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Chairman Bill's History of the Tour de France:
the 1950s

How a Newspaper Promotion Became the World's Greatest Sporting Event

Index: origins and early years | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s

This excerpt is from "The Story of the Tour de France", Volumes 1. If you enjoy it we hope you will consider purchasing the book, either print or electronic. The Amazon link here will make either purchase easy.

1950. 1950 Tour de France results page

After the 1948 - 1949 display of Italian power, the French were to be denied victory in their own Tour for years to come. 1950 and 1951 were the great years of Swiss racing. The team the Swiss sent to the Tour in 1950 was only 6 men strong, but it had Ferdy Kübler, whose growth as an effective stage racer took time. He won the first stage of the 1947 Tour and then went on to win the fifth stage before being eliminated when the Tour hit the Alps.

The next year Kübler won the Tours of Romandie and Switzerland and the Swiss Road Championship. His time-trialing ability was made clear with a second place in the Grand Prix des Nations, at that time the unofficial world championship of time trialing. In 1949 he won the Tour of Switzerland in grand style, winning 4 stages and coming in second in 3. He abandoned the 1949 Tour de France on the eighteenth stage after winning the fifth stage and coming in second on stage 7.

In 1950, both Kübler and the other Swiss great of the era, Hugo Koblet, hit their stride. Koblet had a fantastic spring in which he won the Tour of Switzerland and became the first non-Italian to win the Giro d'Italia, with Kübler in fourth. Kübler was chosen to be the leader of the 6-man team that Switzerland sent to the Tour.

In July, 1950 Coppi could not ride the Tour because he was still recovering from a bad Giro crash that resulted in a broken pelvis. Coppi's fragile bones caused him recurring problems. It has been speculated that the regular enforced rest that his fractures caused might have been one reason why he was such a dominating rider. The other racers were forced to fulfill a demanding, season-long schedule that left them exhausted. Coppi got regular respites from the enervating requirements of his profession. Think of Lance Armstrong, guided by modern sports physiology, how he carefully dosed his efforts and chose his challenges. Armstrong would retire from a racing season as soon as his goals were met. Perhaps, accidentally, Coppi was following the same path.

The aging eagle of Italian cycling, Gino Bartali, now 36, was chosen to lead the Italian team. Fiorenzo Magni, who had worn the Yellow Jersey for several days in 1949, was also on the Italian team.

Raphaël Géminiani had been reluctant to ride the Tour for the French team after the poor performance and hence meager financial returns for the team's 1949 effort. In 1949 half of the French team abandoned on the tenth stage and their best placed rider, Apo Lazaridès, came in tenth. Géminiani was now in his fifth year as a pro and while a major win had eluded him, he was considered among the most accomplished French stage racers. He preferred to lead a regional team where he could choose his fellow riders and keep whatever prizes he might win. Team manager Jean Bidot (brother of later national team manager Marcel Bidot) was able to cajole Géminiani into riding with the understanding that Géminiani would be the sole leader and that the prize money that the team earned would be distributed according to who earned it. Louison Bobet, Apo Lazaridès and Jacques Marinelli would be on the team to back him up. Jean Robic, the 1947 winner who had been so incensed at being put on a regional team that year found himself back on a regional team.

Belgium, with Stan Ockers, Raymond Impanis and Roger Lambrecht would not be a pushover.

Right after the 1950 Tour was over Ferdy Kübler gave his thoughts to L'Equipe as to who and what constituted the major obstacles in the 1950 Tour. Although he deeply desired to win the Tour in order to complete the Swiss hat-trick started by his compatriot Koblet, his previous failures to do well in the Tour made him apprehensive about his chances. He considered Gino Bartali a man who was always a threat. Magni was also worrisome. The Luxembourg racer Jean Goldschmidt who had been second in the Swiss Tour, beating Kübler by almost 17 minutes, gave Kübler ample reason for concern. And of course, Louison Bobet was getting better every year.

