Charly Gaul, cyclist: born Luxembourg 8 December 1932; three times married (one daughter); died Luxembourg 6 December 2005.
Charly Gaul, winner of the Tour de France in 1958, was known as the "the Angel of the Mountains". The first out-and-out climber ever to win the Tour, he also took cycling's second most important stage race, the Giro d'Italia, in 1956 and 1959.
Gaul took part in the sport's blue-riband event no less than 10 times, winning 10 Tour stages overall as well as the "King of the Mountains" title for best climber in 1955 and 1956. In 1990 he was voted Luxembourg's Sportsman of the 20th Century.
The most brilliant single exploit of his career was in July 1958 in the Chartreuse Massif, the last mountain stage of that year's Tour. Gaul had warned his rivals that he would attack on the Col de Luitel if - as he preferred - it rained. Rain it did and Gaul, who was theoretically too far behind the race leader Raphael Geminiani to be able to regain control, none the less returned to the fray when least expected. He inexorably opened up a gap on the Luitel to reach the finish at Aix-les-Bains with a 12-minute advantage over Geminiani and then seized the leader's yellow jersey in the last time trial prior to Paris.
Success did not suit him, however, in many ways: Gaul was too withdrawn, almost sullen, and mistrustful to appeal to a wider public. Instead, all his 12-year career he remained a solitary genius of the cycling world, unmatched in the mountains except by the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes, the 1959 Tour winner. "When we raced we were irreconcilable," Bahamontes remembered. "Going uphill even he admitted I was better, but when it rained he was impossible to beat."
A former abattoir worker, Gaul first appeared on the scene when he won the Tour of Austria at just 17, and he first made an impact on the Tour de France by taking an epic Alpine stage at 23 in 1955. But, following a long period without major success, when he abandoned cycling in 1965 it was barely noticed.
He ran a café for a brief spell, and then withdrew to the Ardennes forests, living off what he could hunt. Probably the only hint of the time when he dominated the mountains was the shoes with crampons that he invariably used. After 25 years as a virtual recluse, it was only when the Tour started in Luxembourg in 1989 that he began to allow the outside world access to his own lonely universe, helped, so he said, by regular bible readings. He also remarried for a third time.
During these later years, Gaul developed a close friendship, which he described as a spiritual kinship, with the Italian climbing genius and 1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani, who was found dead in his hotel room in February 2004. (Gaul himself died after a fall at home.) Separated by half a century, both were riders who gloried in the solitude and suffering of riding on the Tour's daunting mountain passes and who felt themselves to be anti-heroes, misunderstood outcasts from society.
Alasdair FotheringhamReuse content