1956 – 1960 5 Tours, 5 Champions


Who doesn’t love a long, lone breakaway? Picking out the red dossard of the winner of the prix de la Comabtivite? Cheering on the plucky underdog as he tries manfully, often hopelessly, to resist the might of the peloton bearing down on him? There is something extraordinary about watching the escape artists, the breakaway specialists – and some of them have ridden their luck almost to the final victory like Chiapucci and Pereiro. The race has changed, the calculations more precise, the timing and communications and strength of the sprinter’s teams all mitigate against the breakaway succeeding – as the hero of our tale, Roger Walkowiak, says ‘radios are no good – a rider has to be able to take his own initiative”.

I salute the breakaways, the suicidal echapees, those who can endure the lung busting demands of the echape bidon. Here are a handful of the very greatest:

1912 Eugene Christophe completes the longest ever solo breakaway, 315 km into Grenoble

1947 Albert Bourlon on a tough mountain stage in 1947 completed 253km solo

1989 Joel Pellier cries on the podium as he takes victory after a 162km solo breakaway in front of his parents – the first time they’ve watched him ride in the Tour

1991 Thierry Marie enters Le Havre singing loudly to mask the pain after a 234 km solo breakway, the third longest in Tour history

11 July, stage 7, 244 kms Lorient-Angers: a 30 man breakaway forms, gets away from the peloton, and rides into the finish 18′ 46″ ahead of the peloton. The Yellow Jersey – still with a collar and bearing the initials HD for Henri Desgrange – falls on the shoulders of an unassuming rider from the Nord-Est Centre team (national teams were having their last hurrah around this time) Roger ‘Walko’ Walkowiak.

Walko was an ex-factory who only got the call up to the unfancied Nord-Est Centre team because Gilbert Bauvin was promoted to the French team. Yet he’d ridden strongly in that year’s Vuelta for the French team, dropping Bauvin on one of the big mountain stages. And he’d been the match of Bobet the year before. It wasn’t as if he came out of nowhere, and yet the race favourites chose to ignore him – at their peril, as it turned out.

He dropped the Maillot in the Pyrenees – tactically as he would claim – and then stormed back in the Alps with a huge attack on the Croix-de-Fer that only Charly Gaul – the ‘Angel of the Mountains’ – could match. Walko fought superbly to match the pure climber Gaul – Equipe said of him “Gaul is a thoroughbred…Roger a half breed, capable of hard work, able to suffer to win, who knows no limits, whose health and stamina are above the norm – and that’s also a type of class! Walkowiak is the Zatopek of the velo…If he takes the jersey to Paris, we know he won it with panache on the heights of the Croix-de-Fer, worthy of his place in the legends of cycling.”

Charly Gaul – fresh from an epic ride through the snow on Monte Bodone in the Giro – ran out as King of the Mountains, Ockers – with whom he tussled in the mountains – took the Maillot Vert. The Tricolores were split and a disappointed Bidot remarked “if only Garrigade had supported Bauvin (who punctured in the Pyrenees) instead of looking for his own victories, Bauvin would have won the race…”

Walko never visited the heights of winning a Grand Tour again and stepped away from the sport, bitter and frustrated that his achievement  never gained the respect it merited and was dismissed as a fluke. But there is a sportive in his honour and Goddet always said it was one of his favourite Tours. Now 86, he is still alive and finally at peace with being the supposedly ‘lucky’ winner of the 1956 Tour.

But the last word goes to Roger Chaussabel who declared: “I’m not a routier, sprinteur, grimpeur. I’m a complete rider donc, un homme du Tour!


If 1956 saw a ‘modest’ victory then 1957 saw the birth of a true star.

Maitre’ Jacques Anquetil, the 23 year old Norman, walked into his first Tour de France, took it by the scruff of the neck on stage 4 on his home turf, tightened the screw during the time trials and nailed down the overall victory on the Aubisque where he came back from all kinds of trouble to catch his closest rivals on the descent. That was how he won his Tours – invincible in the time trials (he won the Grand Prix des Nations a record 9 times) and capable of controlling his rivals in the mountains.

And what rivals he had when the race hit the Pyrenees and the Alps! Nencini, Gaul and Frederico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, among them. The Spaniard, like Bobet before him, staged another of his theatrical and flamboyant walkouts from the race when he abandoned in the Alps. In 1956 he threw his bike down a crevasse when he abandoned. This year, he got off his bike, took off his shoes and prostrated himself on the ground. “Here” said the gesture “is a rider who will not be moved”. Hi DS, Luis Puig, did his best:

“Frederico, you must continue – for your mother!”


“For your wife then?”

“No and no!”

“For Franco!”

Bahamontes response is not recorded – he said his father was neither a communist nor a fascist but the family saw hard times in the Spanish Civil War – but he didn’t get back on his bike.

