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How Tour de France winner Louison Bobet sealed his legend

It took six attempts for Louison Bobet to win his first Tour, but then nothing could stop him as he won three in a row

Giles Belbin
18 Sep 2020

As the peloton prepared for Stage 18 of the 1954 Tour de France, a ride of 216km from Grenoble to Briançon over the Col d’Izoard, France’s Louison Bobet was in the yellow jersey. He was defending champion, having won the Tour the previous year in 1953, and his lead over second-placed Fritz Schaer was more than nine minutes.

Bobet had made his Tour debut seven years earlier, in 1947, the first edition after the Second World War.

It was his first year as a pro with the Stella-Hutchinson team and the month previously he had taken his first pro win in the 280km Boucles de la Seine. He’d ridden into the Buffalo velodrome more than six minutes ahead of Henri Aubry that day to huge acclaim.

‘Never has the ovation given by spectators of a packed Buffalo been so deserved,’ wrote Pierre Le Merrec in L’Humanité.

Moments after that win the 22-year-old Bobet was told by Léo Véron, technical director of the national team, that he would be riding for France in the Tour.

As it turned out, Bobet would be forced to abandon. On the descent of the Izoard he hit a rock and fell, badly wounding his elbows and left knee. Worse, he’d also broken a wheel.

‘Bobet talks about giving up,’ reported Maurice Choury who was following the race in the press pack, ‘but nevertheless he stops all the following cars begging for a wheel. We abandon him to his sad fate.’

That fate was to leave the race before its halfway point. There is a certain irony that Bobet’s first Tour ended on the slopes of the very mountain on which he would later forge his Tour wins and where a small monument now stands in his honour. 

The Tour is won on the Izoard

Some eight hours or so after the yellow jersey-wearing Bobet had started that 1954 stage in Grenoble, he stood in Briançon and posed for this photograph.

Earlier he had launched a stinging attack over the Izoard, distancing Switzerland’s Ferdi Kübler, and cruising through the Casse Déserte – the barren area at the summit of the Izoard – in splendid isolation.

In Briançon his winning margin over Kübler was 1min 49sec, his overall lead an almighty 12min 48sec. It was the third time in five years that Bobet had led the race over the Izoard and arrived in Briançon alone.

The first had been in 1950, a move that helped secure him a first Tour podium in Paris. He repeated the feat in 1953, this time taking yellow in Briançon thanks to a stage win of more than five minutes.

‘It’s on the Izoard where the Tour will be played out. It’s there that it will be won,’ Bobet had said the night before that 1953 stage, and so it proved. As he’d ridden through the Casse Déserte he had been watched by a camera-wielding Fausto Coppi.

‘Coppi, after taking my photograph, gave me a friendly hand signal and a wink of the eye that said, “It’s all sewn up,”’ Bobet said afterwards. ‘It boosted my morale and I thank him for it.’

Sure enough Bobet went on to win in Paris for the first time. Twelve months later came his dropping of Kübler in defence of that title. This time he was already in yellow – the only time Bobet would wear the jersey over the Izoard.

The accordionist in the caravan

Among the crowds waiting for Bobet to arrive in Briançon was 31-year-old musician Yvette Horner. Part of the publicity caravan that paraded in front of the race, she had spent the stage as she had spent the previous 17: sat on the roof of a slogan-clad Citroën wearing a sombrero and playing her accordion.

Now she had to make a presentation to Bobet of a Suze-sponsored brassard (a kind of armband). The makers of French aperitif Suze sponsored the yellow jersey and provided her car – the Suze Vedette – which was driven by her husband.

Born Yvette Hornère in 1922 in the Pyrenean town of Tarbes, she trained as a pianist before learning the accordion and changing her name at the suggestion of her commercially astute mother.

After plying her trade in the concert halls of southwest France and winning the 1948 World Accordion Championship, Horner’s big break came in 1952 when she joined the Tour circus for the first time. It was tough work.

‘I played all along the course, without stopping on the mountain climbs or the descents,’ she once said. ‘Sometimes I had to take mosquitos out of my nose, sometimes I was grubbier than the stage winner.’

Horner remained on the Tour until 1965. Over the course of a 64-year career she claimed to have sold some 30 million records.

Bobet went on to win the 1954 Tour and claimed a third in 1955, becoming the first rider to win three Tour titles in succession. It was quite a turnaround from the rider many had previously thought not to have the resilience needed to win a three-week race.

‘In the Tour it seemed that Bobet just did not seem to have the resistance necessary for total victory,’ wrote Jock Wadley in 1956 when reflecting on Bobet’s early performances.

What helped was working with soigneur Raymond Le Bert, who ran a surgery for athletes in Saint-Brieuc and examined Bobet after the 1948 Tour.

He was shocked to find the rider covered in boils and physically drained. Le Bert took him away to recuperate, not leaving an address with anyone but simply saying, ‘He is a wreck and it is high time he was salvaged.’

It was the start of a long professional relationship that eventually led to Tour success.

‘I no longer recognised him,’ Bobet’s brother and fellow professional rider, Jean, wrote when reflecting on his brother’s 1954 Tour win. ‘He had been liberated; Louison the worrier had become a warrior.’

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