Roger Walkowiak: The Persecuted Champion
Words: James Startt w/images by Startt & Horton Collection
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THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS TO WIN THE TOUR DE FRANCE. Big champions like Eddy Merckx or today’s Chris Froome often use overwhelming power in both the mountains and the time trials. Others such as Louison Bobet or Greg LeMond relied more on resilience and consistency. But there is another way, a much rarer form of winning the world’s biggest bike race. It’s called à la Walko’.
Roger Walkowiak, who died on February 6 shortly before his 90th birthday, was one of the least known and least heralded Tour de France champions. He was also the most original. But while his 1956 Tour victory goes down as one of the sport’s greatest upsets, Walkowiak spent much of his life trying to live it down—he mostly remembered the ridicule and general lack of respect he garnered from the press and the established leaders in the sport. So bitter was Walkowiak, that he quit racing only a few years later, slamming the door on the sport and only rarely returning to the cycling scene decades later.
Image: Horton Collection
Because Walkowiak seemingly came out of nowhere to win the Tour and because he came into the race with only modest results, he was little regarded by the big champions of the day. He generally could not climb in the same league as specialists like Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul or Spain’s Federico Bahamontes. And he did not have the oversized personality of legendary French riders Raphaël Geminiani, Bobet or the up-and-coming Jacques Anquetil. Finally, because he struggled to confirm the promise that Tour victory bestowed on him in the years that followed, he was quickly overlooked in the annals of the sport.
The son of Polish immigrants, Walkowiak grew up in the town of Montluçon in central France. He grew up under Nazi occupation in World War II when riding the family bike around town with friends provided a perfect escape. He continued to cycle after the war after he began working in a metallurgy factory, and by this point he had started bike racing on weekends.
“I actually turned professional because I couldn’t find a job,” Walkowiak recalled during an interview with him at his home in Vichy in 2011. “I started doing local races around the area. There were races all over the region. Every village would have a bike race when they had a little celebration. But when I finished my military service there was no more work for me at the factory. So I started racing again. I got good results right away and after a year I got picked up by a small professional team…hmm, let me see, what was the name of that team, Riva-Sport? Yes, that was it, Riva-Sport. It was just a regional team. But I only stayed there for a year. Then I signed for Gitane-Hutchinson.”
From there Walkowiak moved up to other respected teams at the time including Saint-Raphaël-Geminiani and Peugeot-BP-Dunlop, and he would occasionally be called up to represent the French national team. But while he was a solid rider, Walkowiak was never confused with the tenors of his time. These were the days when cycling teams were built around a single leader. And Walko’ was no leader. “I was never one of them,” he remembered.
Nevertheless, in 1955, Walkowiak garnered attention when he rivaled Louison Bobet at the Critérium du Dauphiné-Libéré, a key warm-up to Bobet’s third Tour de France victory. As a result, Walkowiak was selected for the French national team for the 1956 Vuelta a España, which then held in April-May. He rode so strongly in the Spanish mountains that his team leader, Gilbert Bauvin, struggled to hold his wheel. Yet, nevertheless, he was overlooked by the French national team come July, and the only team he could find to ride for at the Tour that year was the negligible Nord-Est-Centre regional team. “It was the worst team in the race,” Walkowiak recalled flatly.
Although he could not rely on a strong team, he knew that the 1956 Tour would be one of the most open and unpredictable. Bobet, the three-time defending champion, opted not to ride due to injury, while a certain Jacques Anquetil, who had just shattered Fausto Coppi’s world hour record, was still considered too young for the rigors of a three-week Tour. Although he did not consider himself capable of winning at the start of the Tour, Walkowiak came ready to attack: “I just told myself, ‘Bon sang! You’ve got to try something!’”
Without Bobet, the French national team had no designated leader and no real motivation to control the race. For many, the big favorite was Gaul. But the Luxembourg climber was too focused on the mountains. As it turned out, the 1956 Tour was won on the flats. There were daily attacks in the opening stages, and Walkowiak understood that he was in la bonne échappée, the good break, on stage 7, when a group of nearly 30 riders grabbed more than an 18-minute gap on the peloton.
“I ACTUALLY TURNED PROFESSIONAL BECAUSE I COULDN’T FIND A JOB”
As the best-placed rider in the breakaway, it was Walkowiak who grabbed the coveted yellow jersey.
And when he eventually won the Tour two weeks later, his victory was greeted with mixed applause at best, because many scoffed at his opportunism. Race director Jacques Goddet, however, championed Walkowiak, as he understood the Tour’s unique ability to inspire riders to greatness. But most members of the press, along with certain riders, were less kind. “Charly Gaul is a thoroughbred,” wrote L’Équipe journalist Michel Clare. “Walkowiak is a half-breed.”
But such criticism overlooked the savvy that Walkowiak possessed throughout the three-week race that year. To be the best-placed rider in the key breakaway, Walkowiak had gained time in numerous breakaways earlier in the race. And while some considered him a half-breed, he rode with full-blooded brilliance throughout the race. Understanding that his modest team could never defend the leader’s jersey for the remaining two weeks, Walkowiak gave it up before the race hit the Pyrénées. But he did not abandon his ambition, and remained in contention throughout the mountain stages, finally grabbing the yellow jersey back on the final day in the Alps (see “Walko’ Remembers His Alps Masterpiece”).
