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Tour de France history: Coppi christens Alpe d'Huez

In-depth
2 Jul 2021
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In 1952 Fausto Coppi became the first rider to win a Tour stage to the summit of Alpe d’Huez, claiming the yellow jersey on his way to an incredible second Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double in three years

Words: Giles Belbin Photography: L'Equipe

The peloton of the Tour de France is approaching the Alpine town of Bourg d’Oisans. It’s late afternoon on Friday 4th July 1952 and the 88 riders that will finish the race’s 10th stage have been on the road for nearly eight hours and 252km since setting out from the Swiss city of Lausanne. 

Much of the racing has been underwhelming. It’s hot and the riders are in no mood to extend themselves, so have instead conserved as much energy as possible. They have stopped at fountains to fill their bottles and have gladly ridden through the spray of hosepipes held aloft by roadside spectators. Now, though, it’s time for the real action to start. The first summit finish in Tour history is only some 14km away, lying at the top of the hairpin-heavy road that winds upwards to the ski town of Alpe d’Huez.

It is France’s Jean Robic, the 1947 Tour winner nicknamed ‘leather-head’ because of the helmet he often wears, who makes the first move, attacking on the lower slopes. He’s followed by Belgium’s Alexandre Close, and a little later by teammate Raphaël Geminiani. Then, as the climb begins to bite, from out of the bunch emerges the real star of the show.

Italy’s Fausto Coppi has decided it is time to launch his bid. He quickly bridges up to Geminiani and rides straight past before reaching Robic. The Italian takes to the front.

The contrast between the two as they scale the Alpe is striking: Coppi, slender and graceful, caresses the pedals; Robic, small and crouched, grimaces and rocks as he desperately tries to stay on the Italian’s wheel. No wonder the Frenchman was once described as a grumbler with a fierce eye and clenched jaws.

The crowds lining the road between the small villages that dot the route are sparse. A bare-chested spectator throws a cup of water over Coppi, causing him to briefly glance to his left. With 6km to go, shortly after this photograph is captured, Coppi rounds a hairpin, increases the pressure on the pedals and eases away. He looks over his right shoulder, once, twice; Robic is slipping back. The Frenchman is done, his pace and his head dropping. He starts to look down the mountain rather than up, fearful of who may yet catch him.

As for Coppi, he continues his serene ascent. When he approaches the line he simply stops pedalling and reaches down to loosen his toe straps. There are no celebrations, no arms raised in triumph, no kisses blown to the sky. It is a low-key end to the race’s first ever summit finish and the first ascent of what will become one of the race’s most fabled climbs.

Coppi has taken 1min 20sec out of Robic and after all the timings have been finalised the Italian slips on yellow for the first time in the race. He won’t take it off again.

Unhappy but triumphant

Coppi had entered the 1952 Tour in good form but troubled. One month earlier he had won the Giro d’Italia for the fourth time but he was angry that his famous foe, Gino Bartali, had been selected by the Italy team for the Tour.

Coppi had argued for Bartali’s exclusion, telling team manager Alfredo Binda that all he needed to win the race was a handful of loyal teammates and that Bartali could hardly be counted as such. But Coppi’s pleas went unheeded and when the French cycling reporter René de Latour knocked on the rider’s hotel room door four stages into the race in the hope of grabbing a few quotes, he found the Italian raging and pacing the room.

De Latour knew Coppi well and the pair ended up in a quiet restaurant where Coppi spent three hours cutting loose, giving the writer what he later called the greatest scoop of his career. ‘I just can’t stand the sight of that hypocrite Bartali anymore,’ Coppi told De Latour. ‘He ruins my appetite.

‘I should never have agreed to start in this Tour with him as a teammate, if I can call him that,’ Coppi added. ‘He is not there to help me but to watch me… It’s just like having a traitor in our group. It makes me sick. The presence of Bartali is a terrible handicap to me.’

Despite that, Coppi’s march to a second Tour would be imperious. Two days on from the Alpe he put on a masterclass during the stage to Sestrière, leading over the climbs of the Croix de Fer, Galibier and Montgenèvre.

‘It’s not a triumph. It’s an orgy,’ wrote Orio Vergani in Corriere della Sera. ‘The Tour de France is becoming a personal exhibition for one phenomenal talent.’

‘From the very long ascent to the Croix de Fer, the yellow jersey had started to apply brushstrokes to his masterpiece,’ was Vittoria Varale’s take in La Stampa.

By the time Coppi reached Paris he had five stage wins, including all three of the new summit finishes, and his overall win by 28min 17sec secured a second Giro/Tour double. Until 1949 the double was considered impossible: the races were too long, arduous and close together for anyone to win both in the same year. Now Coppi had done it twice.

As for Alpe d’Huez, the climb wouldn’t appear again until 1976. With the racing muted before the final climb, the 1952 experiment hadn’t been considered a success. Tour organiser Jacques Goddet wrote that there was ‘no reason to lobby for more stage finishes at altitude’.

In time summit finishes did of course return, and the last visit to the Alpe in 2018 was the 30th time the race has graced its slopes.

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