Charly Gaul, by all accounts, was an enigmatic rider. Perhaps the first modern climbing specialist, ‘the winged climber’ raced amid the golden post-1945 era of Bobet, Geminiani, Bahamontes, and Anquetil. Gaul’s incredible climbing feats were punctuated, however, by boughts of anonymity in the peloton and his eventual disappearance from cycling altogether.
His place amongst the greats was ensured by two spectacular grand tour wins. In 1956 he won the Giro d’Italia, securing victory on an epic mountain stage from Merano to Trento – now commemorated in Italy – in which the leaders dropped away in dire weather conditions including snow and sub-zero temperatures. Gaul won the 242 km stage by over 7 minutes amid chaotic scenes of other riders abandoning, although he had to receive medical attention at the finish and later said that he could not remember the last 3 kilometres of the climb.
Gaul had abandoned his first two attempts at the Tour de France, in 1953 and 1954. In 1955 he stunned observers with an overall 3rd place, built around two stage wins in the mountains and the KOM prize.
He rode strongly in the 1956 Tour, but was only able to achieve 13th. He again took two stages and the KOM prize. This time he bested Spanish climbing ace Frederico Bahamontes (who had won the KOM in 1954 and would do so another five times), but only by the narrow margin of 71 to 67 points. One of Gaul’s stage wins, however, was the epic 250 km mountain stage from Turin in Italy to Grenoble where Gaul waited until after the Col de la Croix de Fer to make his move and led over the Col Luitel into Grenoble.
Gaul had also claimed the Giro mountains prize in 1956, becoming the first rider since Fausto Coppi to win the mountains prize in both the Giro and the Tour in the same year (only Lucien Van Impe in 1983 and Claudio Chiappucci in 1992 would repeat this feat). But obviously suited to adverse conditions, he dropped out of the 1957 Tour on stage 2 due to the very hot weather.
Gaul was in devastating form in 1958, taking four stages and overall victory. His stage wins included beating The Master, one Jacques Anquetil, in the opening time trial and putting 31 seconds into Bahamontes on the uphill time trial on Mont Ventoux, despite Bahamontes having shown seemingly unbeatable climbing form in the Pyrennes on his way to the KOM prize.
In the final stage in the Alps, on another rain-soaked day, Gaul was keen to put his mechanical problems of the previous day behind him. The 219 km stage from Briancon to Aix-les-Bains included the Col de Lauteret (2058m), the Col Luitel (1262m), then – after Grenoble – the Col de Porte (1326m), the Col du Cucheron (1139m), and the Col du Granier (1134m). As the weather worsened, Gaul gained more time and his challengers were powerless to catch him as he led over the final three climbs.
With Geminiani now trailing by 15 minutes, and the French team wracked by internal rivalries, the 1958 Tour belonged to Gaul. The French philosopher, Roland Barthes, said that he was the “new angel of the mountains” and, somewhat curiously, the “Rimbaud of the Tour”, a reference to the cherubic wild-child but hugely influential French poet, Arthur Rimbaud.
It seemed that 1958 was the peak of his powers at the Tour, and that he was more suited to the mountains of the Giro – winning it in 1959 while placing 12th in the Tour with one stage win. In the Giro, he beat Anquetil by just over 6 minutes. Anquetil looked to have the upper hand in many of the stages, but on the massive 296 km final mountain stage (which Gaul finished in 9 hours, 32 mins) Anquetil lost over 9 minutes and effectively the race.
Gaul rode the Giro in 1960 and placed 3rd (Anquetil won), but not the Tour, while in 1961 he placed 4th at the Giro but bounced back in the Tour for 3rd again with one stage win.In 1962 he was 9th, but in 1963, his final Tour, he failed to finish. The mountains remained his domain, but he lost the KOM prize to Bahamontes in 1959 and 1962, and to Italian Imerio Massignan in 1961 (who was fourth overall).
Gaul’s Tour win in 1958 was 30 years after his countryman Nicholas Frantz won in 1928. Luxembourg riders have had 63 stage wins between 1903 and 2005 (ten for Charly Gaul), with the last one in 1966, according to Tour records. Frank Schleck’s win on l’Alpe d’Huez in 2006 therefore broke a forty-year drought. The Tour never ascended l’Alpe during Gaul’s racing career and one can’t help but wonder, if it had, whether Gaul’s name would now grace one of les 21 virages.
Beyond his exploits in the mountains, Gaul has provided an interesting legacy with several connections to modern racing: his climbing style, his ascent of Mont Ventoux, and his relationship with Marco Pantani. These connections are explored in part 2.
Gaul in le maillot jaune