Brive - Agen: Koblet's grand exploit


We have been chasing flat out for more than 100 kilometres. But the more we pushed ahead the greater became his lead... Koblet must have a motor under his chest
- Lucien Lazaridès

The greatest single stage in Tour de France history? The claims are many and various: Eddy Merckx in 1969 winning at Mourenx by eight minutes, doubling an already safe lead in the process. Or Ocaña's grand escape two years later to Orcières-Merlette, leaving the same Merckx for dead. Some would mark out the great rampages across the Alps by Bartali in 1938 and 1948; by Coppi in 1949 or Charly Gaul in that torrential storm in the Chartreuse in 1958. Or there were the psychological gains: small time gaps but massive mental damage to the beaten riders. One thinks of Hinault trouncing the field with Herrera at Avoriaz in 1985, or Miguel Indurain rewriting all expectations with a grand attack at Liège in 1995, immediately before the first big time trial, where convential wisdom would have made him first show his hand.

Falling into this latter category is the stage from Brive to Agen in the 1951 Tour, and the author of the great exploit was Hugo Koblet, previously better known as a pursuiter (he was Swiss champion at the discipline every year from 1947 to 1954, and a bronze medallist at the Worlds' in 1947). True, he had shown his stage racing pedigree in 1950, winning the Giro d'Italia that year, but the Giro wasn't the Tour, so the experts said. What could he do in the senior race?, wondered the critics. The answer wasn't long in coming, for in 1951 Koblet received his chance.

Koblet was soon in the thick of the action, attacking alone on the first stage before slipping back into the bunch after 40 kilometres. Riding alone was always a speciality, so perhaps it wasn't too much of a surprise when he won the opening time trial to Angers, beating Bobet and Coppi in the process. More of a surprise was Koblet's attack on the stage to Agen, for conventional wisdom held it that the stars would wait until the Pyrenees before showing their hands. Instead, with 140 kilometres of the stage still to ride, Koblet attacked under a burning sun. A minute was gained; the opposition considered he was just trying out his legs as on stage one. Two minutes. Three. Four...

Behind the big teams started to ride, but Koblet was well within himself. His manager, Alex Burtin, drove up to talk to him.

- "How do you feel?"
- "Very good", replied Koblet

With 70 kilometres to go, Koblet was still well ahead. Now was not the moment to lose all the benefit of his previous efforts. Once again Burtin drove up to Koblet.

- "Give it everything! Go on!"

Once more Koblet bent his back to the wheel. At the finish he crossed the line victorious, stopped his watch, took out a comb to comb his hair and waited the arrival of the peloton. Two minutes and thirty five seconds later Marcel Michel led a bunch of fifty riders into the finish. For nearly four hours one rider had fought against a bunch and won. One by one the tributes came in:

- "We have been chasing flat out for more than 100 kilometres. But the more we pushed ahead the greater became his lead... Koblet must have a motor under his chest" (Lucien Lazaridès)
- "If there were two Koblets in the sport I would retire from cycling tomorrow" (Raphaël Geminiani)
- "In the ten years that I have raced, I've never witnessed such an exploit" (Fiorenzo Magni)
- "The only way to beat him is to hope that he blows up tomorrow, but he is young, he will recuperate quickly." (Fausto Coppi)

The Tour of course was not over; indeed Koblet was still eight minutes down overall on leader Wim van Est (who was to lose his lead when he crashed on the Col d'Aubisque, earning the nickname "Le Roi des Tombeurs"), but Koblet had scored a crushing psychological blow. On the big Pyreneen stage to Luchon, traversing the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde passes, Koblet punctured before the top of the Tourmalet, but calmly waited for service before chasing back his rivals. On the valley leading to the Aspin first Bartali, then Bobet, Ockers and Geminiani were dropped; by the summit Koblet had caught Coppi, whom he easily outsprinted at the finish. The yellow jersey was Koblet's, never to be relinquished. Second overall, but a massive twenty two minutes behind in Paris, was Raphaël Geminiani; he was to stay in the sport, for there turned out to be only one Hugo Koblet, and a series of injuries and a run of poor form ensured that Brive - Agen, 1951, was to remain the singular Koblet's finest moment.

Stage winners

 StageWinnerOverall Leader
Stage 1Metz - Reims, 185kmGiovanni RossiGiovanni Rossi
Stage 2Reims - Ghent, 228kmJean DiederichJean Diederich
Stage 3Ghent - Le Treport, 219kmGeorges MeunierDiederich
Stage 4Le Treport - Paris, 188kmRoger LevêqueDiederich
Stage 5Paris - Caen, 215kmSerafino BiagioniSerafino Biagioni
Stage 6Caen - Rennes, 182kmEdouard MullerRoger Levêque
Stage 7La Guerche - Angers, 85km TTHugo KobletLevêque
Stage 8Angers - Limoges, 241kmAndré RosseelLevêque
Stage 9Limoges - Clermont Ferrand, 236kmRaphaël GeminianiLevêque
Stage 10Clermont Ferrand - Brive, 216kmBernardo RuizLevêque
Stage 11Brive - Agen, 177kmKobletLevêque
Stage 12Agen - Dax, 185kmWim van EstWim van Est
Stage 13Dax - Tarbes, 201kmBiagioniGilbert Bauvin
Stage 14Tarbes - Luchon, 142kmKobletHugo Koblet
Stage 15Luchon - Carcassonne, 213kmRosseelKoblet
Stage 16Carcassonne - Montpellier, 213kmKobletKoblet
Stage 17Montpellier - Avignon, 224kmLouison BobetKoblet
Stage 18Avignon - Marseille, 173kmFiorenzo MagniKoblet
Stage 19Marseille - Gap, 208kmArmand BaeyensKoblet
Stage 20Gap - Briançon, 213kmFausto CoppiKoblet
Stage 21Briançon - Aix-les-Bains, 201kmRuizKoblet
Stage 22Aix-les-Bains - Geneva, 97km TTKobletKoblet
Stage 23Geneva - Dijon, 197kmGermain DerijckeKoblet
Stage 24Dijon - Paris, 322kmAdolphe DeleddaKoblet

In a nutshell

Results

Overall

1st: Hugo Koblet, Switzerland, 4697km in 142h 20' 14" (32.979km/h)
2nd: Raphaël Geminiani, France, @ 22' 00"
3rd: Lucien Lazaridès, France, @ 24' 16"
4th: Gino Bartali, Italy, @ 29' 09"
5th: Stan Ockers, Belgium, @ 32' 53"
6th: Pierre Barbotin, France, @ 36' 40"
7th: Fiorenzo Magni, Italy, @ 39' 14"
8th: Gilbert Bauvin, Est - Sud-Est, @ 45' 53"
9th: Bernardo Ruiz, Spain, @ 45' 55"
10th: Fausto Coppi, Italy, @ 46' 51"

(66th: Abd el Kader Zaaf, Algeria (Afrique du Nord) 3h 51' 00")

Mountains

1st: Raphaël Geminiani, France, 66
2nd: Gino Bartali, Italy, 59
=3rd: Fausto Coppi, Italy; Hugo Koblet, Switzerland; Bernardo Ruiz, Spain, 41

Team

1st: France 426h 47' 36"
2nd: Belgium @ 44' 37"
3rd: Italy @ 1h 22' 13"