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International Road
Charly Gaul dies at 72
By John Wilcockson
VeloNews editorial director
This report filed December 6, 2005

Gaul in stage 17 of the 1959 Tour

photo: AFP (file photo)

One of cycling's greatest-ever climbers, Charly Gaul of Luxembourg, died on Tuesday, two days short of his 73rd birthday. Gaul was hospitalized after a fall at his home in Itzig, 10km outside Luxembourg City, and died shortly before noon from a pulmonary embolism. He leaves a wife and a daughter.

Gaul is best remembered for his exploits in the mountain stages of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, particularly in adverse weather conditions. He won the Giro in 1956 and 1959 and the Tour in 1958. At the Tour, Gaul was handicapped by racing in the era of national teams because Luxembourg, a nation of only 400,000 people, was generally one of the weakest teams in the race.

After an amateur career that included more than 60 race wins, Gaul turned professional at age 20 in May 1953. A month later, he won the King of the Mountains title and finished second overall at the prestigious Dauphiné Libéré stage race. And right after that he started the Tour de France for the first time, pulling out on the sixth stage.

In setting a pattern, Gaul's first victory as a professional came in 1954 at the mountainous Circuit of the Six Provinces, where he took the third stage and the overall win. He then came in fourth at the Dauphiné, after winning the stage that crossed the mighty Col du Galibier in wintry conditions. At the Tour de France, he was lying in 10th place when he pulled out on stage 12. His talent was confirmed at the 1954 world road championship in Solingen, Germany, where Gaul took the bronze medal on a hilly circuit behind French star Louison Bobet and the Swiss, Fritz Schär.

Gaul's true breakthrough came in 1955, at age 22, in the Tour de France. Because of his weak team, after the opening week he was lying 26 minutes behind the race leader, Antoine Rolland of France. Then came the eighth stage from Thonon-les-Bains to Briançon.

On the 253km, eight-hour stage, Gaul attacked early over the Col des Aravis, and never stopped increasing his lead on the Télégraphe and Galibier climbs. At 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, Gaul was a born climber, and his fast-pedaling style (decades before Lance Armstrong brought high-cadence climbing back into style) was irresistible. He ended that stage almost 14 minutes ahead of race favorites Louison Bobet of France, Jean Brankart of Belgium and Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, and moved into third place overall. He ended the 1955 Tour as the King of the Mountains and in third overall, behind Bobet and Brankart.

At 23, Gaul's career took a major turn when he moved from the French team, Terrot, to race in Italy for Faema-Guerra. He entered the Giro for the first time, and did not do particularly well in the first two weeks, other than taking the ninth stage in the Apennines with a solo break and then taking a short (2.45km) hill climb on stage 15.

Going into stage 20 from Merano to the Monte Bondone summit, Gaul was lying more than 16 minutes behind race leader Pasquale Fornara with only three days of the race remaining. This was Gaul's last chance to move up the rankings. He sprinted to take the KoM points over the Costalunga, Rolle and Brocon climbs, but Fornara and the other top riders ahead of Gaul all looked strong as they headed toward Monte Bondone above the city of Trento.

The weather turned colder and colder, and on the long, steep slopes of the Giro's final mountain, light snow soon turned to a full blizzard as the temperature dropped to freezing point. Fornara was overcome by the cold and took refuge in a farmhouse. Other race leaders rode to a standstill before keeling over in the ditches. Some stopped to drink hot chocolate or dip their freezing hands in bowls of hot water offered by the spectators.

Gaul racing stage 18 of the 1958 Tour, which he won

photo: AFP (file photo)

In all, 46 of the day's 89 starters would pull out. Gaul just kept on going. He was on his own after 10km of the 14km climb, riding through the thickening snow in his usual smooth style. He arrived at the finish almost eight minutes ahead of the second man, Alessandro Fantini, and 12:15 ahead of defending champion Fiorenzo Magni.

His face a wrinkled mess, his hands and feet turned blue, Gaul took the pink jersey, and won the Giro two days later by 3:27 over Magni. The young Luxembourger had etched his name into the annals of not only cycling, but all sports with one of the courageous and remarkable upsets in modern times.

Nor surprisingly, after that debilitating Giro, Gaul did not have a great Tour that year: He came in 13th overall, but again won the KoM title, along with two stages, a 15km time trial and the major mountain stage across the Alps.

In 1957, he came in fourth at the Giro, winning two stages, but throwing the race away when he was the leader on the stage from Como to Monte Bondone. He lost 10 minutes stupidly when his main opponents attacked on the flat part of the stage after Gaul stopped for a pee.

