History of the Tour de France: the short-lived success of Switzerland

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The arrival of two riders with very different styles in the 1950s heralds a brief golden period for the Swiss on the Tour

Words Gilles Belbin. Photography: The Team

By the time the 1940s entered the 1950s, a total of 73 Swiss riders had taken to the start line of a Tour de France, with only one podium place between them – Léo Amberg finishing third in 1937.

If Switzerland hadn’t exactly started the race until now, as the 1950s approached, the country was finally looking to have a few runners with a real shot at the yellow jersey.

Ferdinand Kübler made his Tour debut in 1947. Dubbed the “Tour de la Liberation”, the first post-World War II race saw Kübler win the opening stage in Lille to claim the first jersey yellow.

After winning a second stage, he was forced out of the race with Paris still two weeks away after crashing and losing time before reaching the Alps, much to the chagrin of the Swiss press.

“We will no longer see the great Ferdinand sprinting and jostling the peloton”, Geneva Journal may have lamented, but the 27-year-old had pushed the door open on the international stage.

Two years later, Kübler was back on the Tour as a double national champion. En route to the Alps over the past week, he was sixth but more importantly more than four minutes ahead of eventual winner Fausto Coppi.

Kübler escaped early in the Briançon stage but Coppi fought back and flew over the Col d’Izoard while Kübler punctured three times and lost 15 minutes. Demoralized, three days later, he gives up. Still, it was progress.

“The Tour is coming for Kübler”, reported the Lausanne Gazette. ‘May be.’

Twelve months later, that “maybe” was erased when Kübler recorded the first Swiss Tour title. It was a controversial race. Italy had won the previous two editions with Gino Bartali and Coppi and they started the 1950 edition in dominant fashion. By the time the race entered the Pyrenees, the Italian riders had won half the stages and were about to take a step towards the general classification.

During the stage in Saint-Gaudens, with French fans frustrated by Italian dominance, and with Bartali and teammate Fiorenzo Magni in the lead group, the spectators were restless.

Near the top of Aspin, with crowds all over the roads, Bartali and Frenchman Jean Robic touched down. Both riders fell, Robic damaging his front wheel. Part of the crowd furiously insulted Bartali and threw stones, blaming him for knocking down a Frenchman.

An enraged Bartali flew to the other side of the Aspin, won the stage and immediately announced: “We have been attacked; no Italian will ride tomorrow”, even if Magni had just put on the yellow jersey.

With the Italians gone, the lead of the race passed to the best-placed non-Italian. Advance Kübler. The Swiss was a seething mass of energy as he rode, to the point where he seemed disturbed at times, talking to himself and anyone listening and referring to himself in the third person.

He won the stage in Nice, defended his lead well and cemented his Tour by riding like a man possessed in the final time trial (main image), taking more than five minutes from second-placed Stan Ockers on 98km. In Paris, Kübler became the first Swiss to climb to the top step of the Tour podium, 47 years after the race was created. The country would just have to wait another 12 months for a second.

Koblet the Charmer

Unlike his compatriot, Hugo Koblet was renowned for his elegance. Nicknamed the “Pedaleur de Charme” by French singer and actor Jacques Grello, Koblet was popular with fans and fellow riders. He is said to have carried a comb, a damp sponge and a bottle of cologne in his back pocket and there are many photographs of him slicking his hair back in front of a mirror.

Legend has it that if he was in the lead in a race and confident of victory, he would sit down, get out the comb and cologne, and proceed to make himself presentable for the victory salute on the finishing line.

Koblet was racing his first Tour in 1951, although he already had a Grand Tour under his belt, becoming the first non-Italian to win the Giro d’Italia in 1950. With Kübler choosing to focus on the World Championships, a title he victory, Switzerland’s hopes on the Tour rested on Koblet. And the charmer will not disappoint you.

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Koblet won the first time trial then made one of the great breakaways of the Tour during the Brive-la-Gaillarde stage in Agen. He escaped some 135km before the finish and stayed away despite a frantic chase involving the likes of Coppi, Bartali, Magni, Ockers, Louison Bobet and Raphaël Géminiani.

Koblet crossed the line, combed his hair and kept an eye on his stopwatch (pictured above), watching him count to 2:25 before Marcel Michel led the best of the rest.

“It’s not possible, a driver like that,” Géminiani said afterwards. “If there were two Koblets, I would change jobs immediately.

Three days later, Koblet won the mountain stage in Luchon to take yellow. He never gave up his lead and eventually won by an astonishing 22 minutes over Géminiani. In an incredible 15 months, Kübler and Koblet won two Tours between them, the Giro and the Worlds, catapulting Switzerland to the pinnacle of cycling.

Yet if their styles on and off the bike couldn’t have been more different, neither could their post-retirement fates. Koblet retired in 1958 but bad investments cost him dearly and his debts piled up.

On November 2, 1964, he was driving his Alfa Romeo when he came across a large pear tree. He stopped, turned around, and drove off, passing the tree again. He passed the tree once more before turning one last time and heading straight for it at 120 km/h. He was rushed to hospital but all attempts to save him proved futile. He was 39 years old.

Meanwhile, Kübler retired in 1956, later running a flower shop in Zurich, and lived a long life, dying in 2016 at the age of 97.

“I became champion because I was poor,” he said The Team in 2013. “I struggled to eat, to have a better life. I won the Tour de France because I dreamed, because I knew that afterwards I would never be poor again.

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