The first stage confirmed Kübler's suspicions of Goldschmidt's form. The Luxembourg rider won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. He kept it until stage 3, when he missed the winning break of 7. The lead passed to Bernard Gauthier, a rider on the regional France South-East team.

Stage 4: Stan Ockers wins alone in Rouen, beating a chase group led in by Antonin Rolland by 12 seconds.

Things stayed that way until stage 6, the first of the 1950 Tour's 2 individual time trials. This one was 78 kilometers long and it allowed Kübler to open his account with a serious deposit. Kübler won the stage with Magni only 17 seconds slower. Bobet lost almost 3 minutes and Bartali over 4.

The General Classification after the stage 6 time trial:

1. Jean Goldschmidt
2. Bernard Gauthier @ 47 seconds
3. Ferdy Kübler @ 49 seconds
4. Fiorenzo Magni @ 2 minutes 37 seconds
7. Louison Bobet @ 5 minutes 23 seconds
11. Gino Bartali @ 6 minutes 9 seconds

The very next day Gauthier joined a 12-man escape group and left Goldschmidt over 10 minutes behind. That was the end of Goldshmidt's days in Yellow.

When Fiorenzo Magni won stage 8, he confirmed the strength of the Italian squad. They had won half the stages contested so far. Magni was enjoying wonderful form and he clearly had an excellent team to support him. The chosen leader of the Italian squad was Bartali, and the Italian riders had pledged to support him. But Magni was clearly the man with the horsepower to win the Tour in 1950.

It was stage 11 that completely changed the course of the Tour. Going from Pau to St. Gaudens, it was a typical big Pyreneen stage, being 230 kilometers long and crossing the Aubisque, Tourmalet and Aspin.

The French fans lining the roads of the day's climbs were not in a good mood. For 2 straight years the Italians had been dominating their Tour. They saw no reason why this day's climbs would change that unpleasant tendency and they didn't like it at all.

Robic set about doing what he could to alter the situation. He escaped on the Aubisque while the rest of the riders marked Bartali. Over the top of the mountain he had a lead of about 3 minutes. He crashed but remounted and continued on. He began to feel the results of his early efforts as well as his crash, and he weakened on the Tourmalet. The French rider Kléber Piot was the first of the leading riders who crested the Tourmalet. The crowds on the side of the road began to insult the riders and jeer them. On the final mountain they began to throw small stones, bottle caps and other objects.

Stage 11: Ferdy Kubler tries an attack on the Tourmalet.

As the front group containing Bartali, Robic, Bobet and Ockers neared the summit of the Aspin they found their way blocked by a photographer. Bartali and Robic, in the front, were unable to avoid their human obstacle and crashed. Robic ruined his front wheel.

The spectators ran to help the 2 riders back on their bikes. But, as might be expected, not all of them wanted to see Bartali win. As he was trying to remount his bike he was kicked and punched. Bartali later said another spectator wielded a knife, but that may have been a picnicker who happened to have a sandwich knife in his hand at the time. Adding to the confusion, some in the melee were drunk. Tour boss Jacques Goddet arrived and started to beat the unruly spectators away with a stick. Bartali had to have been aware of the hostile atmosphere of the crowd as he rode the final 2 climbs. Convinced that the crowd had bad intentions toward him, he leaped upon his bike and sped off with Magni.

Consumed with fury at the treatment he received at the hands of the French fans, Bartali rode like a man possessed. He was able to catch the lead break and win the stage. Teammate Fiorenzo Magni who was in this break donned the Yellow Jersey.

The General Classification at the end of the stage:

1. Fiorenzo Magni
2. Ferdy Kübler @ 2 minutes 31 seconds
3. Louison Bobet @ 3 minutes 20 seconds
4. Raphaël Géminiani @ 3 minutes 25 seconds
5. Stan Ockers @ 3 minutes 37 seconds
6. Gino Bartali @ 4 minutes 17 seconds

Furious at the rough handling he had received, Bartali could not forgive the French mob. At St. Gaudens he told the team manager, Alfredo Binda, that he was withdrawing from the race and that the rest of the Italian squad should also quit. There were 2 Italian teams in the Tour. The best riders were in the Italian National Team and a second team called the Italian Cadets contained lesser riders. Bartali said all of the Italians should abandon the Tour and go home. Quitting was a hard thing for Magni who was enjoying spectacular form and was the man in the Yellow Jersey.

