Roger Walkowiak has died aged 89. “Winning à la Walkowiak” is a term still used today for an easy or an unexpected win. It’s used in cycling and beyond, a French politician can triumph à la Walko too. The label seems cruel and Walkowiak felt wronged by it, his triumph in the Tour de France was mocked and this turned into a sadness that weighed on him for years.
Get a map of France, put your finger in the middle and you find the city of Montluçon. It’s here where Roger Walkowiak was born in 1927. The son of a Polish factory worker and a French mother, Roger grew up in Montluçon when it was a busy industrial city.
He joined the Dunlop factory cycling club, the rubber company has long been the town’s biggest employer and today its factory is still working, albeit amid crumbling buildings that signal better days. After completing his military service Walkowiak found work in a local bike shop and resumed racing, getting enough results to turn pro for the local Riva Sport-Dunlop team.
Walkowiak’s first year as a pro in 1950 was not an auspicious start, he caught a cold six times in five months. Things improved in 1951 and in a stage of the Circuit des Six Provinces – an event later merged into the Critérium du Dauphiné – he crossed over the Col de l’Epine first only to get beaten for the stage win in Aix-les-Bains by Gilbert Bauvin, a name who’d become a thorn in his side later. This and more was enough to get him a start in that year’s Tour de France. While the sport had its nascent trade teams, the Tour picked national teams and regional teams from France. It sounds parochial today but it reflected the vast supply of riders as almost the entire the peloton either came from France, or from countries along its border; plus the Netherlands and minus Germany. The British were seen as exotic and enjoyed the media coverage we see applied to Chinese or Japanese pros today; in 1956 the sole British starter Brian Robinson, invited by a French regional team, was labelled “Phileas Fogg” by the media as if to suggest how far he’d travelled.
Walkowiak’s career progressed with a win here or there and some solid places like second in Paris-Nice – then labelled Paris-Côte d’Azur – and a top-10 in Milan-Sanremo. His ride in the 1955 Dauphiné impressed many, he was almost the equal of France’s best rider Louison Bobet on all the main climbs including Mont Ventoux and finished second overall. But he never made the French national team for the Tour de France that year. Bobet himself said Walkowiak deserved a place in the national team. Yet he wasn’t picked for the French team and rode for regional Nord-Est-Centre team run by Sauveur Ducazeaux and abandoned on Stage 11 with a saddle sore.
1956, the big year that nearly wasn’t
Walkowiak may have won the 1956 Tour de France but starting the race wasn’t a given. Earlier that year Sauveur Ducazeaux was managing the French team in the Vuelta a España, then run in late April, and he picked Walkowiak. Things started well with a team time trial win and then a stage win for “Walko”. But team leader Bobet wasn’t having a good Vuelta and pulled out, other French riders followed and Walkowiak joined the exodus, taking the train home one morning instead of starting the stage. Ducazeaux blew his top and swore he’d never select him again. Come July and Walkowiak again missed out on the French national team and qualified for the the regional Nord-Est-Centre team… managed by Ducazeaux. It took the intervention of Raphaël Géminiani and a handwritten apology by Walkowiak to start the race. He raced but others did not, with Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Ferdi Kubler, Louison Bobet, Hugo Koblet and Jean Robic all absent for varying reasons. Federico Bahamontes and Charly Gaul were tipped to win but the two star climbers had a route ahead of them with few mountains.
The race began as predicted with André Darrigade of the French national team winning the opening stage in Liège and wearing yellow. Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, got plucked alive during the opening days and lost 30 minutes on one flat stage; Gaul surrendered 10 minutes on another flat day. Walko meanwhile was regularly at the front of affairs and Stage 5 placed was part of a group of 20 riders who put ten minutes into Bahamontes and 15 minutes into the field. The next day Walko made another breakaway that put over five minutes into the next group and 11 minutes on the bunch.
Stage 7 was the decisive day. On the roads from Lorient to Angers Walkowiak infiltrated a breakaway of 35 riders that finished 18 minutes ahead of the bunch led home by a dejected Darrigade. While Italy’s Alessandro Fantini won the stage, Walko took yellow thanks to time gained from the other successful breakaways in prior stages. Walko was the new race leader but the story was the “Waterloo” of the French team, their crushing loss rather than the regional rider’s gain. L’Equipe’s Antoine Blondin, the playwright who chronicled big sports events for them, labels Walkowiak a “poujadiste égaré dans le Bottin mondain” which almost impossible to translate but think of a “petit-bourgeois lost among aristocrats” and either way Blondin mocks this modest rider leading the great race.