The most tragic tale of the the race was the death of journalist Alex Virot and his motorcycle pilot Rene Wagner on the road to Ax-les-Thermes. The last person to see the pair alive was the rider, Marcel Queheille:

“The motorbike started to accelerate then, about 50 metres in front of me, it lost its balance on the gravel, started zigzagging, the riders trying to keep it upright. It hit a road marker, then another, then flew into emptiness. I saw two legs in the air and shoes flying off…never in my life will I forget that…”

Alex Virot was a radio reporter and long time follower of the Tour – he made his debut reporting from the race in 1930 for RTF and had been a member of the Maquis and leader of a resistance cell from 1942 to the Liberation. The 67 year old was killed outright, Wagner on the way to the hospital – known for his equilibrium and excellent safety record, this was his one and only crash.

1958 JUDAS!

It was his 11th Tour de France. At 33, Raphael Geminiani wasn’t even picked for the French team – Anquetil said he’d ride with Bobet or ‘Gem’ and Marcel Bidot chose the former – and he waged a long and bitter campaign to get a ride, including being photographed in Brussels with a donkey he introduced as ‘Marcel’. It didn’t work and instead he got a ride with the lowly Centre-Midi squad. The pre-race atmosphere set the tone for what was to come…

But then the magic happened. As it turned out, Anquetil wouldn’t figure at all in the race – suffering with lung problems and coughing up blood he was ordered to abandon by Dr Dumas. Bobet had stomach troubles and was way off the pace. When Gem made his move on the stage to St Brieuc and then took the Jersey with 6 stages to race, the French team couldn’t react. As so often, infighting and imagined slights had left team unity in tatters. The road to Paris looked clear for the 33 year old.

And then came the stage from Briancon – Aix-les-Bains. The weather was appalling, the roads slick with rain, the air chill. And one rider confided to Lousin Bobet “tomorrow I’ll attack on the Luitel if it’s raining”. That rider was Charly Gaul.

The other man to profit from the disarray and sickness in the French camp, Gaul had taken both the time trials in the race – the first in the rain, the second on the barren, burnished slopes of Mont Ventoux. He looked the only credible challenger to Gem until disaster struck – Gaul lost 15′ on the stage to Gap when Gem attacked after the Luxembourgeois punctured. Again, Gem believed…and then Gaul struck on the Luitel.

The col du Luitel has only been climbed by the Tour 7 times – Gaul was first over the summit in 1956. A sharp, steep climb with as bad a road surface today as it had then, the Luitel rises out of Bourg d’Oisans for just over 10kms. When Gaul made his attack, the peloton assumed he was going for King of the Mountain points and let him go. Gem and Bobet did not react – and that was where the Tour was lost. Gaul’s advantage began to augment as he climbed the col de Porte in thick fog (5′ 30″), drove on over the col de Cucheron (7’30”), to the Granier (12′ 20″) and into the finish at Aix-les-Bains 15′ ahead of the chasing peloton. He climbed in his familiar style, low in the saddle – Geminiani called him “a murderous climber, always the same sustained rhythm, a little machine with a slightly higher gear than the rest, turning his legs at a speed that would break your heart, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock”.

Hearing of his defeat, remembering the way that Bobet wouldn’t take a single pull on the Luitel, Gem broke down in tears “Judas – you’re all Judas’!” he cried. But the Tour was gone.

There was one last drama. Andre Darrigade, the great French sprinter, was lining up for yet another stage win at the Parc des Princes, cueing up the sprint against Baffi (the eventual stage winner) and Graczyk (who would take the Points Jersey). Nobody knows why the Secretary General of the Parc des Princes stepped onto the track as the sprinters wound up for the line. There was a terrible crash. Darrigade was lucky to get away with 5 stitches and a terrible headache and was able to congratulate Gaul on his triumph, his head swathed in tape and bandages. Constant Wouters was unlucky. The besuited, grey haired man caught forever in mid collapse, clutching at Darrigade’s arm as man and bike collide died in hospital 11 days later – another of the handful of tragic casualties of the Tour de France.


I have a set of dessert plates printed with maps of stages of the 1959 Tour de France. Put together they plot out the 4,358 km route that ran anti clockwise round the Hexagone from Mulhouse in the east, via Normandy and Brittany in the west, hugged the Atlantic coast to Bayonne, climbed through the Pyrenees then cut inland to the Puy de Dome before crossing the Alps and up through Dijon to Paris.

There were 8 mountain stages though the Tour’s best climber – the flamboyant Eagle of Toledo himself – would win only one, a 12.5 km mountain time trial up the Puy de Dome, that conk of lava that rises out of Clermont Ferrand. It was his only stage win yet he would finally carry the Maillot Jaune into Paris as winner of the 1959 Tour.

