Two Lives Entwined: The Golden Age of Swiss Cycling

Words: James Shepherd / Images: Cor Vos

The early 1950s marked something of a turning point in cycling. Not so much a global revolution, but an overturning of the long-established three-nation hegemony. The new European power on the rise? Switzerland.

 

Before 1950, riders from outside cycling’s dominant trinity of France, Belgium and Italy had only managed to podium in a Monument 14 times out of a possible 594 and only three “outside nations” had managed to podium at the Tour de France. The brilliant Luxembourger, François Faber, has a victory sandwiched in between his two second places from 1908 and 1910. His countryman, Nicolas Frantz, went one better with two runner-up spots and two wins in the ‘20s. After them, only the German Kurt Stöpel and Leo Amberg from Switzerland managed to break the stranglehold of the top three nations.

In 1950 though, a new nation emerged to try and break that powerful grip. If you look just past the winners from the formative years of road racing, it is little surprise that the new power was Switzerland.

SWISS PIONEERS

In the first edition of the Tour de France, Charles Laeser and three Swiss countrymen, Anton Jaeck, Paul Mercier and Marcel Lequatre, were among the sixty riders who lined up in Paris for the start of the six-stage race. By the end of the third day of racing all four had abandoned at least one stage. In fact, there were only twenty-five riders left in the general classification battle. However, in the first Tour, any of the entrants who had dropped out of the race as a whole could still compete in any of the further stages. Riders were even permitted to compete in a single stage. Fifteen rode in stage four only. It was the shortest stage of the race and was won by Laeser, the first foreign winner of a stage of the Tour de France.

The following year, the Swiss contingent was down to three. Laeser returned along with Anton Jaeck. They were joined by Michel Frédérick, a rider of some repute who had finished third in the second edition of Paris–Roubaix in 1897. Frédérick finished fourth on the first day, nearly 38 minutes behind the stage winner and defending champion Maurice Garin. He dropped to 14th at the end of the second stage and didn’t make the start line for stage three. He was never seen at the Tour de France again.

However, the 1904 race was full of controversy. Nine riders were disqualified during the race for infringements such as making up the race distance in cars and trains. After the completion of the race the French cycling federation, the UVF, started an investigation into more allegations of cheating against other riders. In December of that year the UVF concluded their findings and a further twenty riders were disqualified, including the top three from the first stage. Frédérick was awarded the stage and therefore became the first foreign leader of the Tour and perhaps the only rider to never appear at a race after being awarded its lead.

A decade later Oscar Egg, most famous for his successful attempts at the world hour record, won two Tour stages and finished 13th overall. In 1919 he won a stage at the Giro, being the first rider from outside Italy or France to do so. 1923 saw the classics specialist, Henri Suter, do the Roubaix-Flanders double.

As the sport moved into the ‘30s, Switzerland seemed not to be content with just stage wins and started to make a tentative challenge on the GC at the Tour and the Giro. At the Tour in 1931, Albert Büchi finished ninth, becoming the top Swiss finisher at the race so far. He was bettered by Leo Amberg in 1936 who reached Paris in eighth. Paul Egli had won the first stage that year and became the first Swiss rider to win the yellow jersey. The following year, Amberg became the man the next crop of Swiss cyclists would look up to by winning two stages and finishing third at the Tour. René Pedroli also won a stage to cap off a strong performance by Switzerland. Amberg would win a stage at his first Giro the following year where Karl Litschi finished eighth. Litschi won a Tour stage in 1939 but then he, Amberg and everyone else had to put things on pause for the second world war.

The years after the second world war were a golden age for cycling. The Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali continued their dominance of the Giro, but soon faced tough opposition in the form of “the third man of Italian cycling”, Fiorenzo Magni. In France, the gritty self-proclaimed-but-not-actually-born-in-Brittany Breton, Jean Robic, won the first post-war Tour and his country would soon witness the emerging talents of Louison Bobet and Raphaël Géminiani. Belgium also had a man for the Grand Tours, Stan Ockers, and as ever they were strong in the top one-day races. The winds of victory were beginning to change direction, though.