Binda and Bartali were up most of the night. Bartali was adamant that by continuing he would be encouraging the bad behavior of the crowds. The Tour organization proposed various compromises, even offering the Italians neutral gray jerseys to hide them from the crowds. Bartali wouldn't budge. A few of the other members of the team wavered, especially the Cadets and Adolfo Leoni, winner of the second stage. Not all the Italian riders were happy to be under Bartali's thumb. It has been said that the man in the Yellow Jersey, Magni, didn't decide until the next morning to quit and stand beside the man he had pledged to help win the 1950 Tour. His decision was made harder because several of the Italians said they would be willing to continue and ride to help Magni keep the Yellow Jersey all the way to Paris.

All the Italians did quit. A later stage of the Tour had been scheduled to end in the Italian town of San Remo. That had to be changed. The rage of the Italians screaming for revenge made the necessity of changing the route obvious to all concerned. The stage in question was re-routed to end in Menton in France.

The lucky recipient of this withdrawal was the Swiss rider Ferdy Kübler who had been quietly sitting in second place. He was now the Tour leader. For his first day in the lead he refused to wear the Yellow Jersey out of respect for Magni. He wore it the next day and from then on.

2 days later Kübler was able put his stamp of authority on the Tour. Stage 13 was run in terrible heat from Perpignan to Nîmes. Marcel Molines won it, beating the next rider, Georges Meunier, by over 4 minutes. But more importantly for the Tour, Kübler broke away with Stan Ockers and Marcel Hendrickx. French team leader Bobet failed to join the move and came in 4 minutes, 9 seconds after Kübler.

Before we leave stage 13, we can't forget Abdel Khader Zaaf, a member of the North African team made up of Algerian and Moroccan racers and how Molines came to win the stage. About 15 kilometers into the stage, Zaaf and Molines, both members of the North African team, broke away. Since the pack didn't want to race hard in the blistering heat, the pair got a good gap on the field.

With less than 20 kilometers to go Zaaf started to wobble on his bike, zigzagging across the road. Concerned for his safety a race official pulled him from the race. Molines—close to the end of the stage and riding with a large lead over the pack—continued on alone. Zaaf was not to be deterred by the race official who tried to stop him. He restarted, fell off his bike, gave up and fell asleep. When he awoke he realized that he was in a race, an important race, the Tour de France. He remounted his bike and took off in pursuit of the peloton. But he was going the wrong way. Clearly Zaaf had something wrong with him. An ambulance was called. Zaaf later claimed that upon awakening a spectator had revived him with wine. Being a devout Muslim he said he was unused to alcohol. Most observers think given his pulse of 160 and the necessity to pump his stomach, it was probably a combination of drugs, exhaustion and dehydration. Molines as noted above went on to win the stage. Zaaf, as the rider who rode the wrong way, became famous for a while, then faded away and returned to Algeria.

The General Classification after stage 13 now had this order:

1. Ferdy Kübler
2. Stan Ockers @ 1 minute 6 seconds
3. Pierre Brambilla @ 9 minutes 1 second
4. Louison Bobet @ 10 minutes 58 seconds

Stage 15 from Toulon to Menton along the southern coast of France had another of those famous moments in Tour history. The pack was feeling unmotivated as it rode by the Mediterranean Sea. Half the peloton left their bikes to take a momentary respite from the summer's heat by taking a dip in the sea in their cycling clothes. Tour Boss Goddet was upset and ordered the riders back on their bikes to continue racing.

