1951-1955 Glory Days


This tale can only be about one man – Wim Van Est. And of course Hugo Koblet. We’ll give a tip of the hat to ‘wrong way’ Zaaf who would emerge as the race’s lanterne rouge and lament the mass abandon of the Netherlands team on stage 14. The race would abandon the strict adhesion to the hexagone and include the fearsome Geant de Provence, le Mont Chauve, Mont Ventoux for the first time.

But let’s start on the Aubisque where ‘Iron William’ is defending the Yellow Jersey – the first Dutchman ever to pull it on. In 1951 the descent of the Aubisque was probably the most fearsome in the race, narrow and twisty, on one side the rockface, the other the abyss, the hairpins winding down like shoelaces. Riding hard to save his jersey, Van Est skids on loose gravel, falls, remounts,  rides a few hundred metres, crashes again. The riders are descending like falling rocks, plummeting down the mountainside at 60km/h when there’s a cry, a scream and Van East is gone, fallen before his rivals see he’s gone, tumbling into the ravine that’s maybe 100 metres deep.  But the  curse of the Yellow Jersey doesn’t strike this time. The gods are kind. His fall has been broken by a tree. Onlookers peering into the depths see Van Est move an arm, he looks like ‘a buttercup in the grass’ says a teammate. At the edge of the precipice his directeur sportif can’t believe what he sees.  A group of men climb gingerly down  the rock to help the Dutchman but still they can’t quite reach. Someone fetches an inner tube, then another. Braided together they make a rope to haul Van Est the last few metres towards safety. Scraped, grazed and bloody, the tears rolling down his face he can only say ‘thank you!’.

Pontiac, who sponsored the Dutch teams’ watches released an advert: “I fell seventy metres, my heart stood still but my Pontiac never stopped”.

The next day, the manager withdrew the entire team and Van Est’s adventure was over.

Hugo Koblet’s wasn’t yet over. The pedaleur de charme had staged one of the most extraordinary exploits the race had yet seen by choosing to attack on the apparently innocuous 177 km stage 11 between Brive and Agen. It was a hot, airless day and when Koblet attacked, with 135km still to race, the peloton failed to react, guessing that he wouldn’t be able to maintain his pace. They guessed wrong. The gap kept going out. Even when Coppi, Bobet, Bartali, Magni, Geminiani, Ockers and Robic – who would have appreciated Koblet’s audacity – finally organised the chase, Koblet held his advantage.

And then the coup de grace – as he neared the line, the Swiss cleaned his handsome face with a damp sponge he had concealed in his jersey and then – quelle panache – he combed his hair. As he crossed the line he calmly dismounted and set his stopwatch running. He was still 2′ 25″ ahead of the chasing pack.

Koblet was flying – even though he was suffering from haemorrhoids and had been advised to abandon the night before. But he found a doctor, who had a little cocaine based pommade that might help solve the problem. Koblet attacked just to see if the medication was working…

But whatever was in that pommade,however turbo charged he may have been, he still had to turn the pedals. Koblet had the fluidity of pedal stroke, that innate ability to take on the ‘race of truth’ and win that would be replicated 6 decades later by another Swiss, Fabian Cancellara. The French call that talent ‘souplesse’ and Koblet had it in spades. He won all the time trials in the race, and held the lead against an epic assault from Coppi by using those same abilities to limit his losses in the mountains.

Koblet was one of the first real stars of the race with film offers and sponsorship deals. Whilst spending time riding in South America he contracted lung disease and was never as good again. His teammates said money ran through his fingers like water. His good looks faded. The love of his life left him. In November 1964, Koblet was found dead, alone, in his white Alfa Romeo. No one knew whether it was an accident or suicide. Robic, who would also die in a car crash, would have appreciated the audacity.


Bartali gave him his wheel when he punctured. And they shared a bidon – perhaps the most famous in Tour history – on the col d’Izoard, though argument raged as to who passed the bottle to who. About the wheel there is no doubt – one of the truly great gestures of the Tour.

