Tour de France 2020

Tour de France retrospective: Remembering Walko

The unheralded Roger Walkowiak caused one of the biggest upsets in the Tour de France with his 1956 victory.

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One of the best things about the opening week of the Tour is that you can still dream.

No rider or team has yet to put their stamp on this year’s race, and you imagine just about any scenario when it comes to the race for the yellow jersey. Will Primož Roglič and the Jumbo-Visma team finish the Tour as strongly as they have started it? Will Egan Bernal confirm the promise he showed in last year’s victory? Will Thibaut Pinot become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault back in 1985?

All of these scenarios are possible. Or perhaps maybe, someone completely unexpected will win this year’s race. Will someone win the race, “á la Walko?”

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The expression, of course, refers to one of the biggest upsets ever in the Tour de France. It refers to the 1956 Tour de France victory by the unheralded Roger Walkowiak.

Little-known at the time, Walkowiak, the son of Polish immigrant, started the race with the North-West-Center regional team. Dwarfed by the powerhouse national teams, Walkowiak did not dominate the race. He did not even win a stage. But he raced with an uncanny sense of calculation, played the favorites off against each other, and eventually won the race.

Walkowiack, who died in 2017, grew up in the town of Montluçon on the eastern reaches of France during World War II. He grew up under the Nazi Occupation, and riding the family bike around town with friends provided the perfect escape. And eventually, he started racing.

“I actually turned professional because I couldn’t find a job,” Walkowiak recalled during an interview with him at his home in Vichy in 2011.  “I started doing local races around the area. There were races all over the region. Every village would have a bike race when they had a little celebration. But when I finished the military there was no more work for me at the factory. So I started racing. I got good results right away and after a year I got picked up by a small professional team.”

Starting the 1956 Tour on what he considered “the absolute worst team in the race,” Walkowiak harbored no winning ambitions. But he came with an eye on attacking. “I just told myself, ‘Bon sang! You’ve got to try something!”

Roger Walkowiak still rode a bicycle until has passing in 2017
Roger Walkowiak still rode a bicycle until his passing in 2017. Photo: James Startt

Three-time winner Lousion Bobet did not take the start, and there was no overwhelming favorite. As a result, the race was wide open. There were daily attacks in the opening stages, and when Walkowiak got into a 30-rider break on stage seven that grabbed more than 18 minutes’ lead he understood that he was in “la bonne échappé,” — the good break. And as the best-placed rider in the group, it was Walkowiak that grabbed the yellow jersey.

But almost as quickly, the criticisms started, as many considered him unworthy of the yellow jersey. And when he eventually won the Tour two weeks later, his victory was greeted with mixed applause at best, as many scoffed at his opportunism.

But to actually take the yellow jersey into Paris required nothing short of brilliant tactical savvy. Understanding that his modest team could never defend the leader’s jersey for the entire race, Walkowiak gave it up before the race hit the Pyrénées. But he remained in contention throughout the mountains, finally grabbing the yellow jersey back on the final day in the Alps.

He also had to navigate through immense pressure, but also numerous attacks. The French national team, receiving daily criticism for their lack of initiative and the fact that they were being challenged by a lowly “regional” rider” like Walkowiak kept the pressure on. And they even broke an unspoken rule of the Tour by attacking the yellow jersey when Walkowiak had a mechanical problem.

“During the race, things happened that shouldn’t,” Walkowiak recalls. “There was the stage to Saint Etienne after I had won back the yellow jersey. I crashed and Gilbert Bauvin, who was then in second place, attacked me with a group of favorites that included Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes. When I got back on my bike I was two minutes down and spent the next two hours chasing them. And when I caught them what did they do? They each took turns attacking! I was just never one of them.”

For just about any rider, winning the Tour de France would be nothing short of a dream come true. But not for Walkowiak, who was literally mocked by many. “Charly Gaul is a thoroughbred,” wrote L’Equipe journalist Michel Clare. “Walkowiak is a half breed.”

The following year, after accepting an invitation to ride a race in North Africa, Walkowiak fell ill. He claimed that he never reached his full potential again. His inability to confirm his Tour de France promise only bolstered his critics. Disheartened, he slammed the door on the sport, refusing to return for decades.

Walkowiak staged a coup in 1956 when he took the yellow jersey, relinquished it, and then re-took and held onto it through Paris
Walkowiak stunned everyone in the Tour in 1956 when he took the yellow jersey, relinquished it, and then re-took it and held onto it through Paris. Photo: James Startt

Eventually, he returned to work in the factory and was hired by Dunlop in his native town of Montluçon.

“He must have been so proud the day he won,” says Prudhomme. “But then [winning the Tour] became just a big burden for him because everyone talked about the surprise, the fact that this little rider beat the greats. And it wasn’t always perceived as positive. Today if a rider won like he did, he would be considered a pure genius! But in 1956 that wasn’t the case.”

“But tomorrow, if there was a Tour “à la Walko,” I think everyone would be really happy,” Prudhomme continued. “It would be a Tour full of surprises.”

And as we approach the second week of this year’s Tour, we can still hope for plenty of surprises. Who knows, maybe a modern-day Walkowiak is cruising through the peloton right now!