The next day's stage to Nice, with 2 hard climbs, allowed the 4 best riders to still further distance themselves from the field. Kübler won the stage with Bobet, Robic and Ockers finishing with him at the same time. The rest of the peloton was over 4 minutes behind. With the time bonus for the day's stage Kübler was now 2 minutes ahead of Ockers and almost 12 minutes ahead of Bobet. At this point it is generally believed that Ockers and Kübler had formed an alliance with Kübler riding to win the overall victory and Ockers racing for the Climber's prize.

It was on stages 18 and 19 that the final drama of the 1950 Tour was played out with Bobet refusing to give up. These were the high Alpine stages. A 98-kilometer time trial was coming up near the end of the Tour. Time trialing was a discipline in which Kübler held a big advantage. These 2 days in the Alps were Bobet's only chance to take the Tour back from the Swiss rider. He knew he would have to take chances if he were to regain the advantage. As Danton said, "De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" (audacity, more audacity, ever more audacity).

Stage 18 crossed the Vars and the Izoard. Near the top of the Vars Bobet got clear with a lead that was less than a minute. He was still alone at the start of the Izoard ascent. He finished that climb with a minute's lead over Kübler. The weather turned nasty as Bobet took terrible chances on the descent. With his big 12-minute cushion over Bobet, Kübler didn't have to take the same risks. Bobet finished almost 3 minutes ahead of Kübler and Ockers.

The General Classification had tightened a little, but Kübler was still in the driver's seat:

1. Ferdy Kübler
2. Stan Ockers @ 2 minutes 56 seconds
3. Louison Bobet @ 6 minutes 46 seconds
4. Jean Robic @ 16 minutes 53 seconds

Bobet still had another mountain stage to try to wrest those almost 7 minutes from Kübler, who was riding a controlled, intelligent, tactical race. Bobet's last chance was stage 19 from Briançon to St. Etienne with 3 major climbs: the Lautaret, St. Nizier and the Grand Bois. 2 of his Team France teammates, Pierre Molineris and Apo Lazaridès broke away with a racer from the France Central-South-East team, Marcel Dussault. They crested the Lautaret ahead of the field. Bobet attacked in the feed zone and took off with his teammate Raphaël Géminiani. If all went well, Bobet would have half the French team with him to assist him in riding away from Kübler. Bobet soon dropped Géminiani. He caught Lazaridès and the others, but they could not take the determined Bobet's hot pace. Soon Bobet was alone with a 2-minute lead on Kübler.

Kübler knew he had to chase. He took off with several riders in tow including second place Stan Ockers and his Belgian compatriot Raymond Impanis. Kübler rode like a demon. He wasn't content to simply catch the now flagging Bobet. He yelled in triumph as he passed him and worked to increase his lead. Géminiani had managed to tag onto the Kübler group and won the stage but Kübler now had a solid, comfortable lead.

A day of rest followed those 2 brutal days in the mountains. Stage 20 was a 98-kilometer individual time trial from St. Etienne to Lyon. Kübler had won the stage 6 time trial and there was no reason to believe he was in any way weakening as the Tour progressed. At the first time check at 20 kilometers Kübler was already leading. Wearing a smooth leather cap and riding in his ungainly style, Kübler performed magnificently. He beat Stan Ockers by over 5 minutes and Bobet by almost 9 minutes. With 2 stages to go, Kübler had won the 1950 Tour de France in grand style.

The final 1950 Tour de France General Classification:

1. Ferdy Kübler (Switzerland): 145 hours 36 minutes 56 seconds
2. Stan Ockers (Belgium) @ 9 minutes 30 seconds
3. Louison Bobet (France) @ 22 minutes 19 seconds
4. Raphaël Géminiani (France) @ 31 minutes 14 seconds
5. Jean Kirchen (Luxembourg) @ 34 minutes 21 seconds

Climbers Jersey:

Louison Bobet: 58 points
Stan Ockers: 44 points
Jean Robic: 41 points

Kübler was an erratic personality who goaded the other riders in his terrible French. Here is how Les Woodland told about one such incident:

"Kübler enjoyed taunting riders and managers, dropping back to team cars to warn in broken French, 'Ferdy attack soon, you ready?' And then, a few minutes later, 'Ferdy big horse. Ferdy attack now. Your boys ready?' When he once more dropped back to tell Raphaël Géminiani, 'Ferdy attack now, France ready?', the Frenchman said in deliberate, equally bad French, 'Ferdy shut up now or Ferdy get head knocked in.' "

In an interview with L'Equipe, Kübler recently answered his critics who said his victory was only the result of the Italian pullout.

