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  • 08.12.15

    Lone Star

    Charly Gaul, the Angel of the Mountains, led a reclusive existence post-retirement, claiming "it's difficult to go back into normal society". Paul Maunder on the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist

In a small wooden cabin deep in the Luxembourg Ardennes, a man lived alone. He led a simple life, always wore the same clothes and avoided human contact. His telephone went unanswered, and the journalists who tracked him down were turned away. Sometimes, in July, if the route came close enough, he would come out of his hideaway to stand beside the road and watch the Tour de France. Once or twice, some eagle-eyed journalist recognised the man with the scruffy clothes and long beard. “Charly Gaul!” they would cry.

Known as the Angel of the Mountains, Charly Gaul was once a household name. He won the Tour de France once and the Giro twice. He was a unique rider, supremely gifted at climbing, with a special propensity for riding in cold, wet conditions. Some of his most famous mountain victories were achieved in the foulest weather. His pedalling style was smooth and swift, and he could set a heartbreaking pace on a mountain climb, for kilometre after kilometre. “Mozart on two wheels”, was how Antoine Blondin described his metronomic rhythm.

Gaul was popular with the fans – he had boyish good looks – but not so popular with his fellow riders. He had a small group of loyal domestiques and support crew, but many others found him distant, rude, selfish and egotistical. At times, the peloton seemed to be actively riding against him. He was coarse – earlier in his life he’d worked as a butcher at an abattoir – and taciturn. He was admired for his style, but only on the bike.

After a prolonged slide into retirement in 1965, Gaul ran a café for six months, then disappeared from public view. Later, Gaul described his life as a hermit: “I bought myself a little portable television and I connected it to the battery of my car to watch the Tour de France. When the battery ran down, I called the man at the garage. I had travelled plenty enough. I told myself 'You're happy here, at peace.' There was nothing but the trees and the water. I passed my days planting vegetables. Deer used to come and eat at the end of my garden. How do I explain what I did? Well, it's difficult to go back into normal society. Today, of course, I laugh about it, but that period was essential: without it, I wouldn't have been able to tackle the final slope, that of old age."

Charly Gaul, I think it’s safe to say, was an introvert. Not that he would have thought of himself in those terms. The science of personality types is relatively new and I suspect the Luxembourg Cycling Federation of the 1950s wouldn’t have had a phalanx of psychologists attached to its team. Today the language of introversion and extraversion is common. Anyone who has worked in a large organisation is likely to have been subjected to a cringe-inducing personality test. The annoying thing about such tests – Myers-Briggs is the most prevalent – is that they’re so accurate.  You can be as cynical as you like, and violently declaim the morality of reducing people to types, but when your test results come back you’re likely to be astonished by how much the description matches you. Myers-Briggs tests ask dozens of questions to drive out a personality type, of which the introversion/extraversion scale is only one of four parameters.

Rouleur would love to help its readers delve into their own intricate psychologies, but there simply isn’t space or time. So we can shortcut by asking one simple question: when you’re around other people, do you feel your battery being recharged or drained? An introvert like Charly Gaul would feel drained by social contact, and recharged by being alone. And this would be true all through his life, not only in the reclusive years.

(It’s worth noting here that academia is highly critical of the Myers-Briggs methodology for the way it has interpreted Carl Jung’s work. Nevertheless Myers-Briggs has been adopted by major corporations around the world, and when are major corporations ever wrong?)

Recently the introverts have started making a noise. Well, they’ve written books, which is an introvert’s way of making noise. The most interesting is Quiet by Susan Cain, which champions the qualities of the introvert. Cain bemoans the way that corporate America, and therefore the rest of the world, values and promotes extraversion. All the facets of modern corporate life that we know and love – teams, workshops, meetings, open plan offices – all work better for extraverts than introverts.

Teams – now there’s a problematic word. Anyone new to cycling has to get their head around the fact that road racing is a team sport with individual winners. And the training a professional cyclist does can mean several hours spent alone on a bike, isolated in the wilderness, self-sufficient, silent and stoic. Perfect for the loner who likes to reflect on life as he turns the pedals.

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