Roger Walkowiak, who won the 1956 Tour de France against all odds after making the most of a long breakaway, has died at the age of 89.
Walkowiak’s wife said her husband died early yesterday in a hospital near Vichy.
The Frenchman had been the oldest living Tour winner after Ferdy Kuebler died in December at 97.
Walkowiak, the son of a Polish factory worker, created a major upset when he won cycling’s biggest race at the age of 29. The win was so unexpected that it originated a French expression still in use today: À la Walko, which translates as “Doing a Walko” and means a surprise win by an unheralded rider.
Back in 1956, Walkowiak was a last-minute pick for the French regional Nord-Est-Centre team, competing in a race deprived of many top riders but also featuring Federico Bahamontes and Charly Gaul. A reserved rider who performed well in mid-mountain stages, Walkowiak jumped in a 31-man breakaway during the seventh stage from Lorient to Angers that gained more than 18 minutes on the main peloton.
“It was the worst team in the race, and I didn’t even start as the team leader,” Walkowiak told Bicycling magazine five years ago. “But I was going good, and I told myself, ‘Bon sang! You’ve got to try something’. I came ready to attack, but in the first stages I had a lot of bad luck with crashes and flats. At the start of Stage 7, I just was not going to miss the breakaway. And, boy, it was a good one. We finished over 18 minutes ahead. I took the yellow jersey.”
Walkowiak then lost the coveted tunic after three days but reclaimed it in the Alps where he kept pace with the best climbers.
“The last big day in the Alps, I knew the Croix de Fer (pass) got really steep through a village seven kilometres from the summit,” he said. “So in the village I gave it everything I had. When I finished the descent, I had a two-minute gap. But there were still 70 kilometres, down the valley into a headwind. My director wanted me to stop and wait for the others but I said no. That’s the day I won the yellow jersey back.”
In Paris, Walkowiak won the general classification ahead of Frenchman Gilbert Bauvin and Belgium’s Jan Adriaenssens but his victory was overlooked by media at the time.
Walkowiak suffered from the lack of recognition, and could not reproduce the same form afterwards. He retired from the 1957 Tour and left the sport in 1960 after being hampered by the after-effects of a dysentery infection he caught in Morocco earlier in his career. “He always did his job conscientiously and his Tour win was not so surprising after all,” his wife Pierrette said. “He was always well placed, and loved to ride at the front.”