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Hero of the Izoard

Words: Paul Maunder | Images: Horton Collection | From issue 60

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Recent Tour de France routes have blended innovation with history. Race director Christian Prudhomme and his team have designed routes that they believe create unpredictable racing, favoring attacking riders and breaking the grip of the strongest teams. With new finishes, steeper climbs, shorter stages and minimal time trialing, their innovations have led to fascinating races. One of their original mountain stages came in 2017, from Briançon to the Col d’Izoard, the first to finish atop the Izoard—yet this alpine pass has a venerable place in Tour history. Since its first appearance in 1922, the Izoard has been included in the race route more than 30 times.

Words: Paul Maunder | Images: Horton Collection

Toward the top of this alpine monster, a pine forest gives way to a landscape of bizarre, tawny needles of dolomite rock amid searing gray scree, not unlike the top of Mont Ventoux. This is the Casse Déserte, which can be formally translated as the “deserted scrapheap” or the less-formal “broken desert.” At its summit the brave cyclist will have climbed for more than 31 kilometers to an elevation of 7,743 feet (2,361 meters). In the 1953 edition of the Tour de France one very special rider rode up the Izoard alone, in the lead. It was Louison Bobet. Ahead of him a convertible car labored upward, a cameraman standing precariously in the passenger seat. Around Bobet was a horde of motorbikes and a jeep, bouncing over the road’s rutted surface. There were few spectators up there in the baking mountain amphitheater.

Bobet, who’d attacked going over the top of the preceding Col de Vars and was paced along the valley between the two passes by his teammate Adolphe Deledda, was slightly over-geared for the final climb and had to wrestle his bike to keep it moving. As Bobet came around a bend, he saw an unusually large group of fans. At its center, grinning broadly and pointing a camera, was a tall man in a stylish black sweater. It was Fausto Coppi. Beside him, though not wearing white that day, was his mistress Giulia Locatelli. Coppi shouted his encouragement; Bobet called out “Merci!” and pushed on toward the summit.

Coppi had decided not to defend his Tour title in order to focus on the world championships, a few weeks later in Lugano. It was a good decision. Coppi won the rainbow jersey by over six minutes…and Bobet wasn’t complaining either. For all his later accomplishments, Bobet would always be associated with that ascent of the Col d’Izoard. By 1953, at the age of 28, he was widely recognized as one of the best riders in the world, and yet he had never fully realized his potential. His palmarès was missing a grand tour—and he was riding the Tour for the sixth time. How one day can change a career!

Bobet flew down the north side of the Izoard and into Briançon to win the stage by more than five minutes and take the yellow jersey. He went on to win the final 70-kilometer time trial from Lyon to Saint-Étienne and took overall honors by more than 14 minutes. The French public was jubilant, and the cycling press astounded. Here was a man who, just a few weeks before, had abandoned the Giro d’Italia on the very last day, exhausted and unable to stay with the peloton. Now he was on top of the world—but his route to Tour success had been long and hard.

Born in Brittany in 1925, in the village of Saint-Méen-le-Grand just west of Rennes, Louis Bobet was one of three children. His father was a baker and also called Louis, so the family adopted the diminutive Louison for the boy. In his early cycling career, he was known as Louis; only later, as he became more famous, did the public re-introduce Louison. The French philosopher Roland Barthes, writing on the Tour de France in his seminal book “Mythologies,” associated this use of the diminutive with the role of the hero: “Diminished, the name becomes truly public; it permits placing the racer’s intimacy on the heroes’ proscenium.” In other words, by giving a favorite rider a nickname, the public makes a possession of him and expects to understand him intimately.

The Bobet children were talented at sport. Louison’s sister played table tennis, his brother played football (and later took up cycling), and Louison played both soccer and table tennis, as well as trying cycling. Despite being Brittany champion at table tennis, Louison chose to focus on cycling after his Uncle Raymond, president of a cycling club in Paris, had a quiet word with him. Bobet’s results as a young rider were solid but not exceptional, but he was dedicated to his sport, and eventually his hard work paid off. Writing about Bobet in the years after the rider’s retirement, French journalist René de Latour recognized the work ethic and courage that brought Bobet success: “Any experienced follower of the sport such as myself can rattle off the names of a dozen riders who had more basic ability than Louison Bobet, but few of them had even half his guts. Some cynics will say that he fought so hard because he liked money more than anything else…. Personally, I believe that Louison Bobet liked glory even more than money.”

hero of the izoard
hero of the izoard

After being demobilized from the French Army in 1945, an administrative error gave Bobet the chance to prove himself on a bigger stage. He’d applied for an “amateur” racing license, but instead was sent an “independent” license, which allowed him to compete against both amateurs and professionals. He came second in the Brittany championship then traveled to Paris for the French national amateur road championship. In the closing kilometers two riders were clear. Bobet attacked the field, bridged to the leading duo, dropped one, then outsprinted the other on the Piste Municipale velodrome. No one had heard of him, and he had to explain his background to intrigued journalists.

