30 December 2016

The Oldest Tour Winner Dies: Ferdinand "Ferdi" Kubler

Yesterday, I mentioned that Scots have made more than their share of contributions to the development of bicycles and cycling.  Today I am going to mention a country that has produced more than its share of world-class cyclists, and one of those cyclists in particular.

After Belgium, Switzerland has probably turned out more elite racers in proportion to its population than any other country.  One thing both countries have in common, besides great chocolate, is that they're both small and multi-lingual.  Now, whether that has anything to do with their status as velocipedic hotbeds, I don't know.  (Personally, I think the chocolates would be more of a factor!)  One might also argue that topography is a factor.  Belgium has a wide variety of terrain, from mountains in the south to table-flat land in the north, which also means varying weather conditions.  Switzerland also has widely varying weather, but as a result of one type of landscape that dominates the country:  mountains.

So, not surprisingly, some of the sport's best climbers came from the Alpine nation.  One of them can be seen in this photo, climbing Mont Ventoux during the 1955 Tour de France:

He is none other than Ferdinand Kubler, who became the first Helvetian winner of the Tour in 1950.  This victory was particuarly sweet for "Ferdi", who won stages of the 1947 and 1949 editions of the Tour but did not finish either.  The 1947 running of the race was the first since 1939, when World War II broke out--and when Kubler was beginning his professional career.

Ferdi Kubler encouraged by his wife, Rosa, at the peak of a grueling climb.

So, even though he had a more impressive palmares than 99 percent of those who've ever raced, it's still difficult not wonder "What if?"   When he won the Tour, he was already 31 years old:  an age at which even the best riders are starting the downward slope of their careers. (Eddy Mercx retired at 33.)  He would stand on the Tour podium one more time, four years later, when he finished second. In 1951--the year in which he also won the World Championship--and 1952, he finished third in the Giro d'Italia.  He never entered the Vuelta a Espana, but at that time, it didn't have the stature it now enjoys.

Hugo Koblet in 1950

Interestingly, in 1951--the year after Ferdi's win--Hugo Koblet would become the second Swiss Tour de France champion.  The two riders could hardly have presented a greater contrast, each defying Swiss stereotypes in entirely different ways. While Kubler was devoted to the family who accompanied him to his races, he was known as a high-spirited and even impulsive rider who sometimes made strategically unwise attacks.  Koblet, on the other hand, was a "rock star" of the racing world:   Female fans flocked to see the "Pedaleur de Charme" with matinee-idol looks, and he had a reputation for high living and hard partying.  He married a model who would divorce him a few years later.   However, on the bike he was a very disciplined and pedaled with an elegance and grace that would not be seen until Stephen Roche came along three decades later. 

Hugo Koblet as he is often remembered.

Another contrast can be seen in what happened to Kubler and Koblet after their respective Tour victories.  Although he never replicated the Tour victory, Kubler continued to race at a high level for another half-decade, continuing to win a number of "classics" before retiring from competitive racing in 1957, at age 38.  Koblet, however, "crashed" after the 1951 Tour: Jean Bobet (brother of three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet) said, "we saw him unable to ride over the smallest hill".  The writer Olivier Dazat described a "suddenly aged" man who "seemed preoccupied"--probably with his marital, debt and tax troubles.  

Koblet's death at age 39, in 1964, is widely believed to be a suicide.  Kubler, in yet another contrast, spent his 97th Christmas with his family before dying a few days later--yesterday--in a Zurich hospital.  He was the oldest living Tour de France winner.  And, in a nation that has produced many great bicycle racers, he was chosen as Sportsman of the Century.

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