Sunday 15 July 1951 saw the riders line up for the eleventh stage of the thirty-eighth Tour de France, a 175 kilometre run along a rolling route from Brive to Agen. The French domestique, Roger Leveque, was in the leader’s yellow jersey, the French star, Raphaël Géminiani, Le Grand Fusil, led the mountains classification, and the French national team sat atop the team classification. The other favourites for the overall, Frenchman Louison Bobet and the Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali were in contention, though several minutes down on the general classification. In seventh place overall was the young Swiss rider, Hugo Koblet, 7 minutes and 2 seconds behind Leveque and riding his first Tour.
A champion pursuiter (he won the Swiss national championship every year from 1947 to 1955), Koblet had sealed his road racing credentials in 1950 by winning the Swiss national road race championship and becoming the first non-Italian rider to win the Giro d’Italia. He had begun the 1951 Tour in form, attacking from the start of stage one with a solo breakaway of 40 kilometres before the peloton reeled him in. He won the 75 kilometre stage seven individual time trial in a time of 2 hours, 5 minutes, and 40 seconds, besting second placed Bobet by 59 seconds but only after an appeal by Koblet and his manager, Alex Burtin, to Tour boss Jacques Goddet. The timekeepers had initially awarded the win to Bobet by a margin of one second over Koblet. The Swiss argued that the intermediate times recorded for the two riders indicated that a win by Bobet was a virtual impossibility. Goddet agreed and Koblet was awarded the win and the one minute time bonus.
The stage from Brive to Agen followed three days in which Le Tour visited the Massif Central for the first time in its history. After three days of mountainous racing and with the Pyrenees ahead the stage was a transitional one in which the riders excepted to take it easy leaving the days racing to be decided by a sprint finish in the closing kilometre. An attack here would be suicide according to conventional racing wisdom. Koblet had other ideas.
37 kilometres into the race he attacked on a small climb in baking hot weather accompanied by the French rider Louis Deprez. The other general classification riders, aware of the Pyrenees and Alps yet to be scaled, let him go. With 138 kilometres of racing left that day they could be expected to pull Koblet back before the finish line while he burned himself out in what would no doubt be a futile effort.
After a few kilometres Koblet dropped Deprez and continued on alone. When the gap extended to four minutes the peloton began to organize itself to rein in the Swiss rider. A puncture forced Bobet to stop and two members of the French team were ordered back to pace him up to the peloton once more. As a result the pursuit lost momentum allowing Koblet to stay away for a crucial few more kilometres. Burtin drove up to him and asked, “How do you feel?”, to which Koblet replied, “Very good.”
with 70 kilometres to go he still held a three minute lead. By now all the big guns of professional cycling were pulling at the front of the peloton, with Bartali, Bobet, Coppi, Géminiani, Magni, Ockers, and Robic all taking turns to drive the pace. Despite their efforts Koblet continued to forge ahead, urged on by Burtin who told him to “Give it everything!” After 4 hours, 32 minutes, and 41 seconds of racing, Koblet crossed the finish line at Agen as winner of the stage. Not only had he held off the peloton with a great display of solo riding he had done so with style and panache. As the finish line approached Koblet blew kisses to the girls in the crowd and drew a sponge from his pocket. Dismounting his bike he rinsed his face in Perrier, drew a comb from his pocket and nonchalantly ran it through his hair before starting his stopwatch to record the time gap between himself and his rivals. By the time the peloton rolled into Agen behind Koblet 2 minutes and 35 seconds had elapsed.
His rivals were generous in their praise: “Koblet must have a motor under his chest” commented Lucien Lazarides; “If there were two Koblet’s in the sport I would retire from cycling tomorrow” Géminiani exclaimed; while Fiorenzi Magni marvelled “In the ten years that I have raced, I’ve never witnessed such an exploit.” Fausto Coppi was more measured in his response. ” The only way to beat him” he said “is to hope that he blows up tomorrow, but he is young, he will recuperate quickly.” Coppi’s words were prophetic. Three days later Koblet won his third stage of the 1951 Tour and the yellow jersey when he outsprinted Coppi at Luchon after a day that had taken in the climbs of the Col d’Aspin, Col de Peyresourde, and the Col de Tourmalet. He remained in yellow to the finish in Paris leading second place Géminiani by 22 minutes.
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