The French national team riders, however, received daily criticism for their lack of initiative and the fact that they had been upstaged by a lowly “regional” rider. As a result they kept the pressure on Walkowiak, even breaking the unspoken rule of the Tour and attacking the yellow jersey when he had a mechanical problem.
Image: Horton Collection
“During the race, things happened that shouldn’t,” Walkowiak recalled. “There was the stage to Saint-Étienne after I had won back the yellow jersey. I crashed and Gilbert Bauvin, who was then in second place, attacked me with a group of favorites that included Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes. When I got back on my bike I was two minutes down and spent the next two hours chasing them. And when I caught them, what did they do? They each took turns attacking! I just let them go, get a hundred meters and then rode tempo behind them until they got caught. After a while they gave up and just sat up. Why did they react like this I don’t know. Was it because my father was a Polish immigrant and I had a name not like the others?”
Walkowiak’s Tour victory was not the first to come under fire. In 1929, Belgian Tour winner Maurice Dewaele was compared to a draft horse. But to stand in the spotlight of the Tour often requires a certain degree of confidence. And Walkowiak was likely too thin-skinned to support the pressure for long.
The following year, after accepting an invitation to ride a race in North Africa, Walkowiak fell ill. He claimed that he never reached his full potential again. His inability to confirm his Tour de France victory only bolstered his critics. Disheartened, he briefly raced as a semi-pro, until a bad crash ended his athletic career. He opened a bar near his hometown of Montluçon before returning to work as a lathe operator in a newly opened factory, where he worked until retirement age, shutting himself off from the sport and refusing to return for decades.
It was only in 1990, at age 63, that he finally accepted an invitation to return to the Tour from L’Humanité, the daily newspaper of the French Communist Party, as he himself was an active trade union member and a card-carrying party member. “Until he showed up, we didn’t know if he would actually come,” remembers Jean-Emmanuel Ducoin, who is the editor-in-chief of the paper today. “But along with René Vietto, he was one of the heroes of the paper and we really wanted him to come. And boy was he glad he did. I’ll never forget. He just cried all day.”
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme has a similar memory of Walkowiak when they met in 2008: “He was just such a sensitive person. As soon as you started talking about the 1956 Tour he would break down.”
But why did Walko’ feel so ostracized? Was it because he was Polish? Ducoin thinks not. “I know he has mentioned the fact that he was a Polish immigrant, but I really don’t think that had anything to do with it. The Tour de France peloton after World War II was very international already, and after the war national divisions didn’t have much of a place like they did earlier in the century. No, Roger was just a very timid, very sensitive person and the whole à la Walko’ thing just became a terrible weight for him.”
WALKO’ REMEMBERS HIS ALPS MASTERPIECE
“Once we got to the Alps, I knew it was time to put the cards on the table. The first big stage was Gap-Turin. There were four climbs and on each one I found myself with a couple of others like Charly Gaul and Stan Ockers. We would always then get caught in the valley, but on each climb we rode away from the pack. The next day was Turin to Grenoble, the last big day in the Alps, and I knew I had to do something, I knew I had to get the jersey back. On the Croix de Fer climb, I knew that it got really steep when we passed through a village 7 kilometers from the summit. So when we passed through the village I just gave it everything I had.
“When we finished the descent I had a two-minute gap, but there were still 70 kilometers to Grenoble. I kept going down the valley into a headwind. My director wanted me to stop and wait for the others but I said no, because I knew that if they caught me they would stop riding. I was wasted at the foot of the last climb [the Luitel]. Gaul, Ockers and the Italian, what was his name, Nencini, caught me. But I was well ahead of them all on the overall classification and I just shifted into my smallest gear so I could get over the last climb. And that’s the day I won the yellow jersey.”
World War II was very international already, and after the war national divisions didn’t have much of a place like they did earlier in the century. No, Roger was just a very timid, very sensitive person and the whole à la Walko’ thing just became a terrible weight for him.”
“He must have been so proud the day he won,” says Prudhomme. “But then over time it became just a big burden for him because everyone talked about the surprise, the fact that this little rider beat the greats. And it wasn’t always perceived as positive. Today, if a rider won like he did, he would be considered a pure genius! But in 1956 that wasn’t the case.”
Indeed, the 1956 Tour de France was worlds away from the Tours of today. Back then there had yet to be a five-time winner. Just one year earlier, Bobet had become only the second rider to win three times, but he could not defend his title. Postwar France, however, yearned for greatness and the Tour de France had a key role in rebuilding France’s confidence. French fans yearned for idols. It was a very different world from today’s Tour where fans have become blasé and even overtly skeptical of any rider’s domination.
“He was a surprise winner. And we told him so many times that he really suffered from it,” says Prudhomme. “But tomorrow, if there was a Tour à la Walko’, I think everyone would be really happy because it would be a Tour de France full of surprises.”
Over the years, few riders came close to duplicating Walkowiak’s exploit. Both Claudio Chiappucci in 1990 and Thomas Voeckler in 2011 profited from an early breakaway to grab the yellow jersey and suddenly vie for victory. Both were true Cinderella stories, but both riders ultimately fell short in the final week of race—the very moment where Walkowiak responded with nothing short of brilliant panache.
And for that, his role in the history of the Tour de France continues to rise.
For cycling fans he is not only a name—Walko’—but also an entire expression. “Le Tour à la Walko,” says Prudhomme. “He is a rider that won the Tour. He only won it once. But his name represents much more than that of an ordinary rider.”
James Startt on Instagram: @jstartt