Tour de France 21 Stories: The Well-Digger’s Downfall

Stage 11: Carcassone-Montpellier

Those stages along the Mediterranean between one set of mountains and the next are usually recovery days. But the roads of the Roussillon can also be frying pan hot, with little tree cover for shade.

On the 27th July 1950, on a 215k stage from Perpignan to Nimes, one rider took a gamble on the heat, and lost.

It was 40°C in the shade, so no one minded when two Algerians set off up the road, into a headwind, on the hottest day of the Tour. Abdelkader Zaaf and Marcel Molinès were riding for the six-man North African team, made up of Algerian and Moroccan riders. They were the perfect breakaway: closer to the bottom than the top of the GC, and inexperienced (only Zaaf had previously ridden in the Tour, in ’48), they posed no threat to the leaders. So, a day off for everyone else. Let the Africans roast. The peloton was so relaxed, yellow jersey Ferdi Kübler could stop at fountains to fill his drinking bottles and still coast back to the bunch.

And so they rode, for hours on end, into the crushing heat, the much bigger Zaaf, a well-digger by trade, doing the lion’s share of the work. At times the Algerians had a margin of 20 minutes.

What a day for North African cycling!

Then things went awry. 28k from the stage finish, Zaaf began to zigzag across the road, unable to control his bike. Aiming for some shade, he crashed into a low wall. Spectators tried to help him, but he brushed them away. He set off again, in the wrong direction. His directeur sportif stopped him, turned him round. He set off again, then collapsed, got up, rode 100 metres, collapsed again. He was finally led under a plane tree, where he passed out. There’s footage of it online; it’s painful to watch. He was eventually bundled into an ambulance, apparently stinking of alcohol. L’Equipe explained spectators had been plying the thirsty Algerians with their local wines.

Readers bought the story, and bonviveur Zaaf became one of the peloton’s most popular figures. It did him no harm; a rider of middling talent, he now got the sort of lucrative criterium contracts normally reserved for champions.

But why would a rider intent on a stage win get drunk—a rider who was, furthermore, meant to be a devout Muslim? Was he simply suffering from heatstroke and exhaustion? Did spectators splash wine on the rider to revive him?

Zaaf’s team-mate Ahmed Kebaili and the French rider Raphaël Géminiani both later claimed he’d taken amphetamines, which seems plausible: there are plenty of amphetamine-related tales of riders collapsing in the heat. But then, if a devout Muslim doesn’t drink, why would he take drugs? Zaaf and all his team-mates have long since passed away, so we’ll probably never know the truth.

But to get back to the race: the 21-year old Molinès, who’d been overwhelmed in this Tour and barely able to scrape through the Pyrenees, forged on alone. He became the first North African to win a stage, with a margin of four minutes over the next rider, and 14 over the main peloton. “I swear to you, it will be celebrated like a national holiday in Algiers,” declared the team’s jubilant DS, Tony Arbona.

Sadly in France, the high point of Molinès’ career was but a footnote to the day’s main drama: near the finish a series of mechanical incidents waylaid Géminiani, in third place on GC, and four other riders from the French team, leaving Louison Bobet, in second place, defenceless. Kübler clocked the situation and shot off with Stan Ockers, the Belgian classics specialist. In the space of 50k on the flat, they did a thorough wrecking job, putting 10 minutes into the exhausted French riders. While Bobet sobbed, his GC hopes pulverised, a furious Géminiani swore the blackest revenge.

This story’s not quite finished: the next day, on another sweltering stage from Toulon to Menton—the one where everyone famously jumped in the sea—the North Africans triumphed again, when Custodio dos Reis and Marcel Zelasco broke away to win the second and last stage victory from a North African rider in the Tour.

The next year, Zaaf was back. He made two moves: one that triggered Fausto Coppi’s breakdown, the other, his comeback. But that’s another tale.

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