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Charly Gaul - An Angel Closes Its Wings
By Podofdonny
Date: 12/6/2005
Charly Gaul - An Angel Closes Its Wings

Angel of the Mountains. Courtesy

Former Tour de France winner Charly Gaul has died at the age of 72.

Charly Gaul (born 8 December 1932 in Asch) was an accomplished time trialist, but he will be remembered as a extraordinary climber as his nick names suggest: Le Grimpeur ailé and L'Ange de la montagne.

The Angel of the Mountains won the Tour de France in 1958, and his two Giro d’Italia victories, in 1956 and 1959, will ensure his legend lives forever as the first non-Italian to achieve this record.

Gaul was known for his strong performances in cold and wet weather conditions, of which he often took advantage to attack his rivals. Gaul’s Achille’s heel was the heat. When it was really hot he found it difficult.

Gaul perfected the use of high cadence and low gear on the mountains and a similar high cadence and bigger gears in the time trials. His style, was reminiscent of Lance Armstrong, though his tactics, could hardly have been more different.

Angel of the Mountains 1955 Tour. Courtesy

Gaul worked in a butcher's shop until turning professional. Like many riders before and since he took the delivery (by bike) aspect of his work to the ultimate degree.

In 1952 he finished second in the Tour of Austria. He won his first professional event in his native Luxembourg in 1953, and was second in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré stage race. The following year he was second in his country's road race championship (an event he later won six times), won a stage in the Dauphiné Libéré, and won a bronze medal in the 1954 World Cycling Championship.

Gaul had ridden his first Tour de France in 1953, but abandoned on the sixth stage; he also abandoned in 1954. However, he achieved his first two stage wins in the 1955 Tour. He won stage 8 to Briançon and looked set for a second straight win the next day, but crashed while in the lead on a rain-soaked Alpine descent. However, he retained hopes of a high finishing position, and attacked in the Pyrenees, winning stage 17 (Toulouse to Saint-Gaudens) ahead of eventual overall winner Louison Bobet, en route to a final third place on general classification, and victory in the "King of the Mountains" competition.

Angel of the Mountains, 1956 Giro, Stage 7. Courtesy

Dantesque Drama in the Dolomites

His first victory in the Giro d'Italia 1956, saw him take two stage victories and ride into the legends of cycling with his epic win on Stage 20 from Merano to a mountain top finish in Bondone.

The 242 kilometre stage included the climbs of Costalunga, Rolle, Brocon and Bondone, but if these fearsome ascents are not enough for the riders the riders must face Dantesque conditions, a fearsome snow storm that freezes the riders.

Gaul is probably the only rider in the race who excels in such conditions, however having built an early lead over the Costalunga and Rolle climbs, the Angel suffers a mechanical on the descent and his lead is eaten up. However as the weather closes in Gaul responds and at the top of the next climb his manager Learco Guerra has a secret weapon.

Learco Guerra had won the 1933 Milan San Remo from a field that included six-time winner Costante Girardengo, and he had learnt a few tricks in his pro career. Learco Guerra had two tubs of hot water at the top of the climb to warm his rider up before the freezing descent.

Gaul, sensing victory, powered on to win the stage in solo glory 7’44’’ ahead of Fantini and 12’15’’ ahead of the brave and stoic Fiorenzo Magni. The “third man” of Italian cycling had crashed earlier in the race and fractured his collar bone. Refusing to give up, he rode the rest of the race using his teeth to pull un a bandage to his cross bars to reduce the strain on his shoulder.

Gaul however proved too much even for "Leone delle Fiandre" and he won the 1956 Giro with 3’26’’ to spare.

Magni. Courtesy Raisport.

Gaul could not recover fully from his efforts in the Giro in time for the 1956 Tour de France, but he won the Mountains classification again, and two more stages, the 15.1 ITT on stage 4a and an epic stage between Turin and Grenoble. He finished 13th overall.

He abandoned after just two days of the following year's Tour (having finished fourth in the 1957 Giro, taking another two stages in the process), but returned with a vengeance in 1958.

Third in the Giro, he showed his strength against the clock winning Stage 8 a 46 kilometre time trial by 7 seconds from Anquetil, however after hot weather and some bad luck he went into the Stage 18 a 21.5 km Time Trial up the Alpe d’Huez still around ten minutes down on Vito Favero and Raphael Géminiani.

Gaul was on great form and won the stage ahead from fellow climbing specialist, the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes, he also recovered 5 minutes from Geminiani and over 7 minutes on Favero.