Fausto Coppi – il Campianissimo – was dead at 40, in a hospital bed, in Tortona. In winning the Tour in 1952 he again took the Giro-Tour double and won the King of the Mountains. He was utterly, crushingly dominant. What more he might have achieved had his career not been interrupted by WWII is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of cycling. His life was dogged by scandal – la dama in bianco, the illegitimate son Faustino – and illness and injury. He broke collarbones and shoulderblades and femurs and cracked his skull. He died of malaria – or a cocaine overdose – or he was poisoned in Burkina Fasso

In many ways, Coppi’s life and death prefigures that of another great Italian champion, Marco Pantani. Both mercurial in temperament, both prone to accident and injury, both afflicted by tragedy (Coppi’s disappointing 1951 performance is largely attributable to the death of his brother), both drug dependent – Coppi on la Bomba, Pantani on la Coca – yet blessed with wings to fly in the mountains. They share a similar angular physicality, a bird like quality that marks out the true and perfect climber. And each had a deep and bitter rivalry with an adversary quite unlike them physically – Pantani with Armstrong, Coppi with Bartali. Gino was so obsessed with Fausto’s doping he claimed that he could tell when Coppi would attack by reviewing the products he’d used (Bartali would raid Coppi’s hotel rooms). But it was Coppi who helped to drag racing from the heroic age into the modern era with his emphasis on diet and training and with his use of team tactics – Coppi who represented a modern self-image of secular Italy whilst Bartali was the man of the conservative, the traditional, the religious heartland.

Towards the end, they’d appear on TV variety shows together – the Champ and the Pious One – singing songs with knowing lyrics about their past life as giants of the road. There is footage of Coppi singing ‘Volare‘ – he has the skinny allure of a young Frank Sinatra as he croons “No wonder my happy heart sings/Your love has given me wings”.

Coppi could fly and his Giro-Tour doubles were the most exquisite examples of a man at the peak of his abilities. He would never fly so high again.

1953 UN…

And Louison Bobet finally won the Tour de France. After 6 attempts, with a team at war with itself, a race denuded of mountain top finishes and only one time trial, it was the Breton who finally took the Maillot Jaune to Paris. Robic would finally wear the Yellow Jersey on the road before the French team turned its firepower on him and left him for dead after a crash on the road to Beziers. Robic – still riding for the Western France team – won the 20,000 franc ‘Grand Prix de la Malchance” but it was scant recompense. for losing the Tour. In  Beziers Marcel Bidot asked his riders “OK, who’s going to take the Jersey to Paris?” Only Bobet had the confidence, the desire to raise his hand.

Another classification appeared in the ’53 race – the classement par points or the Green Jersey. Nowadays we think of the Maillot Vert as the ‘sprinters jersey’ but that grossly oversimplifies that competition. When Goddet introduced it, he based the calculation on the one used to decide the winner of the Tour from 1905-12: points were given according to ranking on the stage (1 for first, 2 for second and so on) and the winner with the lowest total points won. In 1953 that was Fritz Schaer, continuing the high profile Swiss presence at the Tour. The idea was to reward consistency, just as the ’53 race was designed to produce an ‘all rounder’ as a winner. The kinds of blanket sprint finishes that we associate with the Green Jersey today were still relatively uncommon at the Tour and it would take another tweak to the points format before it became the preserve of the out and out specialist sprinteurs. Erik Zabel may hold the record number of Jerseys but the presence of riders like Kelly, Merckx and Ockers on the ‘all time’ list speaks to its conception as a reward for the great all round hard men.

1954 DEUX…

Fausto was fucking the Dame Blanche out of wedlock and all Italy was in uproar. He was hit by a lorry on a training run and there would be no defending champion at that year’s Tour. And then there was the fuss about Magni and his Nivea jersey – oh, the delicious irony of such a rugged rider advertising ladies face cream!  The bike manufacturers hated it but advertising from the extrasportives or non cycling related sources was on the rise. Coppi, ever the forward thinker, who understood that more sponsors = bigger paychecks, threatened to boycott the 1954 Paris-Roubaix if Magni didn’t get to wear his Nivea jersey. Point made. But the Tour was bigger than Paris-Roubaix, bigger than Coppi and bigger than the sport. It could stick to its guns – and it did. Besides, the Tour had found its own extrasportif sponsors in Peugeot, thank you very much. The Italian team withdrew.

It didn’t matter. Bobet was magisterial in victory, proving himself the best rider in the race – and the world. As if to prove it he would become World Champion a few weeks later in Germany and enter – and win – his 3rd Tour running with those Rainbow Stripes on his back. Equipe claimed that France fell in love with the Breton in 1954 – they published photos of him grinning, signing autographs for adoring fans – but the truth is he was a

What is it with Bretons and the Tour? So many of the great French champions come from that region of granite and pine and legend – fo France but never truly of it, proud and independent with their own language and identity. It has it’s roots in the megalithic era – a land of standing stones and wild coastline, of strange carved calvaries and penitential suffering. Its people’s are characterised as  wild, rebellious, intuitive, proud, stubborn – no wonder Breton’s have dominated French cycling.

