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Tour de France history: Switzerland’s short-lived success

In-depth
15 Feb 2022
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The arrival of two riders with very different styles in the 1950s heralded a brief golden period for the Swiss at the Tour

Words Giles Belbin. Photography: L'Equipe

By the time the 1940s rolled into the 1950s, a total of 73 Swiss riders had taken to the start line of a Tour de France, with a solitary podium place between them – Léo Amberg finishing third in 1937.

If Switzerland hadn’t exactly set the race alight so far, with the 1950s around the corner the country at last looked to have a couple of riders with a genuine shot at the yellow jersey.

Ferdinand Kübler made his Tour debut in 1947. Billed as the ‘Tour of the Liberation’, the first race of the post-World War II era saw Kübler win the opening stage into Lille to claim the first yellow jersey.

After winning a second stage he was forced to leave the race with Paris still two weeks away after crashing and losing time before reaching the Alps, much to the despair of the Swiss press.

‘We will no longer see the great Ferdinand sprint and shake up the peloton,’ the Journal de Genève may have lamented, but the 27-year-old had nudged the door open to the international stage. 

Two years later, Kübler was back at the Tour as a two-time national champion. Heading into the Alps in the final week he was in sixth place but crucially more than four minutes ahead of eventual winner Fausto Coppi.

Kübler broke away early on the stage to Briançon but Coppi fought back and soared away on the Col d’Izoard while Kübler punctured three times and lost 15 minutes. Demoralised, three days later he abandoned. Still, it was progress.

‘The Tour is coming for Kübler,’ reported the Gazette de Lausanne. ‘Perhaps.’

Twelve months on, that ‘perhaps’ was erased as Kübler recorded Switzerland’s maiden Tour title. It was a controversial race. Italy had claimed the previous two editions with Gino Bartali and Coppi and they started the 1950 edition in dominant fashion. By the time the race entered the Pyrenees, Italy’s riders had won half of the stages and were poised to make a move on the overall standings.

During the stage to Saint-Gaudens, with French fans frustrated with Italian domination, and with Bartali and his teammate Fiorenzo Magni in the leading group, spectators were restless.

Near the top of the Aspin, with crowds all over the roads, Bartali and France’s Jean Robic touched wheels. Both riders went down, with Robic damaging his front wheel. Some of the crowd furiously swore at Bartali and threw stones, blaming him for bringing down a Frenchman.

An enraged Bartali flew down the other side of the Aspin, won the stage and promptly announced, ‘We have been victims of aggression; no Italian will ride tomorrow,’ even though Magni had just slipped on the yellow jersey.

With the Italians gone, the race lead passed to the best-placed non-Italian. Step forward Kübler. The Swiss was a seething mass of energy when he rode, to the point that he sometimes appeared deranged, talking to himself and anyone else who would listen and referring to himself in the third person.

He claimed the stage into Nice, defended his lead well, and cemented his Tour by riding like a man possessed on the final time-trial (main image), taking more than five minutes out of second-placed Stan Ockers over 98km. In Paris, Kübler became the first Swiss to reach the top of the Tour’s podium, 47 years after the race’s inception. The country would only have to wait another 12 months for a second.

Koblet the Charmer

In contrast to his compatriot, Hugo Koblet had a reputation for elegance. Nicknamed the ‘Pédaleur de Charme’ by the French singer and actor Jacques Grello, Koblet was popular with both fans and fellow riders. He was said to carry a comb, a damp sponge and a bottle of cologne in his back pocket and there is many a photograph of him slicking his hair back in front of a mirror.

Legend has it that if he was at the front of a race and confident of victory he would sit up, get out the comb and cologne, and set about making himself presentable for the finish line victory salute.

Koblet was riding his first Tour in 1951, although he already had a Grand Tour to his name, becoming the first non-Italian to win the Giro d’Italia in 1950. With Kübler opting to concentrate on the World Championships, a title he would win, Switzerland’s Tour hopes were pinned onto Koblet. And the charmer wouldn’t disappoint.

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Koblet won the first time-trial and then staged one of the great Tour breakaways during the stage from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Agen. He escaped some 135km before the finish and stayed away despite a full-paced chase involving the likes of Coppi, Bartali, Magni, Ockers, Louison Bobet and Raphaël Géminiani.

Koblet crossed the line, combed his hair, and kept an eye on his stopwatch (pictured above), watching it count to 2min 25sec before Marcel Michel led the best of the rest in.

‘It’s not possible, a rider like that,’ said Géminiani afterwards. ‘If there were two of Koblet, I would change occupations immediately.’

Three days later Koblet won the mountain stage into Luchon to take yellow. He never relinquished his lead and ultimately won by an astonishing 22 minutes over Géminiani. Over the course of 15 incredible months Kübler and Koblet had between them won two Tours, the Giro and the Worlds, catapulting Switzerland to the summit of cycling.

Yet if their styles on and off the bike could not have been more different, nor could their destinies after retirement. Koblet retired in 1958 but bad investments cost him dearly, and his debts mounted.

On 2nd November 1964 he was driving his Alfa Romeo when he passed a large pear tree. He stopped, turned around and drove back, passing the tree again. He drove past the tree once more before turning a final time and driving straight into it at 120kmh. He was rushed to hospital but all attempts to save him proved futile. He was 39 years old. 

Kübler meanwhile retired in 1956, later running a flower shop in Zürich, and lived a long life, dying in 2016 aged 97.

‘I became a champion because I was poor,’ he told L’Equipe in 2013. ‘I struggled to eat, to have a better life. I won the Tour de France because I dreamed, because I knew that afterwards I would never be poor again.’