It was, perhaps, the most anticlimactic ending to a Tour. At the Parc des Princes velodrome, Marcel Bidot, manager of the French team, was greeted with whistles of disdain.
How was it possible that the strongest team, the defending champions, the pride of the host nation, should lose? Not even to worthy rivals, like the Belgian or Italian teams, but to some second-rate regional outfit?
Gilbert Bauvin would certainly have won, if only his team-mates had done their jobs. Instead, they acted like a dysfunctional family of brats, incapable of working together, each looking after his own interests, so that an unremarkable, quiet young man from the decidedly B-list regional North East Centre team walked away with the yellow jersey.
And what an unprepossessing winner he was. He’d had a tendency of finishing the last few stages in tears. When he reclaimed the yellow jersey in Grenoble, he’d been the image of grief, hunched over his bike at the centre of a swarm of press, head bowed, sobbing. “Ne pleurez, pas, Monsieur Walkowiak! Ne pleurez pas!” pleaded a disconcerted journalist with a microphone: Mr Walkowiak, please don’t cry. This wasn’t in the TV script. And neither, indeed, was Roger Walkowiak’s triumph.
His victory was like some terrible joke. No one had seen it coming. Soon the phrase, ‘à la Walko’—doing a Walko— sprang up, shorthand for an unworthy winner. Not only had he slipped through the door while the favourites were bickering, but the “little rider” as L’Equipe described him, referring to his status as much as his stature, had failed to win a single stage. He remains to this day the only winner to have never won a Tour stage in his entire career.
“Walkowiak won that Tour through hard graft,” Raphael Géminiani tells me. “Not everyone is permitted to win the Tour,” he adds, conscious of his own bitterly fought near-misses.
But Géminiani is quick to add that he was lucky, too. “The French team was very disorganised and he was in the right place at the right time… Walkowiak wasn’t a marked rider, like Bahamontes and Gaul. He could get into the breaks, and then he managed to resist their assaults in the mountains.”
Then there was his team. “He was lucky to have Ducazeaux,” Géminiani points out. “He was a leader of men. He directed him well, he gave him confidence.” His team-mates were also crucial. In addition to getting into the breaks, Ducazeaux’s instructions were that they should collaborate as comrades, without hierarchy, for the benefit of the team, which they did. They weren’t the strongest riders, but they were united, and rose to the occasion when required.
The man who finished second in 1956, Gilbert Bauvin, is also convinced Walkowiak couldn’t have won without the support—mental as much as physical—of his team-mate Adolphe Deledda, an old hand who’d previously helped Bobet win the race.
“Walkowiak was a classy rider but he had no personality. People who are too nice never win in life,” Bauvin declares, fixing me with his beady eyes. With his aquiline nose and energetic, tiny frame, he calls to mind a small bird of prey. “He didn’t know how to show himself to advantage,” he continues. “I think he was overwhelmed by events.”
For more than 20 years, Walkowiak refused to talk to journalists. “They stole my Tour, they’re bastards,” he said in an interview in the 1980s.
In 2012 he told Bicycling Magazine that the lack of enthusiasm for his victory, “was very hard to take. It is hard to explain how that feels. Even before the finish, the press started to be critical but also the team directors. It was like they were saying, ‘How could we let this happen?’”
What of his failure to ‘confirm’ after 1956? “I never really was able to get to the same level. That was just terrible, really hard to live with. After winning, I was solicited a lot and unable to train well for the next season. Then there was always something, it seemed. Finally, I broke my collarbone in January 1960, never managed to find my condition, and didn’t have the desire to keep chasing after it.”
Perhaps the hardest thing, though, was the sense that no one understood his masterpiece. In a television interview some years ago, he broke down in tears. “They always said I won the Tour on a flat stage,” he says, his voice cracking. “And when I think of all the effort I made, the pain I endured, which was never acknowledged… it leaves me speechless.”
Roger Walkowiak (March 2, 1927 – February 6, 2017)
Edited extract from issue 66 of Rouleur