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Cycling Legends - Pédaleur de Charme
By Podofdonny
Date: 10/25/2004
Cycling Legends - Pédaleur de Charme

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 image.

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 lead.

"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 Edwin Seldenthuis.
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 road.

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 Gottfried Weilenmann.

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 fade.

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.
“I was the first human to get to Paris!” Click for larger image.

Coppi fought hard against illness and grief. This photo shows the effort.

"Pédaleur de Charme."

Hugo Koblet palmares and Tour statistiques courtesy Mémoire du Cyclisme. Other info: Professional Cycling Palmares. With thanks to Torelli Bicycles

This article is dedicated to Geoffrey Nicholson.


All uncredited photos copyright Picture Post 1951.

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