Tales from the (forgotten) peloton, December 8, 2005
One Tour de France, two Giri d'Italia, and six championships of Luxembourg featured among a rollercoaster ride of a career that alternated between delightful and deplorable - but there was one day that defined who Charly Gaul really was, writes Anthony Tan.
"You're ready, Monsieur Bobet?"
"I'll attack on the Luitel climb. I'll even tell you which hairpin. You want to win the Tour? Easy. I've told you what you need to know."
With these taunting words directed at three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet (1953-55), Charly Gaul (pronounced Gowl) attacked the entire field on the 21st stage of the 1958 Tour de France.
Apart from being a tortuous 219 kilometres across the Chartreuse massif, the stage from Briançon to Aix-Les-Bains was run in appalling conditions. Like Lance Armstrong, Gaul was a man who thrived in the cold and wet, but just like the Texan, he suffered in the heat. And as he threatened, the 'Angel of the Mountains' took off on the said hairpin.
Holding a fifteen-minute deficit he lost two stages before to race leader Raphael Géminiani, most thought the Luxembourg climber was out to grab his third mountains jersey, having won the classification in the 1955 and '56 Tours. But Gaul, with a thin smile across his lips, had other ideas.
With saddle low and bars high, Monsieur Pipi - a nicknamed he earned for pioneering the art of urinating on the bike - rode patiently, but with force. His trademark high-cadence pedalling style saw his lead open to 5 minutes and 30 seconds at the crest of the fog-covered Col de Porte; on the Cucheron, it had grown to 7'50; in the Granier, 12'20 was the margin.
Géminiani begged Bobet for help, but the Frenchman refused, and by the finish in Aix-Les-Bains, Gaul crossed the line 14 minutes and 35 seconds in front and found himself third overall. Crossing the line in tears, Géminiani spat at his compatriots: "Judases... " he scorned.
Italian Vito Favero went into the penultimate day's time trial with a 39 second advantage over Géminiani and 1'07 from Gaul. But Charly was easily the best time-triallist of the three, and in the 74 kilometre contre-le-montre from Besançon to Dijon, he put more than three minutes into his two closest adversaries, and with it, the Tour de France.
It's hard to picture Charly Gaul as an 'Angel of the Mountains' in his last years, who, at his best, received 60 admiring letters from women a day. Rounded and slightly pot-bellied, a little scruffy looking with a beard to match, bespectacled, and underneath, a facial expression that implied he didn't know quite where he was.
This blank, blue-eyed stare had something to do with Gaul's years as a recluse in the Ardennes. Unceremoniously ending his career at a track event in Nierdekom in 1965, he opened up a bar near the railway station in Luxembourg, ditched it six months later, left his second wife, and moved to the forest, living without piped water or electricity.
Almost 20 years later, Gaul emerged from his shell. In 1983, he married again, began talking with the public and even made a guest appearance at the 2000 Tour de France. However, while his inner demons were quelled, lost was the fiery opportunism that made him a champion.
On Tuesday, December 6, 2005, Charly Gaul died in hospital after suffering a pulmonary embolism, two days before his 73rd birthday. The Angel was sent to heaven. R.I.P., Charly.
Charly Gaul's career victories:
1954 Circuit des 6 Provinces
1955 Tour du Sud-Est
1956 Giro d'Italia, Tour of Luxembourg, National road championship
1957 National road championship
1958 Tour de France
1959 Giro d'Italia, Tour of Luxembourg, National road championship
1960 National road championship
1961 Tour of Luxembourg, National road championship
1962 National road championship
Charly Gaul's Tour de France results:
1955 3rd GC, 1st Stage 8, Stage 17, mountains classification
1956 13th GC, 1st Stage 4a, Stage 18, mountains classification
1958 1st GC, 1st Stage 8, Stage 18, Stage 21, Stage 23
1959 12th GC, 1st Stage 17
1961 3rd GC, 1st Stage 9
1962 9th GC
A special thanks to Les Woodland's The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France in helping with this story.
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