A Forgotten Hero: Roger Walkowiak
This is the first installment in a series of racing stories from a time before most of us were born… Being in the business of reporting daily news, we’ve become even more aware of how quickly things move on, and how soon we forget what happened even last week. I recently had a very interesting conversation with Jan Didier – a cycling fanatic like us. But unlike us, his passion for the sport is it’s rich history. Talking with Jan remined me that cycling is so much more than this year’s Tour or World Championships… Great battles have been fought since the sport began, and these stories become even more fascinating when we remember that the roads were not paved, the bikes weighed upwards of 50 lbs., technical support and assistance could be provided only by the rider himself. Jan is like a library of historical race information, facts, and the kinds of stories that are best heard over a pint of your favorite post-ride beverage… you can read his own interesting bio at the end of this article.
This story is about Roger Walkowiak, winner of the 1956 Tour de France. But unlike TDF winners today, who seem guaranteed superstar status, Walkowiak’s story is one with a sadly tragic end… We hope you enjoy the reading…
– Richard Pestes
– By Jan Didier –
Who cared about Roger Walkowiak, a modest rider in the French North-East-Centre regional team, at the start of the 1956 Tour de France ? No one.
Except for his wife Pierrette of course, whom he married a day before Christmas 1955. And who couldn’t imagine what kind of a late wedding present her Roger would offer her 3 weeks later.
The 1956 Tour de France favourites were Charly Gaul, Jean Brankart, Stan Ockers, Frederico Bahamontes, Gastone Nencini, and Raphaлl Geminiani. Roger Walkowiak, who finished 57th in 1951 and 47th in 1953, was just a part of the nameless peloton of courageous riders who’s main goal was to reach Paris.
The 1956 Tour started as expected, with the fast Andrй Darrigade winning the first stage and taking the first yellow jersey. He lost it for 2 days to Gilbert Desmet, but regained it in Caen at the end of the 4th stage. He was still wearing it at the start of the 7th stage, from Lorient to Angers, not knowing how decisive this day would be.
While all the favourites were watching each other, a group of 31 riders took off. No reaction in the peloton, and the escape group reached Angers with an advance of 18’46”. Alessandro Fantini won the stage and the yellow jersey went on the shoulders of … Roger Walkowiak.
At first he couldn’t believe it …
But later that evening, alone in his room, he put on the yellow jersey again, and looked in the mirror. And he realised that the yellow fitted him well. He then decided to defend it as long and as strongly as possible.
In the meantime, no one worried about the former factory worker leading the race. The Alps would take care of him …
The Decisive Stages
Walkowiak’s team manager, Ducazeaux, warned Roger that it would be too tough to try and hold on to the jersey stage after stage, and that it might be better to lose it … in order to re-conquer it later on, when closer to Paris.
And Roger Walkowiak did what he was told to do.
He lost the jersey to Gerrit Voorting at the end of stage 10. The Pyrenees passed and Belgium’s Jan Adriaenssens took the yellow, that he lost to Dutchman Wout Wagtmans in Aix-en-Provence (stage 15). Then came the Alps … and stage 18, Torino – Grenoble.
Charly Gaul, who lost a lot of time in the flat stages, had finally regained his favourite terrain. He had only one goal left: becoming King of the Mountains (he finally did, only 1 point ahead of Bahamontes). Gaul launched a massive attack very early in the stage, causing immense damage behind him. Wout Wagtmans lost 16 minutes and the jersey … that returned to the shoulders of Roger Walkowiak, who only lost 8 minutes to Gaul.
With only 4 stages to go, Roger finally realised what was happening to him: he could and would win the Tour de France ! He resisted easily to some scarce and timid attacks, and reached the Parc des Princes on July 28, as the winner of the 1956 Tour de France.
A last yellow jersey, the podium and the flowers, the emotional reunion with Pierrette … pure happiness for the modest Roger Walkowiak.
After The Victory
But soon the press started minimizing Roger Walkowiak’s victory: he only won because of a disagreement amongst the French national team riders (Bauvin and Darrigade), because Gaul and Bahamontes only thought about winning the King of the Mountain trophy, because Stan Ockers only concentrated on the team competition, because … So many reasons only to conclude that Roger Walkowiak was a “lucky” winner, that he didn’t deserve his victory, that he was a “dark” spot on the Tour de France history.
Roger won the 1956 without winning a stage, but he had beaten all the best riders of that time, including Bahamontes (4th at more than 10 minutes), Ockers (8th at more than 16 minutes), Gaul, Nencini, … And still he had to carry the image of being a “loser” !
He was not.
He deserved to win that Tour, because he had been stronger, smarter, braver and more consistent than all other riders that year. That is why he should not be considered as a footnote in the Tour history books.
On the contrary, he should be reminded as one of the greatest Tour winners ever, because what he has accomplished in 1956, no one has ever done it again until today.
Roger Walkowiak never recovered from all the “dirt” thrown at him after his Tour victory. He continued as a pro – carrying his burden – until 1960, when he left the peloton without nearly anyone noticing. One year later, he took an amateur licence and started competing again. A bad fall with a skull fracture put a final end to his career in 1962.
Roger Walkowiak went back to work and opened a gas station, where most of his clients probably never realized that they were served by the most underestimated Tour winner ever. Roger Walkowiak is now retired, and lives in the South East of France.
As the son of an army officer who was a huge cycling fan, and who knew a lot of riders personally, Jan’s interest in cycling was developed in his early years.
He began collecting old books and magazines, cycling cards, going to races … and he became a real “cycling nut”.
Though actively playing basketball for many years, his interest in cycling and its history and legends always remained. When he set up an autograph website with his wife Joлlle in 2000 (www.europe-autographs.com), cycling became quickly the largest section on the site, with hundreds of autographed pictures presented.
Being especially interested in the somewhat earlier history of cycling, Jan has formed personal contacts with many “older” champions including Rik Van Steenbergen, Roger Walkowiak, Wim Van Est, Andrй Darrigade, Lucien Aimar, Jan Janssen, Roger Pingeon, to name a few. It is about their heroпc and dramatic moments he likes to write.
Visit Jan’s website:
www.europe-autographs.com where you’ll find pictures and photos – many signed – of our sports greatest greatest heros.