TURNING DOWN THE TOUR

Ferdinand “Ferdi” Kübler was born in 1919 to a poor family in the small hamlet of Radhof in northern Switzerland. As a child he would work in the afternoons after finishing school and when his formal education came to an end he had a job as a servant working from half past four in the morning until nine at night. His work was hard and it was for a pittance, but Kübler was a grafter and he was always looking to better himself. He soon left home and got a job with a baker in the south of Zurich where he could be seen crashing through the streets on an old banged-up bicycle, often with 35 kilos of bread on his back.

His hard work and endeavour led to his next step up when he started a job at a jewellers. His monthly income suddenly quadrupled. He moved back to his hometown and began a daily commute of 84 km which was completed on a discarded ladies’ bicycle. Before long his increased income allowed him to purchase a brand new Imholz racing machine. However, as was often the case for him, things didn’t go perfectly and his bike was stolen after only three days. A milkman from Adliswil hearing this hard luck story – and perhaps charmed by Ferdi’s friendly and outgoing personality – took pity on him and bought him a replacement. This allowed the young Kübler to doggedly continue to realise his dream of becoming a cyclist.

He turned professional in 1940 at the age of 21, but his racing was restricted to Switzerland due to the Nazi occupation in the rest of Europe. He concentrated on the track in his first years as a pro, winning the national pursuit title three times. Racing against the clock on the velodrome wasn’t his only skill though and he showed his potential as an all-rounder on the road by winning the national mountain championship in 1941 and 1942. That potential was confirmed by winning the Tour de Suisse, also in 1942. With a limited number of races to enter during the war he also tried his hand at cyclo-cross and won the national cyclo-cross title in 1945. After this victory the war was soon going to be over, borders would open and the top races would be run again. Kübler was 26 and about to reach his prime. He was ready to take on the world's best, but more bad luck was around the corner.

At the finish of the Zurich–Lausanne race in 1946 he was involved in a terrible crash and lay unconscious on the road, his skull was fractured in two places. He had to spend seven weeks in hospital, followed by three months of recuperation at home. His doctor’s parting words when he was signed off were, “We’ve patched you up but you’ll never be able to race again, never again!”

Tough, determined and hard-working Ferdi was back the next year, finishing third in a new race formed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Swiss Cycling Federation, the Tour de Romandie. He entered his first Tour de France a month later and won the opening stage. After enjoying wearing the yellow jersey for one day, he gained a second victory on stage five before abandoning on the first Alpine stage three days later. In 1948 Kübler won the Tour de Suisse as well as the Tour de Romandie and the organisers of the Tour de France were desperate to have him in their race. Always calculating and planning for a better future, he refused as he could earn more money in other races.

1949 was the first year that Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi would go head to head in both the Giro and the Tour. The structure of teams for the different races was more complicated than it is now – the Tour de France was then contested by national squads. For the 1949 edition of the race France, Belgium and Italy were permitted to enter teams of ten and the lesser nations squads of six. This would have helped the trinity maintain their dominance at the race, but such was Coppi and Bartali's rivalry the Italian team was split in two with each champion getting five gregari each at their disposal.

The Giro and the Monuments were run along the same lines as today. Each man could recruit strong riders from around Europe to their own teams to work for them during the season. But to make matters more interesting, and possibly more complicated, Swiss riders were able to ride for a Swiss trade team for races on home roads and then sign up with a foreign team elsewhere. Kübler rode for the team of the Swiss bicycle manufacturer Tebag in his country, as well as appearing for Peugeot-Dunlop in races such as Paris-Roubaix.

