The arrival of two riders with very different styles in the 1950s heralded a brief golden epoch for the Swiss at the Tour
words Giles Belbin. photography: L’Equipe
As the 1940s rolled into the 1950s, a total of 73 Swiss riders had been on the starting line of a Tour de France, with a single podium among them – Léo Amberg was third in 1937.
If Switzerland hadn’t been setting the race on fire up to this point, by the time the 1950s rolled around it seemed the country finally had a few riders with a real shot at the yellow jersey.
Ferdinand Kübler made his tour debut in 1947. Referred to as the “Tour of Liberation”, Kübler won the opening stage to Lille in the first race of the post-WWII era, taking the first yellow jersey.
After winning a second stage, he was forced to abandon the race as Paris was two weeks away after crashing and losing time before reaching the Alps, much to the despair of the Swiss press.
“We won’t see the big Ferdinand sprinting anymore and shaking up the peloton,” he said Journal de Geneve may have whimpered, but the 27-year-old had pushed open the door to the international stage.
Two years later, Kübler was back on the tour as a two-time national champion. He was sixth when he left for the Alps last week, but decisively over four minutes ahead of eventual winner Fausto Coppi.
Kübler broke away early in the stage to Briançon but Coppi fought back and flew away on the Col d’Izoard while Kübler had three punctures and lost 15 minutes. Demoralized, he gave up three days later. Still, it was progress.
“The tour is coming for Kübler,” he reported Gazette de Lausanne. ‘Possibly.’
Twelve months later, this “maybe” was erased when Kübler won Switzerland’s first tour title. It was a controversial race. Italy had claimed the previous two editions with Gino Bartali and Coppi and they started the 1950 edition in a dominant way. By the time the race entered the Pyrenees, Italy’s riders had won half of the stages and were poised to move up the general classification.
Spectators were restless during the stage to Saint-Gaudens, with French fans frustrated by Italian dominance and Bartali and teammate Fiorenzo Magni in the lead group.
Near the top of the Aspin, with crowds on the streets, Bartali and Frenchman Jean Robic touched the wheels. Both riders fell, with Robic damaging his front wheel. Some of the crowd angrily berated and threw stones at Bartali, accusing him of tripping a Frenchman.
An enraged Bartali flew down the other side of the Aspin, winning the stage and promptly proclaiming, “We have been victims of aggression; no Italian will drive tomorrow,” although Magni had just donned the yellow jersey.
After the Italians dropped out, the lead in the race passed to the best-placed non-Italian. Step forward Kübler. The Swiss was a seething mass of energy when he drove, to the point that he seemed confused at times, talking to himself and anyone else who would listen, and referring to himself in the third person.
He conquered the stage to Nice, defended his lead well and cemented his Tour by riding like a madman in the final time trial (main image) and edging second-placed Stan Ockers by more than five minutes over 98km. In Paris, 47 years after the race was introduced, Kübler was the first Swiss to stand at the top of the Tour’s podium. The country would only have to wait another 12 months for a second.
Koblet the charmer
Unlike his compatriot, Hugo Koblet stood for elegance. Dubbed the “Pédaleur de Charme” by French singer and actor Jacques Grello, Koblet was popular with both fans and fellow drivers. He is said to have carried a comb, a damp sponge and a bottle of perfume in his back pocket, and there are many photos of him combing his hair back in front of a mirror.
Legend has it that when he was at the front of a race and confident of victory, he would sit up, pull out his comb and perfume, and set about making himself presentable for the victory salute at the finish line.
Koblet rode his first Tour in 1951, although he already had a Grand Tour to his name, and became the first non-Italian to win the Giro d’Italia in 1950. Kübler chose to focus on the World Championship, a title he would win, with Switzerland’s Tour hopes pinned on Koblet. And the charmer would not disappoint.
Koblet won the first time trial and then staged one of the big Tour breakaways on the Brive-la-Gaillarde to Agen stage. He escaped with about 135km to go and stayed away despite a fast-paced chase featuring the likes of Coppi, Bartali, Magni, Ockers, Louison Bobet and Raphaël Géminiani.
Koblet crossed the finish line, combing his hair and keeping an eye on his stopwatch (pictured above) and watching it count down to 2 minutes and 25 seconds before Marcel Michel led the best of the rest.
“That’s not possible, a driver like that,” Géminiani said afterwards. ‘If there were two of Koblet, I would change jobs immediately.’
Three days later, Koblet won the mountain stage to Luchon and received a yellow card. He never gave up his lead and ended up winning by an amazing 22 minutes over Géminiani. Over the course of an incredible 15 months, Kübler and Koblet had won two tours together, the Giro and the World Championship, and propelled Switzerland to the pinnacle of cycling.
But as different as their styles on and off the bike couldn’t have been, their fates after retirement couldn’t have been either. Koblet retired in 1958, but bad investments cost him dearly and his debts mounted.
On November 2, 1964, he drove past a large pear tree in his Alfa Romeo. He stopped, turned around and drove back, passing the tree again. He drove past the tree one more time before making a final turn and driving straight into it at 120 km/h. He was taken to the hospital, but all attempts to save him proved unsuccessful. He was 39 years old.
Kübler retired in 1956, later ran a flower shop in Zurich and lived a long life until he died in 2016 at the age of 97.
“I became a champion because I was poor,” he said L’Equipe in 2013. “I struggled to eat to have a better life. I won the Tour de France because I dreamed, because I knew that after that I would never be poor again.”