As mentioned in part 1, Charly Gaul has several interesting connections to modern racing.
First, his climbing style. By historical accounts, Gaul may have been the first to pioneer high-cadence pedalling for climbing, ahead of the approach developed by Chris Carmichael and Lance Armstrong (apparently inspired by Miguel Indurain). Observers speak of Gaul’s gear choice, a metronomic spin, and immovable upper body to minimise wasted energy.
Once Gaul fired up his climbing spin, only the best could stay with him on the climbs – and were often left behind to watch in frustration as he beat out his inexorable tempo. “Always the same rhythm,” was how Raphael Geminiani reportedly described him. “A little machine with a slightly higher gear than the rest, turning his legs at a speed that would break your heart.”
This style served him well for time-trialling as well, where he achieved excellent results, although obviously he did not use as small of a gear. For climbing, then, he seems to have adopted a technique of favouring his cardiovascular system over leg strength and demonstrated an ability, like Armstrong nearly 40 years later, to sustain the resultant tempo for long periods of time.
The second connection is Gaul’s record on Mont Ventoux, where he demonstrated his climbing style in exemplary form. In 1958, the year that Gaul won the Tour de France, stage 18 was a time trial from Bedoin to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Gaul’s time was 1h02’09” and he bested his great rival Frederico Bahamontes by 31″ and Jacques Anquetil (who placed only 7th) by 4’09”.
This record stood until 1999, some 41 years, until American rider Jonathan Vaughters, riding for US Postal won the ITT stage 3 of the Dauphiné Libéré in 56’50”.
Interestingly, and signifying the advances in riding since the 1950s, Gaul’s time would have placed him only 28th. Still, as calculated by one trainer, given the weight of the bikes in Gaul’s time, Vaughters’ new record represented only an improvement of around 6% in terms of power output from Vaughters.
Even more interesting, was that Gaul had ended a period of a virtual solitary existence living as a recluse to become again involved in cycling and was on hand to congratulate Vaughters, cutting a curious figure so far from his dashing, Rimbaudian visage of times past.
Vaughters’ record would not last as long as Gaul’s. In 2004, a swashbuckling Iban Mayo – again in the Dauphiné – posted 55’51”, nearly a minute faster. Second placed Tyler Hamilton, with 55’26”, was also inside Vaughters’ time.
The third connection to the modern era was Gaul’s relationship with Marco Pantani. The Italian climbing genius sought Gaul out at the end of 1997, apparently facilitating in part Gaul’s return to a more public image. Pantani was inspired by Gaul’s exploits and was apparently seeking some additional inspiration and guidance.
Pantani later credited Gaul’s riding as a motivation and Pantani may have been thinking of Gaul on a particularly cold and rain-swept stage in the 1998 Tour de France. On stage 15, from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes, over 189km and including the climbs of the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Galibier, Pantani jumped away on the slopes of the latter and disappeared into the mist and rain, much like Gaul in 1958 on the stage to Aix-les-Bains.
Pantani won the stage and, more importantly, took the yellow jersey from Jan Ullrich who cracked and lost 8’57” and, eventually, the Tour. Appropriately, stage 16 the next day covered the three climbs – the Col de Porte, the Col du Cucheron, and the Col du Granier – as stage 21 in 1958, although the skies in 1998 were clear and Pantani could not best a revitalised Ullrich.
Gaul and Pantani were both enigmatic figures in cycling and the pupil failed to out-live his master with Pantani’s suicide in 2004. Gaul was on hand to congratulate stage winner Richard Virenque on Mont Ventoux in 2002, but died three years later in December 2005, leaving behind his legendary exploits to inspire a new generation.