By Shane Stokes
Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winner Charly Gaul died in hospital on Tuesday after suffering a pulmonary embolism. The Luxembourg rider, who took the Tour title in 1958 plus victories in the 1956 and 1959 Giri d'Italia, was one of the best climbers in the history of cycling and twice took the Tour's King of the Mountains award.
Gaul, known as the 'Angel of the Mountains', became ill after he recently fell at his home in Itzig in Luxembourg. He would have been 73 on Thursday.
Gaul's professional career lasted from 1953 until 1965. In addition to his overall victories in the races, Gaul took a total of ten stages in the Tour de France and 11 in the Tour of Italy. He topped the podium in three Tours of Luxembourg, took six Championship of Luxembourg titles and placed third in the 1954 world championships. Gaul was also third in the 1955 and 1961 Tours de France plus the 1958 and 1960 Tours of Italy.
Each of his victories came about through his characteristic high-cadence climbing ability. Gaul's sparkling talent in the high mountains saw him set a long-standing record in the 1958 Tour's Mont Ventoux time trial, as well as earning him KOM wins in the Tours of 1955 and 1956 plus the 1956 and 1959 Giri.
Following his retirement, he withdrew from public life for two decades, living as a hermit in the Ardennes. However in recent years he married again, coming out of his self-imposed solitude to reappear at events such as the 2000 Tour. Gaul admired the exploits of Marco Pantani, who shared similarly flamboyant climbing talents and was himself a winner of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, in 1998.
Tour de France director Jean-Marie LeBlanc paid tribute to Gaul. "I knew Gaul from books and photos and then I met him in 1989 when the Tour set out from Luxembourg for the first time," LeBlanc told L'Equipe. "It's thanks to the Luxemburg authorities that he returned to our sport. He always sent me a card when he was on vacation in France and in a way he ha rediscovered the Tour." LeBlanc sent his condolences to Gaul's wife and daughter, "who had given him a reason to live again."
LeBlanc spoke of Gaul's "great kindness, his modest, his tolerance," and how he thought of the former Tour champion as having "a graceful silhouette that turned the legs incredibly quickly and was able to dig huge gaps in the mountains."
In recent years, LeBlanc said, Gaul, "with his beard, [and] his slightly rounded figure, had become a sort of sage, a father figure," to his successors, Tour mountain men such as Pantani and Richard Virenque. "He was not at all nostalgic," said LeBlanc. "Quite the opposite, he soaked up today's cycling, like a fan. I do not know many champions like him."
When the Tour visited Luxemburg in 2002, LeBlanc said he visited Gaul at home, "Everything was dedicated to cycling," he said, "books trophies, medals etc. Entering his home was like entering a chapel."
Luxembourgian cyclocross racer Suzie Godart also paid tribute to Gaul, writing on her website: "Tomorrow morning I will leave for the U.C.I. cyclocross world-cup race in Milano, and I 'm sure in Italy, where Charly was at least as popular as in Luxemburg and where he still had many friends, the affection will be as deep as here. I will do my race in memory and honour of Charly and I want simply to say to him: 'Äddi Charly, mir vergiessen Dech net!'"
"I condole with his wife and his daughter and assure them my deepest sympathy," Godart concluded.