The tale of this Tour is one of a team at war with itself and a peace pact that failed – the so called ‘pact of Pogny-la-Foret’. The French team was split between Anquetil and a new talent, Roger Riviere. “All year round Riviere and I are adversaries and now we’re asked to ride together hand in hand! The organisers are trying to impose their will on us but I’m telling you now, I’ll ride against him all the same!” So spoke Anquetil and left the road open for Bahamontes.

It worked like this: Bahamontes was distanced by more than 4′ on the descent to Val d’Isere – whilst he could fly up the mountains with his curious, neat, upright style he was a notoriously poor descender as a result of a bad crash: the tale of his stopping at the top of a climb and having an ice cream while he waited for someone to descend with has passed into legend. Yet Anquetil and Riviere seemed more concerned with neutralising Henri Anglade and Bahamontes was able to take back the time lost. Later, on the road to Grenoble, Riviere and Anquetil were happy to neutralise each other leaving Gaul and Bahamontes to get away in a break that proved decisive for GC. Bahamontes pulled on the coveted Yellow Jersey and didn’t take it off again.

Anquetil was happy – he’d beaten Riviere. Riviere for his part defended his conduct in his first Tour “I was too scared to take the initiative in case I cracked and I was wrong. It was my first Tour, that’s my only excuse…” Riviere’s timidity would come back to haunt him a year later in one of the most tragic tales of the Tour. Bidot’s best efforts to get his riders to play nice had failed and the Tricolores lost yet another Tour.

1959 was the last hurrah for two former champions – Jean Robic was eliminated for being hors delai (rules are rules) and Lousin Bobet climbed the Iseran alone, at the back of the race, and said his adieux in the arena of his greatest triumphs.


C’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouvert, tete nue

Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,

Dort; il est entendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,

Pale dans son lit vert ou la lumiere pleut

(Arthur Rimbaud)

This is the tale of what happens when good advice falls on deaf ears and of pride coming before a fall. Of a young and reckless rider who staged a beautiful exploit to take the world hour record. Who attacked his teammate and Maillot Jaune Henri Anglade and unknowingly tipped the balance of fate in favour of Nencini and against himself…

Anglade foresaw it, furious as he was after the Lorient stage: “We’re going to lose the Tour – Riviere will commit errors. He’s going to try and follow Nencini on the descents and one day it’s not going to work out. Last year he was flirting with disaster on the Aspin…”

Anglade was right in a way – for any rider to try and follow Nencini down a mountain was an act or either intense bravery or sheer folly. Gem had it right: “The only reason to follow Nencini downhill would be if you had a death wish” he said. Anglade was one of the few to best the Italian – there’s a famous tale of a downhill race during the Giro d’Italia where the Frenchman took 32″ out of him – but Riviere was a trackie not a grimpeur, more used to the banking of the velodrome than the fierce, hair raising descents of the Alps and Pyrenees.

It was on the descent of the col de Perjuret where it happened – a col inedit (unknown) in the Tour – the road seems innocuous enough, a meadow sloping gently from the roadside, but when you’re descending at 50-60km/h…On that rest day in Millau, Riviere had posed for lovely, larky pictures with his pretty blonde wife – she stealing his bicycle or refusing to let go of his hand as he cycles past, handsome in shades and a white casquette. 24 hours later he would be lying immobile by the road side. The next time his pretty blond wife would see him would be in a hospital bed, his spine fractured in several places, the paralysis irreversible.

Viot, just behind him, noticed Riviere kept using his back brake too heavily. Adriaenssens noticed his back tire seemed too thin. Then Viot sensed, knew that Riviere would miss the next bend: “No one was better placed than me. On that bend Riviere again braked too hard, his wheel slid, I saw him hit the little wall at the side of the road at high speed. He went sideways then man and bike climbed the low wall and flew, catapulted, into the air. My stomach turned over.” Rostollan turned round on his bike and pedalled back up the road hearing the crash of his friend’s bike against the parapet and seeing him fly through the air into emptiness. “It’s Roger!” he cried, his legs trembling “Roger has fallen! Roger has fallen!”

They took him away in the helicopter, his immobile form stretched broken on the white stretcher, like a scene from ‘Platoon’ or a religious drama, his calvaire complete. He’d been paralysed by the crash, left lucid and aware but unable to move or cry out in pain, his head resting on a pile of rocks and dead leaves, his eyes open, staring at that verdant, rocky valley.

They found pills in his jersey pocket, painkillers. He admitted to taking injections and amphetamines to break the world hour record. He opened a restaurant, then a garage, then a holiday camp. All of them failed. Riviere lived out the rest of his life in a wheelchair, with 80% paralysis, until his death of throat cancer in 1976. He was 40.

Roger Riviere was a young hothead, know for his impetuosity and his wonderful smile. He wasn’t smiling that afternoon when, from his hospital bed, he announced the simple, awful truth: “You’ll never see me on a bicycle again”.




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