Walkowiak was part of this maxi-breakaway and so were Belgian Jan Adriaensens and Dutchman Wout Wagtmans and each would earn a brief spell in yellow as Walkowiak lost time in the Pyrenees. He got his climbing legs in the Alps and, over the Izoard, matched the best that Bahamontes and world champion Stan Ockers could throw at him. He took back the yellow jersey but Gilbert Bauvin was closing in, especially when Walkowiak crashed on the stage to Lyon and had to chase. Still Walkowiak rode into his home city of Montluçon in yellow with one stage to go. These days the final stage is a victory parade with a criterium at the end but in 1956 they rode from Montluçon to Paris, today a four hour car journey and a nine hour stage in 1956. “Bauvin and Adriaenssens attacked me 20 times” said Walkowiak. Whether the count is exact we don’t know but it shows the fight went to the end.
Walkowiak won his Tour and if the win was unexpected, the result was beyond dispute. L’Equipe praised a powerful Walkowiak who rode better than everyone else in a lively race. Here’s Blondin again in his final column:
“The most athletic Tour de France we’ve ever known… …A moral ending fit to give satisfaction to every reasonable person… His win confirms a fact. Walko was the bravest, the most constant, the most healthy.”
Quite the volte face? L’Equipe and the Tour came around to Walkowiak but was this an appreciation of his ride or a commercial need to promote the winner in order not to devalue the race itself? Blondin, no stranger to a bottle or three of wine, was probably the last person to take the corporate line, in fact his piece praising Walkowiak criticised other aspects of the race. Later on the Tour organiser Jacques Goddet even dedicated his memoirs L’Equipée Belle to Roger Walkowiak to show appreciation for this edition of the race and its winners. Other newspapers, newsreels, radio and television were less generous and Walkowiak began to lament his win, “I felt as if public opinion thought the Tour was too important for a rider like me“.
From Tour champion to tourneur
Walkowiak’s career continued as it had been before: without further crowning success. He returned to the Tour de France in 1957 as part of the Peugeot team only to see Jacques Anquetil emerge as a star, the darling of the public. In a race with a high attrition rate that year he abandoned on Stage 18 becoming one of only six “defending” champions (Froome 2014, Hinault 1980, Thévenet 1978, 1976, Bahamontes 1960, Anquetil 1958). Walko would soon quit cycling too, his career harmed by a parasitic infection following the Tour of Morocco. Out of work he returned to factory where he was once an apprentice and resumed his career at the lathe as a tourneur. He ran a service station and tried his hand at farming too. He avoided the media for decades until an interview with L’Equipe in 1985. “They stole my Tour, they’re bastards” he said about the Parisian media who he accused of underestimating his win and the effort involved.
More recently in an interview with French TV he broke down in tears when asked about his Tour de France win, still hurting at the accusations that he won the Tour de France thanks to a fluke breakaway on a flat stage. He said he never talks about the win with his wife either, the subject was too hard to broach. A more recent interview by Bicycling’s James Startt saw Walkowiak telling the story from his side.
What if Walko had lost?
Historians and sports fans share the love of the counterfactual, the “what if?” scenarios if something had turned out different. What if Gilbert Bauvin had won? He was the leader of the French national team but hardly a great champion either. Maybe the Tour would have made him into something bigger but his palmarès prior to the Tour was only marginally superior to Walko’s thanks to a few wins and two spells in the maillot jaune. He too made the maxi breakaway that gained 31 minutes. So maybe we would have a win “Bauvin style”? That said he was still more of a media darling than the modest Walkowiak.
Did Walkowiak get lucky? Yes because for various reasons several star riders did not start the 1956 Tour de France. Yes because he joined a breakaway that to took 18 minutes on Stage 7. But you make your own luck. He was in the successful breakaway for two straight days before the 18 minute move which meant he’d already gained time on rivals including those that made the maxi-break while the pre-race favourites were floundering in the cross-winds.
When the Tour went into the Alps he climbed back into the yellow jersey and was matching the best on the big climbs. His lack of style and his self-effacing modesty didn’t endear him to the media but he won a race with a record average speed.
The race had big breakaways staying away. The yellow jersey changed shoulders eight times with Walkowiak losing the lead only to win back the yellow jersey thanks to some valiant riding. If only every Tour could be as exciting.
- This piece is a reprise of a post done to coincide with last year’s Paris-Nice’s visit to Montluçon last year but hopefully worth revising and reviewing again in memory of Roger Walkowiak.