“I am a baker,” he said. “I work for my father and we are so busy that I have to do all my training at night.” Not for much longer. He signed as a professional for Stella, a small Breton team based in Nantes, and rewarded their faith in May 1947 when he won the Boucles de la Seine, a French classic, after a 60-kilometer solo breakaway. However, the Boucles de la Seine, while long and tough, was restricted to French riders. His victory earned Bobet an invitation to ride the 1947 Tour de France on the French national team, but he wasn’t prepared for that level of racing. His first experience of the Tour was a baptism of fire. When the race entered the Alps, Bobet was dropped and began to cry. Other riders in the peloton called him a crybaby, and on the ninth stage Bobet left the race. The French veteran René Vietto, who held the yellow jersey until stage 19, mockingly dubbed him La Bobette. Many wrote off his career before it had hardly begun.

The following year, however, Bobet was back at the Tour and was a lot tougher. He won two stages and wore the yellow jersey twice. Coming into the Alps he had a 20-minute lead over Gino Bartali, but Bartali and his fellow Italians combined to utterly demolish that gap. By Paris, Bobet was more than 32 minutes behind Bartali, but he had finished fourth and shown his true potential.

Despite a cycling career in the ascendency, Bobet never lost touch with his roots. With the proceeds from his successful 1948 Tour, he bought a grocery shop in Rennes, and every morning before dawn he got up to deliver milk to houses in the neighborhood. That probably contributed to his 1949 Tour being a disaster—he quit the race and was on the verge of quitting cycling too. Ultimately though he wanted the fame and the money too much. Bobet couldn’t see himself as a humble grocer and milk deliveryman. In the autumn of 1949, he won the Critérium de l’Ouest and decided to persevere.

hero of the izoard

In 1950, he finished third in the Tour, but in 1951 dropped to 20th and was again heavily criticized in the French newspapers. He didn’t ride in the 1952 Tour dominated by Coppi, and after his poor performance at the 1953 Giro few expected him to perform well at the Tour. Yet he flew up the Col d’Izoard with such fury and panache, and surely that showed us something of his character? To take so many setbacks and still have the hunger and the courage to make such an audacious attack is the mark of a champion.

Now that Bobet had answered his detractors, he grew in strength and confidence. Indeed, he won the next two Tours de France convincingly, and in 1954 took the world road race championship in the rain-soaked German town of Solingen. During his career he also won four cycling monuments: Milan–San Remo, Paris–Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and Tour of Lombardy.

As the first French Tour winner since fellow Breton Jean Robic in 1947, it’s not surprising that Bobet was popular with the public. He was a stylish rider, fastidious about his appearance and health, sometimes aloof, always professional. When he rode, he raced. Whichever group he was in, Bobet would sprint hard for the line. Not only was this good training, it also endeared him to the fans.

His dominance of the Tour de France, though relatively brief, came at a crucial time in the history of the event and its host nation. After the Tour’s long break through World War II, the race set about re-establishing itself as cycling’s flagship event. Like Prudhomme, postwar race director Jacques Goddet introduced innovative ideas, though without turning the race on its head. He understood that the appeal of the Tour lay in creating legends. Innovation, like introducing the green jersey competition in 1953 and the Tour’s first foreign start in 1954, helped to modernize the race—but it was exploits like that of Bobet on the Izoard that made the Tour deeply loved.

Like the Tour, France was attempting to find its way in the postwar world. If, by the early 1950s, the physical scars in the landscape were beginning to heal, the psychological scars were still raw. Occupation, collaboration and resistance had divided the nation. Now a new political and economic reality was developing, and France had to keep pace. The loss of its colony of Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), whose war and bloodiest battles coincided with Bobet’s reign at the Tour, was felt keenly by the French people. While no one could compare Tour de France victories to the loss of an empire, Bobet’s redemption did at least provide a comforting distraction.

Louison Bobet was a champion, but he wasn’t invincible. His fans saw him struggle, they experienced his pain with him, and they rejoiced in his successes. He was not head and shoulders above his rivals; indeed, he was frequently defined by the press in relation to his peers—Bartali, Coppi, Hugo Koblet, Charly Gaul et al. Barthes described Bobet as a “Promethean hero; he has a magnificent fighter’s temperament, an acute sense of organization, he is a calculator, he aims realistically at winning…. In 1955, he had to face a heavy solitude. Without Koblet or Coppi, having to struggle with their ghosts, without declared rivals, powerful and solitary, everything was a threat to him, danger could appear from anywhere and everywhere.”

By 1958 Bobet’s body was beginning to fail him. That year he came seventh in his final Tour de France, but everyone could see that he was finished. Two years later he and his younger brother Jean were involved in a serious car accident when returning from a charity dinner. Louison’s legs were badly injured, making his retirement from cycling inevitable. After a long recovery spent by the sea in Finistère, Bobet had the idea to open his own thalassotherapy health centre and spent considerable time, energy and money getting the project off the ground. The Louison Bobet Thalassotherapy Centre in Quiberon opened in 1964 and was successful from its inception. The same rigor and hard work that Bobet applied to his cycling career he applied to being an entrepreneur.

After retirement, he said, “There is one thing that scares me; it is to think that someday I will walk in a street and nobody will recognize me. Being popular is what kept me pedaling, and I think the same goes for all riders. Those who claim otherwise are fibbers.”

That’s a comment worth remembering when the stars of the Tour de France next fight their way across the brutal slopes of the Col d’Izoard’s Casse Déserte.

From issue 60