"I took the Yellow Jersey in the eleventh stage after the Italians quit the Tour at St. Gaudens. People said I owed my victory to their departure. But, on the contrary, it was harder for me as I had been riding with Magni and Bartali. I was the third man behind them, and when they left, I found myself alone. The next day, I took the jersey and I never let it go."

Oral History: With the kind assistance of René Moser of Swiss Trading, we were able to submit several written questions to the great Ferdy Kübler. As I write this (October 7, 2004), he is the oldest living Tour winner. It might be a stretch to call the written format "oral history", but this was the only way we could accomplish the interview.
Chairman Bill: You mentioned that when the Italians left the Tour, your job was much harder because you could no longer mark them and ride in their shadow. How did you change your tactics with the Italian departure?
Ferdy Kübler: It was more difficult for me to win the Tour after the Italians quit. The Italians rode for victory. Every break was pulled back in by the Italians. I had to race against the remainder of the peloton after the Italians departed, so the Italians were indirectly riding for me.
Chairman Bill: Did you feel that you were riding to victory even before Bartali and Magni left?
Ferdy Kübler: I was able to win the Tour because I was the best in the time trials.
CB: What was it like riding the unpaved descents of the Pyreness and Alps with the bikes of 1950?
FK: The roads were very difficult to ride in those days, especially the downhill grades from the passes.
CB: What kind of training did you do for the Tour. How many kilometers a day?
FK: I trained for the Tour 6 to 8 hours every day, which amounted to approximately 1,100 kilometers a week
CB: This was the golden era of Swiss cycling. Did you feel that your Swiss team was as strong as the teams from France and Belgium?
FK: We were the weakest team in the 1950 Tour with only 5 riders. After 5,000 kilometers, all my teammates who arrived in Paris were between 2.5 to 3 hours behind me in the General Classification. Practically, they could never help me.
CB: Is there any particular memory that stands out in the 1950 Tour?
FK: The greatest moment for me was the 98-kilometer time trial from St.Etienne to Lyon. I won the stage, beating Stan Ockers by 5 minutes and 34 seconds and Louison Bobet by about 8 minutes!
CB: Any thoughts or comments on Bartali, Coppi, Ockers and Bobet?
FK: Coppi, Bartali, Bobet, Anquetil, Ockers, Charly Gaul, Van Steenbergen, Bahamontes and Hugo Koblet were the greatest during those times. We all raced together for over 10 to 12 years. Today, there are barely 3 to 4 riders on the same level, except Armstrong, but he only rides the Tour with the best team!!
With Warmest Regards,
Ferdy Kübler
23/9/04

1951. The Story of the 1951 Tour de France has been moved to the 1951 Tour results page.

1952. The Story of the 1952 Tour de France has been moved to the 1952 Tour results page.

1953. The Story of the 1953 Tour de France has been moved to the 1953 Tour results page.

1954. The Story of the 1954 Tour de France has been moved to the 1954 Tour results page.

1955. The Story of the 1955 Tour de France has been moved to the 1955 Tour results page.

1956. The Story of the 1956 Tour de France has been moved to the 1956 Tour results page.

1957. The Story of the 1957 Tour de France has been moved to the 1957 Tour results page.

1958. The Story of the 1958 Tour de France has been moved to the 1958 Tour results page.

1959. The Story of the 1959 Tour de France has been moved to the 1959 Tour results page.

<--the 1940s | the 1960s-->

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