Tour de France 21 Stories: Argy-Bargy on the Aspin

Stage 7 : L’Isle-Jourdain-Lac de Payolle

In 1950 the French were starting to get sick of the Italians dominating their national race. How long would this ‘transalpine’ take over go on for? Two years previously Gino Bartali had triumphed, magnificently, winning three consecutive mountain stages, despite the fact that ten years and the Second World War separated him from his previous win in ’38. In ’49, it was Fausto Coppi’s turn, soaring on the Izoard in an awkward alliance with Bartali, then proving his superiority in an epic 137km time trial. Bartali came second that year, while Fiorenzo Magni, the Third Man of Italian cycling, came sixth.

And now, with the race about to enter the Pyrenees, the Italians had won five out of ten stages, even without Coppi, who was recovering from a Giro injury. The nationalist sentiment of frustrated French fans was inflamed by the Italian race tactics, which consisted of not helping in breakaways and then winning sprints with fresh legs.

Things turned ugly. As the 230km-long stage from Pau to Saint-Gaudens crossed the Cols d’Aubisque, Tourmalet and Aspin, spectators hurled abuse, bottle tops and stones at the Italian riders. Nearing the summit of the Aspin, Bartali and Jean Robic were leading the GC contenders when they found the final stretch blocked by an intimidating crowd. Bartali went down, taking Robic with him. Spectators crowded the riders and Bartali later claimed he’d been attacked and threatened with a knife. Louison Bobet, passing by, took another view: “I’m pretty sure that in the time it took me to pass him, Bartali wasn’t struck, and I think he mistook as blows what was just an attempt to get him back in the saddle.”

25/7/1950 Tour de France 1950. Stage 11 - PAU to ST GAUDENS. Jean Robic climbs the Col du Tourmalet. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe. sunglasses cycling
25/7/1950 Tour de France 1950.
Stage 11 – PAU to ST GAUDENS.
Jean Robic climbs the Col du Tourmalet.
Photo: Offside / L’Equipe.
sunglasses cycling

Jean Robic on the Tourmalet

Almost as soon as it had happened, the incident was over, with race director Jacques Goddet getting out of his car waving a walking stick. 80 kilometres were left to go, during which a small group of aces, including Magni, Raphaël Géminiani and Stan Ockers, caught up with the leaders.* Bartali ended up winning the stage in a sprint, while his team-mate Magni took the yellow jersey.

But the day’s adventures were far from over. Bartali, spooked by what he’d experienced, declared he and all the other Italian riders should leave the Tour.

Tour organisers Jacques Goddet and Felix Lévitain stayed late into the night at the Italian team’s hotel, trying in vain to persuade Bartali to stay and offering the riders neutral jerseys so they wouldn’t feel like moving targets. Right into the next morning there were attempts to keep Italians in the race: some of the Italian B-team wanted to ride for Magni as their new leader. But there was nothing doing.

“I can’ t go back on the promises I gave Bartali before the start of the Tour,” Magni explained. “I was taken on to help Bartali and not to win the Tour de France. I can’t stay on while Bartali has withdrawn, nowhere defeated yet. What would I be taken for? A usurper!” So the Italians packed their bags—Magni most reluctantly, and left in a huff.

“I have no intention of risking my life for a madman, even if he is the last of the species,” Bartali spat.

25/7/1950 Tour de France 1950. Stage 11 - Pau to St Guadens. Fiorenzo Magni splashes his face with water from a carafe. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe.
25/7/1950 Tour de France 1950.
Stage 11 – Pau to St Guadens.
Fiorenzo Magni splashes his face with water from a carafe.
Photo: Offside / L’Equipe.

Fiorenzo Magni with a helpful spectator

If the attacks were indeed real, they were not without precedent. The previous year, on a stage ending in the Val d’Aoste, a group of French riders including Robic had found their route barred by Italian spectators who hurled insults and snatched their water bottles. Meanwhile Coppi and Bartali, up ahead, won the stage unmolested. And for all the alarming behaviour of French fans on the Aspin, there’s no dearth of stories featuring French riders getting similar treatment on the Giro—with punches disguised as ‘encouraging shoves’ on crowded ascents.

There have been suggestions that the real story behind the Italian abandon was that Bartali, conscious he was reaching the end of his career, couldn’t bear the thought of being usurped by his team-mate.

The Italians all came back the next year, but their supremacy was waning and it was the Swiss Pédalleur de Charme, Hugo Koblet, who won. Coppi won again in 1952, followed by Gastone Nencini in 1960 and Felice Gimondi in 1965. Then a long, dry spell, only broken by the victories of Marco Pantani in 1998 and Vincenzo Nibali in 2014.

* It was a bad day in the saddle for Jean Robic: he had attacked earlier in the day and been first over the Aubisque, yet kept being dropped because of mechanical problems, only to heroically claw his way back to the leaders. The crash with Bartali however was the final straw, since it broke his derailleur. “So I did 70 kilometres with a derailleur that no-longer worked,” he told l’Equipe. “I am certain without this second crash I would have reached the summit of the Aspin ahead of Bartali and Bobet and I would have finished the stage with them.” Instead he finished in 13th place, four minutes behind the campionissimo.

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