Roger Walkowiak, the oldest surviving Tour de France champion, has died at the age of 89.
Winner of the 1956 race, the French rider of Polish heritage was the most unheralded and under-rated of yellow jersey winners, his success coming in a Tour lacking defending champion Louison Bobet and rising star Jacques Anquetil.
Born in 1927 to a Polish father and French mother in the Auvergne town of Montluçon, Walkowiak worked as an apprentice lathe worker and later as a mechanic in a bike shop before turning pro in 1950.
A strong climber, he made his Tour debut for the Ouest Sud-Ouest French regional team the following season, finishing 57th.
Described by British contemporary Brian Robinson as ‘a strong rider who was not in the class of the big names but had plenty of ability, especially as a climber,’ Walkowiak rode the 1953 and 1955 Tours for the Nord-Est team.
Initially overlooked for Tour selection in 1956 despite a stage victory at the Vuelta a España earlier that season, he was promoted into the Nord-Est team at the last moment following Gilbert Bauvin’s late selection for the French team.
The race came as the established generation of riders was on the wane and the coming generation had yet to establish themselves. Three-time defending champion Bobet was absent, as were past winners Fausto Coppi, Ferdi Kübler and Hugo Koblet, while the emerging Anquetil was judged to be too young for the Tour.
Like the smaller outfits at modern-day Tours, the riders on the Nord-Est team had no pretentions with regard to the yellow jersey. From the start of the race, Nord-Est’s riders focused on getting into breakaways and looking for stage wins.
Walkowiak had already been in three during the opening week when he slipped into a counter-attacking group on the seventh stage to Angers, where 31 riders finished more than 18 minutes up on the peloton and Walkowiak took the race lead.
Blessed with a smart racing mind, Walkowiak hatched a plan with Nord-Est DS Sauveur Ducazeaux. With their sights set on a podium finish, the pair opted not to defend the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees.
The jersey passed to Dutchman Gerrit Voorting for a day, then to French sprinter André Darrigade for another, and on to Belgian Jan Adriaensens for three. Dutchman Wout Wagtmans took up the lead as the Tour entered its decisive phase in the Alps, where race favourites Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes were certain to attack.
On the 18th stage to Grenoble, Gaul rode away from the field to take a solo victory. Yet his performance was overshadowed by Walkowiak, who finished in a group with Bahamontes and regained the yellow jersey with a lead of almost four minutes over France’s Bauvin.
Although Bauvin more than halved his deficit in the final time trial, Walkowiak rode into Paris in the yellow jersey.
Relatively unknown and only the second rider after 1922 champion to win the Tour without taking a stage victory, Walkowiak didn’t receive the acclaim from French fans or the credit from the media that his canny and courageous performance deserved.
His victory gave birth to the phrase ‘gagner à la Walko’, to win in Walkowiak’s style, which initially suggested victory by a less talented rider in a mediocre race. As a result, following his retirement from racing in 1960, the Frenchman refused to talk about his victory for many years, regarding himself as an unworthy champion.
However, the perspective of his success gradually changed as writers such as Pierre Chany and Antoine Blondin paid tribute to Walkowiak’s bravery and tactical nous, emphasising that he had seen his opportunity and taken it in fine style.
Asked for his opinion on Walkowiak’s success, five-time champion Bernard Hinault stated: ‘No one has the right to say that the Tour was handed to him. He didn’t steal it. The Tour doesn’t come wrapped up like a present.’
The oldest surviving Tour winner following Ferdi Kübler’s death in December, Walkowiak’s mantle now passes to his old rival Bahamontes, the champion in 1959.