Taking advantage of this system and recognising the Swiss rider’s worth Bartali signed Kübler to his Bartali-Gardiol team for his battle with Coppi at the 1949 Giro. The deal was he would help Ferdi try to win the Tour de Romandie at the start of May in return for his support during La Corsa Rosa which started at the end of the month. However, the ultra-competitive Tuscan seemed to renege on their agreement. He led Romandie from start to finish after his strong squad won the opening team time trial. Bartali argued that Kübler just wasn’t strong enough and if his soon-to-be teammate couldn’t win then he might as well. Kübler saw things differently however. Bartali had won the second stage in a sprint against Kübler after the two escaped from the rest of the field and then he attacked again the next day, leading Ferdi to conclude that their deal had been broken. Further issues of a financial nature, something the notoriously penny-pinching Italian was familiar with, meant that Kübler never made the Giro start in Sicily. 

Coppi ended up thrashing Bartali, putting 23 minutes 47 seconds into him by the end. Their rematch in France as ‘teammates’ was hotly anticipated. Coppi had a great chance to complete the first ever Giro-Tour double, but if he and Bartali started tearing each other to pieces then riders such as Kübler would be there to take advantage.

Ferdi started the race well by winning stage five into Saint-Malo. The route was primarily flat for the first two weeks but had five back-to-back days in the mountains before the last day into Paris. The race was led for most of the early part by the Frenchman Jacques Marinelli and then Fiorenzo Magni took the yellow jersey after winning stage ten. Kübler sat comfortably in the top ten until stage 16 to Briançon when Coppi and Bartali, together, blew the race apart.

On the final climb of the day, the Izoard, the two Italians attacked and despite Bartali puncturing, and Coppi waiting for him, they finished over 5 minutes ahead of the third placed rider Jean Robic. Bartali was the new race leader, just ahead of Coppi, Kübler was in eighth at over 14 minutes, but with opportunities in the days ahead to make up time.

The next day was a disaster. The stage finished in Aosta (over the border in Italy) so the Italians were keen to further display their dominance. Ferdi didn’t want that to happen. He joined a breakaway that gained 10 minutes on the top two, but a series of punctures left his challenge in tatters. After using all his spare tires and then suffering from another flat he had to wait for his team car for assistance, but that too had broken down. On the final climb, the Col du Petit St-Bernard, Coppi and Bartali launched their assault and again it paid off. Coppi put nearly five minutes on Bartali that day and more than ten on the best of the rest. Kübler fared even worse. He lost more than 40 minutes to the new yellow jersey and eventual winner and left the race during the following stage. He was now nearly 30 and many would have thought that his Grand Tour ambitions, as well as Switzerland’s standing in the cycling world was going to peter out. But they would have been ignoring Kübler's dogged determination and the ‘second K’, Hugo Koblet.

THE PÉDALEUR DE CHARME

Hugo Koblet was seemingly everything that Ferdinand Kübler was not. He was born in March 1925, so was six years Kübler's junior, and into a cosmopolitan and relatively wealthy family who owned and ran a patisserie in the city of Zurich. His one sibling, older brother Adolf, took over the running of the family business when their father died in 1934 with Hugo aged nine. ‘Hugi’, as his doting mother would call him, swept the shop floor and of course, as is often the case with professional riders of a certain era, delivered bread from the shop on his bicycle. His fondness for his two-wheeled machine led to him and his brother organising races on the local streets.

Aged seventeen he left the bakery and got a job as a mechanic at the Hallenstadion velodrome in the north of the city, a job that allowed him time on the track. He showed a lot of promise on the boards but his first win was a 10 km hill climb up the Hasenberg to the west of Zurich. That performance was noted by Leo Amberg, he of Tour de France podium fame, who took Koblet under his wing. Amberg convinced his young protégé to concentrate on riding the track. This paid off. He turned professional in 1946 and became Swiss national pursuit champion a year later, the first of seven such titles in a row. He also formed a formidable pairing with Walter Diggelmann for six-day racing, earning them good money and winning the Six Days of Chicago in 1948 and the Six Days of New York in ‘49. It was during this period that he developed a love for the United States. He learnt English by watching American movies and later on in life would enjoy road trips across the country.

