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Tour de France history: Charly Gaul tames the Galibier

In-depth
27 Apr 2021
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A brutal mountain stage at the 1955 Tour is where a young Charly Gaul announces his arrival to the world

Words: Giles Belbin Photo: Presse Sports

The 1955 Tour de France is one week old and the race convoy is in Thonon-les-Bains, on the southern shore of Lac Léman, readying itself for a stage billed as the ‘first battle of the climbers’.

Stage 8 will take the race over the Aravis, Télégraphe and Galibier passes, before a long descent via the Lauteret into Briançon.

All eyes are on the strong France team, in particular Louison Bobet, as the 108 riders remaining in the race roll out of town for the 253km stage. Bobet is the two-time defending champion and has won in Briançon for the past two years.

Today the Tour veteran is currently lying ninth, nearly 14 minutes behind race leader Wim Van Est, but he has become synonymous with the Alpine town, and while today’s route won’t take him over his beloved Col d’Izoard, this should be the day he seizes the initiative.

Also rolling out from Thonon-les-Bains is Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul. The 23-year-old is riding just his third Tour having turned professional in 1953, but he hasn’t yet made it to Paris.

He abandoned on Stage 6 in his debut year and didn’t make it past the opening day in 1954, saying simply, ‘I’m too young,’ as he left the race.

Gaul has long been talked up in his home country as a possible future Tour contender and has already claimed podium places at the Worlds and at the Dauphiné despite his relative youth.

However, he doesn’t have the might of a strong team behind him and has yet to trouble the top 10 of a Tour stage finish or create anything memorable on cycling’s grandest stage. Today will be the day that changes.

The Angel of the Mountains

Gaul is at the head of the race as the riders approach the first categorised climb of the day, and on the slopes of the Aravis only the Netherlands’ Jan Nolten can stay with the pace being dished out by the Luxembourger. Gaul leads over the pass by a length, and by the time they reach the Télégraphe the Dutchman can resist no more, falling away sharply.

Now Gaul is all alone, the scene set for him to announce himself once and for all as a true Tour contender. By the time he crosses the summit of the Télégraphe and starts the short descent to Valloire his lead is over five minutes, but the day’s main test is still to come. The Galibier lies in wait.

Gaul’s every pedal stroke is now being followed by journalists and photographers perched on motorbikes. They can sense that another of the Tour’s grand displays is unfolding before their eyes.

Gaul rides towards the sky, scaling the Galibier with his eyes locked forward, his hair still perfectly swept back. As he passes through the tunnel at the top of the climb his lead is nearly 16 minutes. His one-time companion Nolten is further back, having now lost 17 minutes.

Gaul descends swiftly and stops the clock in Briançon at 7h 42min 55sec. His winning margin is nearly 14 minutes over Ferdi Kübler and he now lies third overall.

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It has been a quite stunning display, one for the ages. ‘Under a fiery sky, an extraordinary, daring shot in the Alps,’ L’Équipe will report the following day when describing Gaul’s ‘astounding exploit’.

Gaul will go on to pick up a second stage win later in the race, leading over the Aspin and Peyresourde, then working with Bobet on the run-in to Saint-Gaudens before riding away to victory when the Frenchman suffers a flat tyre.

He finishes the Tour crowned as the best climber and in third place overall. ‘There have been many Kings of the Mountain in the Tour and now there is an Angel,’ writes British reporter Jock Wadley.

‘A journalist will often toss out a high-sounding cliché with his tongue in his cheek, but the Frenchman who wrote that “Gaul soared heavenwards like an angel” probably did so in all seriousness.’

The smooth and the rough

Gaul’s performance launched him onto cycling’s main stage. For the 1956 season he moved to the Faema team and by early summer had recorded his first major win, claiming three stages, the climbers’ prize and the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia, seizing the race after a famous win on a freezing and snow-swept Monte Bondone.

Gaul finished that day dead-eyed and on the verge of hypothermia but also at the top of the overall classification. He was pictured being carried from his bike by two policemen, surrounded by concerned team officials with flasks of hot drinks at the ready.

After his Giro win he went on to win the Tour in 1958, turning a 16-minute deficit with only four stages to go into a three-minute advantage in Paris thanks to a storming ride through the Chartreuse and a time-trial win. A second Giro win came the following year.

From that day in 1955 on the Galibier it was clear Gaul would go down as one of the finest climbers in the sport’s history. Raphaël Géminiani, the man who had been in yellow the day of Gaul’s Chartreuse escapade in 1958, described the Luxembourger as ‘a murderous climber… turning his legs at a speed that would break your heart, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.’

‘Gaul’s easy action makes you think he is not really trying,’ the reporter Rene De Latour once wrote. ‘When eventually you go by him in the car he will give you a playful wink. And sometimes race followers have been startled to hear him whistling a tune.’

Gaul retired in 1965, living as a hermit in a forest until he emerged some 20 years later. He returned to the Tour in 2002, bearded and full-bellied, barely recognisable as the one-time Angel of the Mountains. He died three years later of a pulmonary embolism.

Giles Belbin is the author of Tour de France Champions: an A to Z (thehistorypress.co.uk)