Tour de France 1951 – for the first time the race heads inland to
the Massif Central,
crosses Mont Ventoux and unusually, starts outside Paris. Click for larger
Swiss cycling in 1950 hit a new peak. Ferdinand Kubler took the Tour de
France while his one time domestique Hugo Koblet became the first man to
break the Italian stranglehold on the pink jersey of the Giro and also won
his national Tour. Kubler and Koblet, could hardly have been more opposite.
Kubler with his large nose, and smile that turned into a demonic grin when
he was making a big effort was known as the “pedalling madman” or the "the
eagle of Adliswil". Hugo Koblet was tall ,beautiful like a Greek god with
undulating fair hair, clear eyes, and inimitable elegance. He was,
incredibly gifted, and was nicknamed the "Pédaleur de Charme". His
effortless grace on a bicycle, combined with his natural talent, had just
one flaw. He also became known as the “James Dean of cycling”.
Koblet in the mountains.
Click for larger image.
But in 1951 Hugo Koblet, who had made his name as a pursuiter (he was
Swiss champion at the discipline every year from 1947 to 1954, and a bronze
the Worlds in 1947) had his chance at the Tour de France with a Swiss team
that did not include Kubler. His main rival was Fausto Coppi, but the
legendary Italian had just buried his brother Serse, and was to suffer
during the race. The French were strong with Jean Robic, Louison Bobet and
Raphael Geminiani, while the Belgians had Stan Ockers leading the team.
Nobody expected the playboy from Zurich to win the race.
For the first time since 1926 and only the second time in its history,
the race did not start in Paris. The 123 riders from 12 national and French
regional teams set off on the 4692 kilometre, 24 stage race going anti
clockwise around France from Metz. Amongst the French regional teams was
“Afrique du Nord,” a team made of Algerian and Morrocan riders which included
the Algerian Abdel Kader Zaaf, who was somewhat of a celebrity with the
fans who watched roadside. The race had several new features. It would cross
Mont Ventoux for the first time, and also made its first ever visit to the
mountains of the Central Massif.
Koblet showed either his bravado or naivety on Stage One when he
attacked nearly from the gun. He was brought back by the peloton after 40
kilometres and a cautious truce fell between the main contenders. Over the
next 5 stages they raced crossed northern France, while the main
contenders eyed each other cautiously, smaller rides took the glory. At the
end of Stage Six Roger Levêque led the race with the main contenders
around 13 minutes back. However Stage Seven, an Individual Time
Trial between La Guerche and Angers over 85 kilometres, saw Koblet lay the
gauntlet down. He won the stage with an average speed of 40.583 km/h and
moved up into 3rd place on the general classification.
The next 3 stages saw the race head inland for the first time into the
leg-sapping Massif Central; the eventual King of the Mountains winner, Raphaël Geminiani, was showing fine form and moved into 4th place overall
with Koblet dropping back to 7th.
It was Stage 11 that saw Hugo Koblet ride into Tour legend. A
transitional stage before the Pyrenees and the Alps - conventional wisdom said
that an attack here would be the equivalent of suicide. Koblet had no time
for conventional wisdom and on the 37th kilometre, in baking hot conditions,
he escaped the peloton on a small climb with the French rider Louis Deprez.
The other contenders for the General Classification must have smiled to
themselves at this act of folly, especially when after a few kilometres
Deprez found Koblet’s pace too hot and the Swiss rider was on his own.
However, when the gap rose to 4 minutes, the laughter ceased and the peloton
began to chase back in earnest. With 70 kilometres to go Koblet still had
three minutes and by now the big guns were taking their turn at the front of
the peloton. Coppi, Bartali, Bobet, Robic, Ockers, Magni, Geminiani add
their weight to the chase but still cannot make an impression on Koblet’s
"Pédaleur de Charme" in full flight. Courtesy J. M. Salas.
Click for larger image.
One hundred-forty kilometres after he had made his attack, Hugo Koblet enters Agen. In
the last kilometers, Koblet, whose face has shown no stress as he has held
off the entire peloton, takes a sponge and wipes his face and combs his hair
before crossing the finishing line. He had used the comb as a psychological
weapon before. In the Tour de Suisse he had combed his hair on the hardest
climb to give the impression of ease; in reality he was suffering with piles
but it fooled his rivals.
He then calmly gets off his bike and starts
his stopwatch to see what advantage he has gained over the rest of the
field, a move that is not just for show. Koblet and Bobet have disputed the
times given in the time trial and want no repeat of that mistake. 2’35’’
later the rest of the peloton finally crosses the line exhausted and
astonished by Koblet’s great escape. Without exception the peloton and Press
poured praise onto Koblet. "That was a performance without equal, if there
were two Koblets in the sport I would retire from cycling tomorrow," said
Raphaël Geminiani. Writing for the Parisien Libere, Jacques Grello coined
the phrase "Pédaleur de Charme."
