Tour de France 2020

Tour de France retrospective: Antonin Rolland on playing domestique while in the yellow jersey

Rolland rode on a team with Louison Bobet in the 1950s and had to sacrifice his own GC ambitions for his star teammate.

For any cyclist, a tenure in the coveted yellow jersey during the Tour de France is a special moment. But for some it finishes better than others.

French champion Antonin Rolland had one of the great runs leading the Tour back in 1955 after he won the yellow jersey on stage 2 and carried it for 12 days. But while he still very much cherishes his spell in yellow, he is the first to say that things didn’t end too well, as he had to sacrifice his own ambitions for Tour legend Louison Bobet.

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Rolland grew up in the l’Ain, the department just above Lyon on the East side of the Rhône River Valley that hosts stage 14 of this year’s Tour on Sunday, which finishes on the much-anticipated Grand Colombier climb. It was here where he first started riding bikes while living on a remote farm during World War II. And it was here where he first turned professional.

Rolland got his first taste of the Tour in 1949, where he watched in amazement as Italian’s Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali dominated the race. “I can’t say I saw much of them to be honest,” he joked while talking to VeloNews in his home on the edge of Villefranche sur Saône.

Rolland wore yellow for 12 days in 1955. Photo: James Startt

However, Rolland soon progressed and became a pillar of the esteemed French national team in the 1950s. Starting the 1955 Tour in what can only be described as the best shape of his life, Rolland grabbed the yellow jersey on stage two into Metz. And he defended it with tremendous confidence for nearly two weeks.

The only problem was that his teammate was Louison Bobet, the two-time defending champion who aspired to win the race for a third time—at record at the time. “On the rest day in Monaco, we were starting to talk. Bobet wasn’t really sure how good he was or how good I was. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry it’s you in yellow. But I really want to win a third Tour de France.’”

Rolland understood that his time would likely be limited.

“I can’t say that the team really helped me,” he remembers. “I wasn’t really protected. If we had to go to the front and ride, I had to take my pulls. The only thing that I didn’t have to do while I had yellow, was go back and get the water bottles.

“By the time we hit the Pyrénées, everything was starting to take its toll, the stress, the physical fatigue. And on the stage from Toulouse to Saint Gaudens I just had a real off day. And as soon as we hit the first climb, the Col du Soulor, I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. Normally I would have made it over a climb like that, but on that day I was struggling and I ended up finishing four minutes down on Bobet.”

But while Rolland regrets losing a rare opportunity to win the Tour himself, he was a faithful friend and teammate to Bobet.

Rolland’s memorabilia from a career in the 50s. Photo: James Startt

Nevertheless, Rolland’s days in yellow remain etched in his memory. He still possesses his yellow 1955 Tour de France bike, and he still has a large collection of those old wool yellow jerseys that he wore that year. And on occasion, the 96-year old will even pump up the tires, pull a jersey over his shoulder, and take if for a spin.

“Yeah it was frustrating to lose the jersey,” he said. “But that remains by far my greatest memory. The yellow jersey just remains etched into your memory well after your career is over!”