’s troops. I’d slow down if I were them. Out of respect.”
Admire the Ponts de Cé
But the peloton is not for slowing down, nor is it for admiring the Ponts de Cé or any other bridges indeed. Following the template laid down by previous stages, gunshots are fired – any number of daredevil escapees rush out of the peloton only to be hauled back in – before a clutch of riders are allowed to ride free. All eyes are of course on the new yellow jersey, Roger Walkowiak, who has both eyes on the breakaway, and has let free the Spaniard Poblet along with a couple of others who pose no threat to the yellow jersey.
It’s Darrigade, who else, who decides that the breakaway needs to be brought to heel. After yesterday’s losses, he has the most to gain. A gap of over 7 minutes means the routier-sprinter has to start cutting away at the yellow jersey’s lead. Walkowiak goes with him and brings along a host of hangers-on, not least the dangerous Belgian rider Adriaenssen, as well as Nencini the Italian.
Adolphe Deledda tracks his man and joins the group.
The breakaway maintains over a four-minute lead but once more, none of them poses any serious threat, but the duo of Walkowiak and Deledda is keeping watch over any attempts to cut that four-minute lead down. Darrigade is kept firmly behind Deledda’s wheel for as long as the veteran can hold him there. Walkowiak is alongside Bahamontes who also has a stake in the stage: his teammate Miguel Poblet is off the front and is desperate to win a stage.
Miguel and the Hat-trick
Miguel’s career has suddenly blossomed this year. He turned pro in 1944, at the tender age of 16. 12 years later, and Miguel has lost most of his hair, something that his more hirsute peloton colleagues are keen to poke fun of. It’s less visible from the back, so Miguel tries as often as possible to ride from the front.
The Tour de France is the third of the grand tours, and Miguel is hunting for a very specific record – to be the first man in history to win stages in all three grand tours of the same year. He won four at the Giro, and three at the Vuelta. And all of this has come since Miguel left Spain to seek his fortune just two years ago. There’s no money in Spanish cycling, you see.
His father was unusual among the fathers of the peloton – he actively encouraged his son to ride a bike. Poblet Senior owned a bike shop, and forced his son to go beyond his sprinting abilities, making him climb a steep 300m hill every single day. It was this training that helped Poblet Junior win the National Mountains Championships in Spain three times before leaving for France, and then in last year’s Tour he took all mountains points at the top of the Tourmalet.
Poblet’s escapade is aided ably by the Englishman Brian Robinson, who has spent the last few days trying to explain to everyone that he is not from London, that he does not drink tea and eat cake every day at 4pm and that he is, in fact, a hard-as-nails Yorkshireman. A profile in the daily sports paper has portrayed him as a tea-supping southerner, and Robinson is furious. With Poblet, he is taking it out on the road.
They are joined by Louis Caput, the Dutchmen Nolten and De Groot, the two tricolores Privat and Mahé, the Belgian Adriaenssens and Poblet’s colleague Lorono. Behind, various groups are forming and un-forming in a fluid, liquid chase that is sparked principally by various riders’ desire to reach the front group and take some more time back on the yellow jersey.
When that chase group does coalesce, the main participants are Walkowiak, Darrigade, Bahamontes, De Bruyne, Bover (another Spaniard), Deledda, Wagtmans and Roger Hassenforder. All have a stake, one way or another, which is partly what makes it such a fascinating chase. Darrigade is trying to ride Walkowiak off his wheel. Deledda keeps pulling him back. Bahamontes and Bover are taking turns on the front to deliberately slow the group down, much to Darrigade’s frustration. Hassenforder is trying to slow things down for Louis Caput who is in the front group. As different riders hit the front, the chase group stretches and strains, and then relaxes depending on the ambitions of the front rider.
A Darrigade group eventually breaks away and Walkowiak and Deledda have decided that he can take some time as they drop back. Not too much, but enough. Let him ride.
The Tour is taking shape, although what shape – nobody knows.
In time, this chase group agrees that the task in hand is to reduce the gap, rather than to join the front group. The blackboards inform the leaders that they have over 3 minutes on the chasers, and this allows them to slow down and start checking each other out. Jan Adriaenssens is receiving threatening glares. He won’t pull from the front. Nolten has disappeared – a puncture they think – and his teammate Dan De Groot is leading the front group into La Rochelle.
It’s all pretty gardens and fountains, sharp hills and sharper descents, brisk breezes and wind tunnels. La Rochelle is a pretty town to end a stage in.
Poblet and Caput detach themselves from the group as the riders enter the velodrome and De Groot gives up – it’s between these two. Louis Caput, the little man from Brittany with the long career behind him, looking for more money for the Ouest team. Miguel Poblet, looking to be the first man to win stages in three grand tours in one year. The dust is kicking up behind them, and Poblet leads as they enter the home straight. Caput is in perfect position, but Poblet is strong – so strong, those legs that climbed every day of his youth are holding him in good stead, and that bald head arches over his handlebars as he takes the stage with a half a wheel’s length ahead of little Louis, many years his senior but in appearance, you would think not.
Poblet keeps on riding, punching the air, taking a victory lap or two. Does anyone know about his achievement? Who cares. For Miguel, this is everything.
A few minutes later, the chase group enters, and André Darrigade takes the peloton sprint
But on a day where many have been bemoaning the frenzy of the modern Tour, spare a thought for Eugene Letendre, the Ouest rider who rode past the vignerons at Coteaux de Layon a full two minutes later than the peloton. Letendre, that admirable colleague of Roger Hassenforder who was sharing his Calvados with the peloton just a few days ago, was struggling to keep up with those same riders just a handful of kilometres into today’s stage.
“Ah Letendre,” shouted Gaston Benac, wine glass in hand, saucisson sec in mouth. “Allez Gégène, Allez!”
And then, with Letendre out of earshot, Bénac turns to his dégustation friends, and mutters:
“Il est foutu, ce jeune.”
Others shouted their encouragements, but for Letendre, the Tour was already over. Not used to riding at such high speeds with such regularity, Letendre was one of relatively few victims of this Tour a haute vitesse. The Breton would fight throughout the day, averaging a meagre 30km per hour, before reaching the control outside the time cut-off.
By the time Eugène entered the La Rochelle velodrome, the crowds had mostly already gone. Miguel Poblet was already out on the town with his bouquet of flowers and, courtesy of Louison Bobet, a peaked cap with a feather. Bobet had recently been awarded the status of Chevalier des fins dégustateurs, because, well, because he’s Louison. His responsibility, as Chevalier, was to induct today’s winner, who accepted the hat with good grace. It covers up the baldness.
For Letendre, then, the Tour is over. For Miguel, his year is complete.