Stage 12 saw the first appearance of another Tour Legend, Wim
Van Est. The last day before the Pyrenees saw the Tour take another
unexpected twist. A ten man breakaway gained 18’16’’on the peloton and
“Iron William” was in yellow. Stage 13 saw the riders face the
Toumalet and the Aubisque. Van Est, the first Dutchman to wear Yellow, was
not going to give up the lead without a massive fight.
The peloton enters the Pyrenees. Click for larger image.
Bad luck and inexperience in the mountains were to be brave William's
downfall. Having punctured on the ascent of the Aubisque, he tried to regain
time on the descent by following the wheel of Fiorenzo Magni. He crashed,
remounted, but was too reckless and disappeared over the edge of the road.
Seventy-five metres below, Van Est’s fall was broken by the trees. Spectators and his team
made a makeshift rope from inner tubes to help pull him back to safety.
Typically, Van Est’s first question when he reached safety was about his
bike, but his race was over. Meanwhile the race forged on. Raphaël
Geminiani was again in fine form and had been the first man to cross the
Aubisque and then got into the winning move of the day along with teammate Nello Lauredi, Serafino Biagioni of Italy and Gilbert Bauvin. Indeed, Geminiani was first to cross the line but was put back to fourth place for
an infringement so Biagioni took the stage and Gilbert Bauvin the yellow.
Koblet, Coppi, Ockers and Magni finished 9’14’’ back. Koblet was now down to
5th on General classification, nearly 13 minutes behind the leader and over
6 minutes behind Geminiani.
Wim Van Est is rescued by inner tubes. Courtesy
Click for larger image.
Stage 14 and once again the dramatic backdrop of the Pyrenees
served as a breathtaking stage for the Giants of the Road. The 142 kilometres between Tarbes and Luchon included the Tourmalet, Aspin and
Peyresourde climbs. Coppi, has managed to forget his grief and was in
awesome form. He is the first man to cross the Aspin and Peyresourde and
the field is shattered behind him. Koblet punctured before the top of the
Tourmalet, but calmly waited for service before chasing back his rivals. In
a great chase back, Koblet eventually catches Coppi, and outsprints the
Italian legend to take the stage and the Yellow jersey.
Koblet now had a slender lead of just 21 seconds over Gilbert Bauvin and
32’’over Geminiani, with Coppi now 4 minutes back. Stage 16 saw
more drama on what was supposed to be a transional stage. With Mont Ventoux
and the Alps yet to come, Koblet, Marinelli, Geminiani, Barbotin and
Lazarides attacked. Koblet won his third stage and only Geminiani at 1’32’’
was still in contention for the yellow jersey. Coppi suffers a day of misery
in the heat he is dropped by the leading riders and is nearly eliminated.
Stage 17 saw the riders face Mont Ventoux for the first time on
the 224 kilometre stage between Montpellier and Avignon. On the climb 12
riders, all favourites, formed on a leading break. Halfway up the mountain
and Raphaël Géminiani, Louison Bobet, Gino Bartali and Lucies Lazaridès were
left at the front. Coppi and Magni were already 5 minutes in arrears, while
Koblet had suffered a derailleur problem and was limiting his losses in high
gear. Pierre Barbotin made a tremendous effort to join the leading men, but
with 2 kilometres to go Lucies Lazaridès (whose brother was also riding in
the race, was born in Greece but had became a naturalised Frenchman)
attacked and became the first rider to cross the summit; he was followed by
Gino Bartali. On the descent, Koblet caught up with the leading five but when Bobet attacked early and won the stage.
Coppi eating a banana with teammate Bartali just behind – notice
the slight difference in the two men's jerseys – rivalry was intense in the
Italian team. Click for larger image.
The next two stages saw Koblet maintain his 1’ 32’’ advantage over
Raphaël Géminiani then on Stage 20 Fausto Coppi gace another virtuoso
performance. The Italian, now well out of Overall contention, attacks early
in the stage with Roger Buchonnet, climbs alone over the Izoard and Vars.
Koblet, seeing the danger of Coppi, responds and finishes third on the day, but Raphaël Geminiani’s challenge for the yellow jersey is over. He finishes
over 6 minutes behind Koblet, and the Swiss rider is destined to win the
Tour at his first attempt.
Hugo Koblet must have relished Stage 20, the final Individual
Time Trial over 97 kilometres starting from Aix les Baines and finishing in
Genève, Switzerland. The "Pédaleur de Charme" is at his very best. Setting
off at 14h 32, Koblet starts to reel in the riders who have already set
off. He catches Gino Bartali, who had started 8 minutes before him. As he
passes Koblet he slows, and takes his bidon of water and places it in the
carrier of the struggling Italian. "Take it, Gino, there is still some left!" he says, before setting out again. In a previous race, Koblet
had been dehydrated had asked Bartali for water. Gino had calmly had a drink
and, then, looking at Koblet, had emptied the remains of the bottle on the
At 17h 11 Koblet entered the Frontenex Stadium, in Genève, to immense
cheers from the huge crowds. "Hugo received and gave kisses in industrial
quantities…all the bridesmaids want to linger at the party…. beautiful
day for Geneva and for Swiss sport," commented The Mail.