The opening days of the 1957 Tour were raced in a heat wave. It was too hot for Gaul, who pulled out on the second stage, while a young Jacques Anquetil went on to win his debut Tour. Anquetil would thus be the Tour favorite a year later, which started only 18 days after Gaul finished third at the Giro.

At the 1958 Tour, Gaul rode on a slightly stronger team: He was one of three Luxembourgers, the rest of the team being Dutch. But they wouldn't be much help in the mountains. Gaul did win the stage 8 time trial (by seven seconds over Anquetil), but by the time the Tour had crossed the Pyrenees, with a week of the race remaining, Gaul was down in 10th place. He was more than 10 minutes behind the Italian race leader Vito Favero, who held a 27-second lead on French team rider Raphaël Geminiani, with Anquetil in eighth.

After brilliantly winning the 21km time trial up Mont Ventoux on stage 18, Gaul moved into third overall, only 3:43 behind new leader Geminiani. But the erratic Luxembourg rider seemed to throw away the race the next day when he lost 12 minutes to a break in a rolling stage to Gap. The break was powered by the French national team, with Geminiani consolidating his lead over Favero, and Anquetil moving up to third.

The hot weather worked against Gaul on the first alpine stage to Briançon, where he was in sixth overall, but a massive 16 minutes behind yellow jersey Geminiani. With just one mountain stage to go and the French in control, it looked as though the Tour was over.

Then came the 210km stage 21 from Briançon to Aix-les-Bains. Rain was in the forecast and by the time the riders reached the day's second climb, the Col du Luitel, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees and rain was falling. As in the 1956 Giro, Gaul was ready to make the most of the awful conditions and shoot for a victory - at least in the stage.

Chasing an earlier break, Gaul spun away from Geminiani and company in a solo move up the 10-percent slopes of the narrow Luitel climb. On reaching Grenoble, with three more climbs over the Chartreuse Massif to go, he was in the lead by two minutes over a group containing Anquetil and Geminiani.

Gaul on the Col de Porte during stage 21, preparing to descend in a pouring rain

photo: AFP (file photo)

The first of the three climbs, the Col de Porte, was the longest, and as Gaul sped clear, the French were in disarray. Anquetil said he couldn't breathe properly in the torrential cold rain, and Geminiani was pretty much left to his own devices, later accusing his teammates of being Judases. Geminiani was 5:30 behind Gaul at the Porte summit, 7:50 back on the Cucheron, and 12:20 on the Granier. The race leader pedaled into Aix with three others in seventh place, 14:35 behind stage winner Gaul, He had lost the yellow jersey by 39 seconds to Favero.

Gaul had jumped into third place, just 1:07 out of the lead, and he easily overcame that deficit two days later in a 74km time trial from Besançon to Dijon. Geminiani took fifth on the stage, 3:03 back, whille Favero was seventh at 3:17. By Paris, Gaul was the Tour winner by 3:10 on Favero. It was the Luxembourger's greatest triumph.

Gaul would race as a pro for another seven years, winning a second Giro in 1959 (by 6:12 over Anquetil thanks to a brilliant solo break on the penultimate stage), but the 1958 Tour victory remained his career highlight.

After his career ended in 1965 in a series of poor performances, Gaul left the sport and for several years lived the life of a hermit in the woods of his native Luxembourg. He grew a beard, put on a lot of weight and rejected efforts by the media to interview him.

Gaul in 2001, with Bernard Hinault

photo: AFP (file photo)

Gaul reconnected with the sport after being an invited guest of the Tour de France when it started in Luxembourg in 1989. Gaul later befriended Italian climber Marco Pantani, who journeyed to Gaul's home to seek his advice. Now, almost two years after Pantani's demise, Gaul has died in sad circumstances. Both were in the select band of cyclists to have won both the Tour and the Giro.

In a tribute to Gaul on Tuesday evening, Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc told the Agence-France-Presse, "He was not at all a nostalgic person. On the contrary, he immersed himself in modern-day cycling, much like a fan, I haven't known many champions like him."

Gaul raced in a different era, and his like will never be seen again. Next year, will be the 50th anniversary of his extraordinary come-from-behind victory on the Giro's Monte Bondone climb. The 2006 Giro returns there for the stage 16 finish on May 23. Gaul was due to be an invited guest that day. Now, just memories of that apocalyptic 1956 stage through the snow and its extraordinary winner will remain.