Geminiani and Favero however were far from finished. The next day, a mountainous stage between Carpentras and Gap, the pair, who had excellent team support (unlike Gaul who was riding for a Dutch Luxembourg team which had mixed aims) both managed to put 10 minutes into Gaul, who had mechanical problems.

Stage 20, Gap - Briancon, saw Geminiani put a few more seconds into Gaul while Favero finished just 9 seconds behind him.

The General Classification was
1. Raphaël Géminiani 91h20'55"
2. Favero à 3'47"
3. Anquetil à 7'52"
4. Nencini à 12'30"
5. Adriaenssens à 12'40"
6. Gaul à 16'03"

So on the morning of the last stage in the Alpes, Briancon – Aix les Bains, over 219 kilometres which includes the climbs of Lautaret, Luitel, Porte, Cucheron and Granier, and just two days before the decisive Time Trial over 74 km Besançon-Dijon, three riders had real hopes of victory. The maillot jaune: Raphaël Géminiani, leader of the Centre-Midi team, the Italian Favero, second at 3'47", and the winner of the previous year Jacques Anquetil, 3rd at 7'52", who would be hoping that his time trail abilities would win the day.

However, the inky sky and icy rain which greeted the riders at the start were a good omen for the Angel of the Mountains. Charly Gaul again enjoyed the freezing conditions, on the second climb of the day, the Luitel, he attacked and dropped his opponents, causing disarray and panic in the peloton.

Géminiani, with help from his team mates Rohrbach and Dotto, tried to limit his losses, but maybe they drove too hard too soon, and maybe the French teams were attacking each other, and not remembering that Gaul was still up the road.

Regardless, Gaul decimated the field behind him.

Anquetil cracked on the Col de Porte. And Gaul continued to gain ground throughout the day 5'30" at the top of de Porte, 7'50"at Cucheron, 12'20" at Granier!

Another Dantesque stage, Gaul won head of Adriaenssens, 2nd at 7'50", Favero, 3rd at 10'09", Géminiani, 7th at 14'35", Bobet, 10th at 19'01" and Anquetil, in 14th place at 23'14".

Still the leader's jersey remains with Favero and still Géminiani has a 39" advantage over Gaul 1'07", behind, but Gaul will turn that around in the Time Trial between Besançon and Dijon.

Visibly shaken after the events of that dramatic day in the Alpes 33 year old Géminiani accused the French team of being "Judas", for their refusal to help in the chase.

The Time Trial confirmed that the “Angel” was not only king of the mountans but also the man to beat against the clock.

Having given a demonstration in the mountains of solo riding in the 74 kilometre Time trial Gaul decimated the field to take his only Tour de France victory.

Angel of the Mountains, 1958 Tour. Courtesy

In 1959, the defending champion was 12th overall in the Tour de France. He lost time in the sweltering heat of the Pyrenees stages, but won at Grenoble again, with Bahamontes second (on his way to overall victory).

However, he had already won the 1959 Giro d'Italia, its mountains classification and three stages - his victory at Courmayeur had seen him take 10 minutes advantage over Jacques Anquetil over the final two climbs of the day. The following year he took another stage on his way to third place in the Giro, and finished 7th in the World Road Race Championship. And in 1961, he finished fourth in the Giro.

Back in France, Gaul won yet again at Grenoble in 1961, when he again finished third overall. Again he was hampered by injury: in the Alps, he crashed on the descent of the Cucheron, bruising his hip, shoulder and knee. Lying second to Jacques Anquetil as the Tour entered its final kilometre, Gaul suffered the indignity of relegation to third spot after Guido Carlesi attacked to overcome a four-second deficit.

Angel of the Mountains, 1958 Tour. Courtesy

He completed one further Tour in 1962, finishing ninth. It is worth noting, however, that the Tour was then frequently contested by national teams. Coming from a small country, Gaul was usually placed in a mixed team, poorly supported by riders of limited abilities as domestiques. But his most famous lieutenant was Marcel Ernzer.

Gaul didn’t have much success after 1962 and retired from racing shortly thereafter, becoming a recluse, living an almost hermit life of seclusion deep in the woods.

He did emerge from his hideout in the 1990’s to watch Miguel Indurain in a Tour de France Time trial which passed near his home.

As Indurain powered through, the man who was called the Angel of the Mountains turned to his companion and said, "I saw an Angel pass."

Angel of the Mountains, 1958 Tour. Courtesy

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