Koblet became an instant heartthrob with
female fans…Click for larger images.
Koblet won the Tour by 22 minutes from Raphaël Géminiani, but never
reached such heady heights again. It was a complete triumph for Koblet and
his Swiss team. Second placed mad Raphaël Geminiani joked, "Chasing after
these white crosses (the Swiss National Jersey), you could end up finishing
at the Red Cross!"?
Koblet revels in his new found fame and fortune. “Money used to slip
through his fingers like water,” said one teammate, “Hugo couldn't say no to
anyone. Sponsors always wanting him for some occasion or party, journalists
wanting this or that story, groups of pretty women permanently waiting for
him at the finish line…” His flamboyant lifestyle was hugely expensive and
in complete contrast to his rival and compatriot Ferdi Kubler. With the
glamour of a modern-day rock star, Koblet would arrive at races driving a
Studebaker, while Ferdi would arrive by train, third class. "Ferdi looks
after his money; if there were a fourth class, Ferdi would take it,"
commented Charly Gaul.
At a time when post-war economic growth was giving the stars and
teams the opportunity to benefit from sponsors (indeed, second placed man
in 1951, Raphaël Géminiani, did a great deal to open up sponsorship for riders), the big stars benefitted from direct sponsorship. Pontiac Watches capitalised on Wim Van Est’s tumble on the Aubisque and ran the advert “His
heart stopped but his Pontiac kept time.” For all his Studebakers and
elegance, Koblet was astonished to greet an Italian businessman after a
race and be presented with a cheque for one million lira. The businessman
had to explain that it was Koblet’s commission for a comb company who had
produced a “Koblet." He led a flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle. But
unlike the true greats, Koblet could not remain focused on his racing.
“This flamboyant behavior made him lazy in his training. I remember we
planned a training ride on the Klausen Pass and said we would meet at his
house at 7:30 a.m. He agreed. We showed up, buzzed the door...nothing. We
buzzed for seven minutes and finally he comes to the window, obviously still
asleep! He lets us in and says he has to make some calls and we should go
down to the coffee shop till he is ready. We go down there and now it's one
hour later. He then comes up and says he forgot about some meeting he has to
do but will be done by 10:00 o'clock. We said forget it and left without
him. This happened so often we gave up riding with him. Yet in the mountains
he could drop us all on the few kilometers he trained,” commented teammate
Following the Tour, Koblet accepted an offer to ride Tour of Mexico; he
is fascinated by exotic Central America and it suits his sense of adventure. Koblet is greeted by the President
of Mexico and enjoys the hospitality
and parties. One episode demonstrates his prodigious talent. Koblet has
hardly ridden for a month and has been non-stop partying. On a mountainous
stage in the Sierra Madre, he leaves half an hour before the Mexican
amateurs for a 200 race km alone. The heat is intense, the Mexicans enthusiastic to catch the Tour de France winner. Nevertheless Koblet crosses
the line 30’35’’ ahead of the chasing peloton.
However, while in Mexico, he contracts an illness that will plague him for
the rest of his life. It causes him kidney and the lung problems, and Koblet was never quite the same cyclist again.
A crash on the descent of the Aubisque in the Tour de France in 1953
caused Koblet more health problems and from then on his career went into a
slow decline. While track racing with old friend Fausto Coppi in Colombia in
1957, the idea of emigrating to Argentina with thoughts of car franchises and
other schemes was discussed (Coppi was trying to establish his bike frame
business there) and in 1958 Koblet hung the bike on the nail and moved to
the Argentine is search of fortune. He became homesick and returned to
Europe but found it difficult to settle. His wife and great love, the
model Sonja Bühl, had divorced him and the good looks where starting to
On November 6th, 1964 witnesses saw a white Alfa Romeo speeding along the
road to Esslingen at about 140 k/h. The weather is perfect, the road is good
but the car ploughs straight into a tree. Koblet had been alone in the
car. By a bizarre twist of fate, the doctor who is first at the scene and
confirms his death is called Kubler.
Years later when the 80 year old Ferdi Kubler is asked about Koblet, the old
man is nearly moved to tears as he remembers his friend and rival. The old man’s
reply is simple -
“How lucky I was to have ridden with a great champion like Koblet.”
Raphaël Géminiani celebrates 2nd: “Actually I won,” he joked.
was the first human to get to Paris!” Click for larger image.
Coppi fought hard against illness and grief. This photo shows the
"Pédaleur de Charme."