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Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Calm before the Alpine storm

1958: Wet epic solo takes Gaul to victory

1958 Tour de France, Charly Gaul atop the Col d Porte. AFP file photo
1958 Tour de France, Charly Gaul atop the Col d Porte. AFP file photo

There was just one mountain stage left in the 1958 Tour, and popular Frenchman Raphaêl Geminiani (the Thomas Voeckler of his day) appeared to have the yellow jersey locked up. Runner-up Vito Favero of the Italian national team was 3:47 back, with Gem’s French national teammate and defending champion Jacques Anquetil in third at 7:52. No one gave any chance to Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul (an erstwhile Andy Schleck), lying in sixth place 16:03 behind Geminiani.

The last alpine stage, from Briançon to Aix-les-Bains, first headed over the Col du Lauteret and descended the same road where Pantani would set up his coup 40 years later (and where this year’s Tour will approach L’Alpe d’Huez this coming Friday). The 1958 race then climbed the ultra-narrow and steep Col du Luitel to Grenoble before tackling a trio of mountain passes through the Chartreuse Massif: the Porte, Cucheron and Granier.

Actual GC after stage 15

  • 1.Thomas Voeckler, Team Europcar, 65h 24′ 34″
  • 2.Frank Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 1:49
  • 3.Cadel Evans, Bmc Racing Team, at 02:06
  • 4.Andy Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 02:15
  • 5.Ivan Basso, Liquigas-Cannondale, at 03:16
  • 6.Samuel Sanchez, Euskaltel – Euskadi, at 03:44
  • 7.Alberto Contador, Saxo Bank Sungard, at 04:00
  • 8.Damiano Cunego, Lampre – Isd, at 04:01
  • 9.Tom Danielson, Team Garmin – Cervelo, at 05:46
  • 10.Kevin De Weert, Quick Step Cycling Team, at 06:18
  • 11.Rigoberto Uran, Sky Procycling, at 07:55
  • 12.Jean-Christophe Peraud, Ag2r La Mondiale, at 08:20
  • 13.Rein Taaramae, Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne, at 09:02
  • 14.Pierre Rolland, Team Europcar, at 09:20
  • 15.Haimar Zubeldia, Team Radioshack, at 09:50

The mountains were socked in by low clouds and the rain didn’t stop all day, which was a horrible experience for cyclists in the days of wool shorts (that bagged in the wet) and jerseys, and plastic capes that didn’t breathe. As in today’s racing, there was an early break by riders buried in the overall standings, but the stage became more interesting when Gaul, a fabulous climber, decided to jump away from the yellow jersey group on the early slopes of the Luitel.

Geminiani’s French national team wasn’t too concerned about a rider so far down on GC; perhaps Gaul was hoping to score enough point to win the best-climber prize, or win the stage. The KOM leader Federico Bahamontes chased for a while, but he soon left Gaul on his own. The Luxembourger overtook all the early breakaways before Grenoble and headed into the Chartreuse climbs with the rain still pelting down.

Two years earlier at the Giro d’Italia, Gaul showed his resilience in bitter cold weather by winning a stage through freezing rain and sleet over four giant climbs to the summit of Monte Bondone to win the Giro. And on this Chartreuse stage of the 1958 Tour Gaul never flinched in the worsening weather, while Geminiani lost the help of a suffering Anquetil and had to fight on his own to keep Gaul within limits.

The gap was seven minutes at the top of the Col de Porte, 12 minutes at the Granier summit and 14:35 at the stage finish, where Geminiani was in tears, accusing his teammates: “They’re all Judases!” Gaul was within a minute of the yellow jersey, which he took over two days later in winning the final time trial by a three-minute margin over Geminiani. It was the most extraordinary comeback in postwar Tour history

Time gaps today are usually measured in seconds rather than minutes, but with Voeckler leading the 2011 Tour by only 1:49 over Fränk Schleck, 2:06 over Cadel Evans and 2:15 on Andy Schleck, it’s not unreasonable to envision the race leader ceding his jersey at Gap on Tuesday. The climb up the Route Napoléon and over the Col de Manse makes an ideal springboard for Evans and the Schleck brothers, and the dicey descent to the finish via La Rochette — where second-placed Joseba Beloki crashed and broke a leg in the sunshine of the 2003 Tour — will challenge all the riders in the expected driving rain and wind.

Whatever happens, it will be a brutal and unpleasant prologue to the next three days in the High Alps. Already on Sunday, Tour neophyte Ben Swift of Team Sky said, “You can see the whole peloton is pretty tired now.” Fatigued riders, atrocious weather and challenging terrain can make a nasty combination — as Jan Ullrich. Luis Ocaña and Raphaêl Geminiani all discovered in Tours gone by.

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