As the Tour de France moves up the west of the country from the Pyrénées and towards the Massif Central, at least one person is reveling in the string of flat stages found here — sprint legend André Darrigade.
Darrigade, who himself lives in Biarritz on the Atlantic Coast, won no less than 22 stages during his career, twice won the green jersey, and was one of the sport’s most popular figures.
In France, cyclists from the 1950s and ’60s are still remembered fondly. With WWII edging into the past, bicycle racing was the nation’s preferred sport. Bike races big and small were ubiquitous and in many ways united the country. These were golden years for France, and for cycling, it was nothing short of a golden era.
A pillar of the prestigious French national team that dominated the Tour de France, Darrigade was a favored teammate to both Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil. And yet somehow he managed to still win 22 stages — a record at the time — and wear the yellow jersey on numerous occasions.
“You have to remember that I won 22 stages while working for the team,” Darrigade told VeloNews in an interview at his home barely a week before this year’s Tour started. “And I won the opening stage five times. I had a little more freedom to ride for myself at the start of the Tour, so I made the most of it. And that was also a good way to get the yellow jersey!”
Cycling was always part of Darrigade’s life it seemed. Growing up in the Dax in the South West corner of France, Darrigade got his first bike when he was just nine or ten. “There were a lot of races at the time and I would jump in behind the riders that got dropped five or six kilometers and would follow them like I was in the race myself,” he recalled.
First earning his reputation on the track in the 1940s, Darrigade turned professional in 1951. He quickly formed what would be a lifelong friendship with Bobet, and the two would be neighbors in Biarritz until Bobet’s death in 1983.
“We would often go out for an 80-kilometer ride on Sundays,” Darrigade said. “Bobet was so generous. All of his teammates loved him. We were often adversaries. But we were friends.”
In many ways, however, Darrigade is remembered more for his years with Anquetil where the two formed a sort of dynamic duo.
“Anquetil was very different than Bobet,” he said. “Anquetil had to be the boss. But I was sort of his right-hand man. He didn’t like to tell his teammates what to do, so I was the one that did that. He didn’t like talking to the press, so I was the one who spoke to the press in the hotel at night. Here was a sort of hierarchy on the team. Bobet had a lot more personality.”
While Darrigade often rode in the shadows of Bobet and Anquetil, almost unknowingly, he could well have carried the yellow jersey into Paris on at least one occasion.
Three-time winner Bobet was not at the start of the 1956 Tour, and Anquetil was still an up-and-coming rider. In typical fashion, Darrigade won the opening stage and the yellow jersey that came along with it. But he had little support from the French national team, who never considered him a potential Tour winner. “
On the stage to Angers, I lost 20 minutes when the team let a breakaway of 35 riders get up the road. That was the day Roger Walkowiak [the race’s unheralded eventual winner] got into the break and took the yellow jersey. But I worked my way back in the race and actually got the yellow jersey back in Pau,” he recalls.
“Just think about the energy I spent making up those 20 minutes! Then on the stage to Toulouse, I flatted about 10 kilometers from the finish. I had to change the tire myself and I lost another two minutes. No, if the French national team had believed in me a little bit, I might well have won. That was definitely the year where I was the strongest.”
But while he admits that the frustration of the ’56 Tour lingered for years, he also acknowledges that, “at the same time, I didn’t really believe in myself. It was only afterward that I understood that I could have won myself.”
But while he never won the Tour de France, Darrigade did win the world championships in 1959, a race that he says today was his greatest memory. “I always loved racing the worlds and I always dreamed of winning it. And what’s more, I think I was the only rider to finish on the podium at the world championships, for three consecutive years, at least until Peter Sagan won it three straight times.”
It comes with little surprise that Sagan is one of his favorite riders today as both won the green points jersey as well as the rainbow stripes.
“You know I won the green jersey twice, but it wasn’t as prestigious as it is today. To win it seven times like Sagan is really something,” he said. “What’s more, he is really marked and a lot of riders won’t work with him.
“I participated in a great era of cycling after the war. It was a belle époque but there were many after. The époque Merckx and the époque Hinault were great years too. There have been a lot of belles époques.