I was asked to write a feature about the recent Tour de France recently for a magazine here in Asia and instead pitched them an idea about a story called ‘The Unknown Tour de France.’ The idea was to introduce readers to some of the characters from Tours gone by who are in large part forgotten, or unknown to many younger fans.
Huge natural talent, death threats and drug abuse, this ‘angel’ soared above his peers and then descended into obscurity.
Charly Gaul (1932 – 2005) was a cyclist from Luxembourg, active on professional teams from 1953 to 1965. Gaul did not look much like a cyclist however, with very short legs and a countenance that was often remarked upon. In basic terms, he looked by all accounts a bit of a miserable so an so.
A journalist from the period once described him as having “a sad, timid look on his face, marked with an unfathomable melancholy [as though] an evil deity has forced him into a cursed profession amidst powerful, implacable riders.”
Yet this diminutive man with the sad face who worked in a slaughterhouse before his cycling ability brought him fame, who won 60 races as an amateur, made an immediate impression. He won a stage up the climb of Grossglockner and set a new record to boot during the Tour of Austria when he was 17, his debut outside of Luxembourg.
He went on to win the 1958 Tour de France, taking ten stages between 1953-1963, and also won two Giro d’Italia, in 1956 and 1959, becoming the first non-Italian to do so.
His weight of 64kg allowed him to climb ferociously, and he earned the nickname the ‘Angel of the Mountains.’ His time up the legendary Tour de France mountain, Mt. Ventoux, 1h 2m 9s, stood for an incredible 41 years until it was broken.
At that ’58 Tour he was fighting against the French great, Louison Bobet, who had angered him earlier in the race. On the last day in the Alps, Gaul rode up to Bobet and told him exactly when he intended to attack.
“You’re ready, Monsieur Bobet?” laying disdain thick on the title. “I’ll give you a chance. I’ll attack on the Luitel climb. I’ll even tell you which hairpin. You want to win the Tour more than I do? Easy. I’ve told you what you need to know.”
Gaul went on to win the stage ahead of Bobet by over 12 minutes, and with that, he also won the Tour and rode into cycling history. The seed of Gaul’s dislike of Bobet had been sown the year before at the Giro, when Bobet and Gastone Nancini attacked when Gaul was taking a nature break. He lost the race as a result. Almost blind with fury, the Luxembourger found the Frenchman at the finish and delivered a chilling threat:
“I will get my revenge. I will kill you. Remember I was a butcher. I know how to use a knife.”
Add to his temper his disdain for most of his peers and his habit of refusing to share out prize money to teammates, it’s not surprising that he was generally disliked by the peloton. Another commentator, Charlie Woods, wrote that “his eloquence and assurance seemed reserved for the bike, and the bike alone.”
The writer Jan Heine said: “Nobody else ever climbed that fast. Gaul dominated the climbs of the late 1950s, spinning up the hills at amazing cadences, his legs a blur while his cherubic face hardly showed the strain of his exceptional performances.”
Pierre Chany called him “without doubt, one of the three or four best climbers of all time.”
Philippe Brunel of the French newspaper L’Equipe said: “In the furnace of the 1950s, Gaul seemed to ride not against Bahamontes, Anquetil Adriessens, but against oppressive phantoms, to escape his modest origins, riding the ridges to new horizons, far from the life without surprises which would have been his had he stayed in Luxembourg.”
The ‘unfathomable melancholy’, the ‘oppressive phantoms’ noted by these writers, they were observations not without some basis in reality.
After Gaul retired his marriage broke down and it scarred him deeply. He basically became a hermit, moving into a small hut in a forest deep in the Luxembourg Ardennes. There, he wore the same clothes every day and went walking with his dog, Pocki. He removed his name from the phone book. He went to the nearest town infrequently and shopkeepers who met him spoke of a man who was ill and depressed. When journalists found him to ask more he confirmed he was distressed but declined, saying: “I’m sorry but it was all so long ago. Please leave me in peace. I’m just an old grumbler.” He appeared now and then anonymously beside the road during the Tour de France, unrecognisable with a beard, straggling hair and a paunch. Those who did speak with him said his memory was shot.
One possible contributing factor to Gaul’s rambling state may have been his fondness for amphetamines when he was a racer. He would pop so many that he was often seen to be frothing at the mouth during stages.
Jacques Goddet director of the Tour from 1936 to 1986, spoke of Gaul dribbling during his record ride up Mont Ventoux: “Yes, it was without doubt the first time that I saw the soft and thin face of the Luxembourger, who never shows signs of suffering, running with the sweat of pain, the dribble of effort flooding his shaven chin and sticking to his chest in long dirty ropes.”
His rival, the great Spanish climber Enrico Bahamontes, said that the heat suited Gaul best “because the others couldn’t take as much amphetamine.”
Marcel Ernzer, Gaul’s domestique, famously recalled a conversation with Gaul:
Charly’s going to die said Gaul.
Why do you say that?
Because Charly takes too many pills.
But everybody takes them.
Yes, but Charly a lot more than the others.
Jacquest Anquetil, a contemporary of Gaul, continued his amphetamine abuse after he retired. One wonders whether Gaul did the same.
But there is a happy ending. In 1983 he married again and began to appear on television for interviews when the Tour de France was on. He was invited back to the Tour on several occasions and would answer questions out to him by the crowd, and whilst the fans still loved him, it was obvious to all that there was something still amiss with the old Luxembourger.
But that’s Charly! Charly Gaul! The ‘Angel of the Mountains’!