Great Escapes (Part 3)
In Pursuit of Yellow
|The Angel of the Mountains 1958
||Charly Gaul earned his nickname ‘The Angel of the Mountains' for his astonishing ability to ride up the great mountains of Europe.
SPECIAL NOTE: In this final part in our series on ‘great escapes' we go back to 1958. By all reckoning Charly Gaul was way out of GC contention with one final mountain stage to go. Throwing all caution to the wind he rode away from the field, got within striking distance of GC and then, as Landis did this year, secured overall victory in the final TT.
The Angel of the Mountains
By 1958 Charly Gaul had already established himself as one of the leading riders of his era. He won the Giro in 1956 with a legendary ‘ great escape ' during a snow storm. Before that icy ride he was 16 minutes back on GC. At the end of the day he not only secured his Giro win but also added another chapter to the stories of his legendary climbing abilities. Although a highly accomplished time trailer, Gaul earned his nickname ‘The Angel of the Mountains' for his astonishing ability to ride up the great mountains of Europe .
Gaul 's career ran parallel to that of Federico Bahamontes, The Eagle of Toledo, who is generally considered to be the greatest climber of all time. As a result the somewhat eccentric and introverted Gaul was often required to expose his incredible climbing talents in order to overcome Bahamontes.
To put Gaul 's Tour 1958 ‘great escape' into perspective it is necessary to understand the background to the story. Here we are comparing Gaul 's ride to that of Landis's 2006 solo epic on Stage 17. Gaul , like Landis, was coming from an apparently insurmountable time handicap from the race leader. However Gaul had not lost his time as the result of a spectacularly bad day such as Landis suffered.
For most of the 1958 Tour Gaul had remained within striking distance of the race leadership. Through erratic riding, which was the hallmark of this somewhat unpredictable rider, he would have good days followed by days where he would lose small amounts of time. On the Stage 8 ITT he shocked the world when he beat Jacques Anquetil by 7 seconds. This should have been a clear warning to the rest of the field.
Unfortunately for Gaul the days following his great race against the clock were hot and steamy. These were conditions that caused him to suffer greatly. He persisted until Stage 18 where he won the 21.5km time trial up Mont Ventoux from Bahamontes. The next day race leader Raphaël Géminiani and second placed Vito Favero, managed to take 10 minutes out of Gaul over a tough mountainous route. But Gaul 's problems that day were mechanical and not physical.
Playing into Gaul 's favor throughout this race was the fact that the French riders were far from united. Géminiani believed that his time had finally come to win the Tour, but Louisan Bobet (winner in 1953, 1954 and 1955) and Anquetil (winner in 1957) were not predisposed to acting like domestiques for the emotional Géminiani. Even so Géminiani managed to add a few more seconds to his buffer over Gaul on Stage 20 from Gap to Briancon. Gaul was now a very distant 16:03 minutes from the race lead.
Stage 21, 219km from Briancon to Aix-les-Bains, was a day perfectly designed for Gaul. Conditions were appalling with heavy, icy-cold rain blanketing the day in the mountains. Enjoy may be the wrong description for Gaul 's tolerance of such conditions, but he clearly had a much higher resistance level to wet and frigid temperatures than most riders. Before the stage started Gaul told Bobet exactly where he would attack on the first climb of the day, the Col Luitel. True to his word Gaul attacked precisely at his designated place. Bahamontes went with him but considering the weather and that there was still 100km to go, ‘The Eagle ' soon dropped back and left ‘The Angel ' to fly on without him.
Once alone Gaul was seen to be smiling to himself as he demonstrated why he was called ‘The Angel of the Mountains' . He knew that behind him the French team would be in disarray and that most of the rest of the field gave him little chance to survive on his own in such extreme conditions. Over the Col de Porte Gaul led by 5:30 minutes as a sick Anquetil cracked under the pressure from the frozen peloton. Gaining all the time, Gaul was 7:50 minutes ahead on the Col du Cucheron and 12:20 on the Col du Granier. Behind him Géminiani despaired in frigid misery which was amplified by the fact that the French team refused to help him with the chase to protect his Yellow Jersey.
Gaul eventually arrived in Aix-les-Bains 7:50 minutes ahead of Jan Adriaenssens and 10:09 minutes ahead of third placed Favero. More importantly Géminiani was 7th at 14:35, Bobet, 10th at 19:01 and Anquetil 14th at 23:14. This shake up put Favero in the Yellow Jersey with Géminiani at 39 seconds and Gaul now third at 1:07 minutes. The ever vocal Géminiani exploded with Gallic petulance at the stage finish as only he could and accused his team of being Judases. At 33 years of age, he was convinced that his own team and ‘The Angel ' had robbed him of probably his last chance to win the Tour. He knew full well that the 74km time trial on Stage 23 would seal his fate. Sure enough Gaul not only won the final test against the watch, he simply decimated the field. Next day he rode into Paris to win his only Tour by 3:10 minutes.
Coming from behind, riding in majestic solitude through the mountains and then sealing the victory with a superb time trial was the formula for both Gaul and Landis. For Gaul the 1958 Tour is seen as the high point in a career rich in tremendous displays of cycling superiority.
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