Last spring, VeloNews did a print feature dedicated to breakaway artists. I contributed the little piece below. It was a challenge to fit the legend of Roger Walkowiak, who died today at age 89, into the 200 or so words I had at my disposal. I have as many as I want here, and it's tempting to build out the spare account below, but I'm not going to. There will be plenty of well-done obituaries out today. I'll say this, though: Walko's win was not the fluke it's often made out to be. He had talent, brains, and tenacity, and he used all three to topple giants. What would we give for a Tour win like that today?
For the peloton’s lesser lights, breakaways can net stage wins, classics, even a week long stage race. In 1956, though, unheralded Roger Walkowiak rode the breakaway to Tour de France glory.
Exiled to the regional France North-East Central team after dustups with French selectors, “Walko” was free from the yoke of national team stars André Darrigade and Gilbert Bauvin. He made the break three days running, taking chunks of time in stages 5 and 6 before banking 18 minutes in a big move on stage 7. At the finish in Angers, he pulled on yellow, still warm from Darrigade’s shoulders.
The folly seemed over when he faltered in the Pyrenees, but he rode doggedly in the Alps, climbing with Bahamontes and limiting Gaul on their own turf. In Grenoble, he reclaimed the jersey and held it to Paris.
There, typewriters tapped out the numerous footnotes to Walkowiak’s triumph. Bobet was out with saddle sores, Robic with injuries. Bartali, Coppi, and Koblet were absent, and old. Darrigade and Bauvin sabotaged each other’s chances. The Belgians had food poisoning.
The truth though, is that Walko was a talented rider who had been on the podium at Paris-Nice and the Dauphine, and who dropped Tour winner Bobet in the Alps in 1955. And the next year, in fine breakaway style, he outsmarted them all.