But Bobet was different – highly strung, prone to imagined slights, autocratic and high handed, a disciple of Coppi’s training methods and urge to modernise. Like Coppi, he was one of the first riders to employ his own personal soigneur, Raymond le Bert who may or may not have doped him – Bobet said he never knew what was in the phials he was given by his right hand man. Professional to his fingertips, he left nothing to chance – Goddet was once forced to have the Maillot Jaune remade for a champion who was obsessed with personal hygiene and refused to wear anything but wool. These days we’d say he was OCD. His Tour abandons led to a reputation as a ‘cry baby’ but he was anything but – he was the man who flew away from the peloton on the terrible ascent of the Ventoux in the World Champion’s jersey though he wascrippled by a skin complaint that left him with terrible saddle sores. He was a Grand Champion in a different mould, by turns utterly charming and utterly neurotic, a man who walked away from the Tour by leaving his bike atop the Iseran, the highest col in Europe.

Some time after his retirement – he was involved in a car crash with his brother Jean in 1960 and never raced again – he attended a dinner organised by Jacques Goddet for former Tour winners. He sat at a table with Anquetil and Merckx – imagine the conversation, with 13 Tour de France wins in the Golden Age between them!

Bobet would win his third Tour on the trot in 1955, even though he threatened to abandon the race. But the tale of the 1955 race would focus not on the exploits of Bobet, or the emergence of the ‘Angel of the Mountains’ Charly Gaul or the fact that Miguel Poblet would become the first Spaniard to wear the Maillot Jaune. The tale of the 1955 Tour would be all about the continuing scourge of the sport – dopage.

1955 ET TROIS!  

Doping in cycling was one of those open secrets – Coppi’s la Bomba, Bobet’s little glass phials, Koblet’s cocaine pommade, the Pelissier brother’s bag of tricks.

But what happened to Jean Mallejac on Mont Ventoux would expose that dirty little secret to the world.

Everyone remembers what happened to Tom Simpson on that terrible mountain. What happened to Mallejac was a terrible precursor of the tragedy to come. 10 kms from the summit of the bald mountain, Mallejac began to pedal erratically – one leg spinning like an automaton before he was dragged from his bike and fell at the side of the road, his eyes rolled back, his face waxen like an effigy. Dr Dumas prises his lips apart and forces him to drink, administers drugs and oxygen. 15 minutes later Mallejac shows signs of coming round. In the ambulance he begins to thrash around, cry out, calling for his bicycle, clamouring to get back on his bike and complete the stage.

Mallejac claimed the French team soigneur Richardot had doped him. Richardot denied it and Dr Dumas backed him up: “The soigneurs shouldn’t be held responsible. Riders get their products from outside the race. If there are any more cases like this I won’t hesitate to bring a court case against X – for attempted poisoning”. Doping was chaotic, disorganised and intensely dangerous. Nicolas Frantz, DS of the Luxembourgeois team and taciturn by nature was moved to speak out over his concerns about his star, Charly Gaul: “Gaul has been the victim of an assasination attempt. Whoever pushed him to dope has committed a criminal act”.

The race organisers had to act – and they did. They issued the following list of demands to the team directors:

To keep the treatment being given to riders under close surveillance

To ensure there is no wrongdoing by team soigneurs

To work with the race doctor to prevent the use of medicines without a prescription

And the following to the soigneurs:

To work with the race doctor to prevent the use of medicines without a prescription

To take advice from the team doctor about the use of any medication

From these humble beginnings has grown a whole anti doping industry and specialised anti doping agencies, but it’s worth revisiting this simple set of guidelines because they contain the seed of a sensible approach to anti doping that is often lost in the noise of moral outrage.

Dr Dumas was able to save the stricken Mallejac. Simpson would not be so lucky – what sense of deja vu must the doctor have had as he crouched once more over a stricken rider by the roadside. Doping would increasingly dog the Tour until it reached its apotheosis in the Armstrong era. But that was doping of a different kind – cynical and organised with one overarching aim: to win the Tour at all costs. But what Mallejac – and the Pelissiers and Coppi and the rest were doing was doping to survive – the distances, the terrain, the pain, the daily calvaire.

Bobet won the Tour but doping would cast an inescapable shadow over the race that stretches across the ages into the present day.


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