Despite their different starts in life, Koblet and Kübler had many similarities. They both came from a track background and Ferdi also loved the States. He was a fan of cowboy films and collected Stetson hats. As well as being called Ferdi (though he used the Germanic Ferdy) among his other nicknames was ‘Mr Cowboy’. They were also both friendly and unreserved, but their outgoing personalities were perceived differently. Koblet always had time for others and the French journalist René de Latour wrote of him:

“He had not an enemy at all. His ready and kindly smile came from deep down inside, and one knows from the start that this was a man without rancor [sic].”

Kübler on the other hand was often on the wind-up, but with a glint in his eye. The old story goes that he would tell rival riders and managers in his broken French “Ferdy attack soon, you ready?” and “Ferdy big horse. Ferdy attack now. Your boys ready?”

According to Raphaël Géminiani, often on the receiving end of these warnings, on one occasion he had had enough and replied, “Ferdy shut up or Ferdy get head knocked in.”

Kübler and Koblet also had many differences. Ferdi’s hardworking and simple lifestyle was formed during his modest upbringing and didn’t change much over the years while Hugo embraced the new and exciting. His love of jazz and fast cars was at odds with the values of not just his rival but also most of conservative Switzerland. This led to cycling fans in the country taking sides and bitterly opposing each other. The relationship between the two stars was always peaceful though. Whenever Kübler would talk of Koblet he would always use the word ‘friend’ and never ‘enemy’. They both realised they could form a mutually beneficial relationship. They had to, it was either that or be at war.

The difference between the two which was most apparent was more to do with appearance than character. On the bike Kübler would get through races with a clunky, grinding, mechanical style, while Koblet would breeze through them with an effortless, silky grace. Kübler wouldn’t have minded admitting that he was no oil painting. His big nose gave rise to another of his nicknames, ‘The Eagle of Adliswil’. Koblet, with his matinee idol looks, was known as ‘Beautiful Hugo’. Keen to keep up appearances he would keep a comb, sponge and cologne in an extra jersey pocket, keeping them ready to use to look his best at the finish line. These antics and his habit of blowing kisses to the ladies led the French music hall artist Jacques Grello to give him his most famous moniker, ‘le Pédaleur de charme.’

Importantly though, Kübler was always bettering the younger man in their GC battles during the late 40s. In 1950 everything would change, and not just for the battle between Hugo and Ferdi but the one between the Swiss and the world.

GIRO HEROES

The 1950 Giro d’Italia was hotly anticipated by the public. Coppi and Bartali would be there to resume their own personal battle, Coppi was reigning Giro and Tour champion after beating Bartali into second at both the previous year. The two would face stiff opposition from Fiorenzo Magni, Jean Robic and Ferdi Kübler.

All three Italians were in great form that year. Coppi had won at Roubaix and La Flèche Wallonne, Bartali had secured his fourth Milan-Sanremo and Magni had been victorious in the Tour of Flanders. Robic had been hard at it over the winter and had won the inaugural edition of the World Cyclo-cross Championships. The little climber would have fancied the route too, it had plenty of mountains and no time trials. Kübler’s run-up to the race was less stellar, but he would have had realistic hopes of a podium spot. Koblet, still relatively unknown by most outside his country, was only entered at the last minute as a late replacement on the Guerra team.

The race started well for Italy with an opening day win for the sprinter Oreste Conte. But with a hilly stage the next day the pink jersey would probably leave his shoulders and be up for grabs. It was Switzerland’s Fritz Schär who capitalised on the opportunity by taking second on the stage and the overall lead. Stage four saw the unfamiliar name of Hugo Koblet second on the stage standings.

Two days later the stage was to the finish in Locarno, Switzerland. It must have been a sign. With more than half of the stage to go, Koblet attacked. He was allowed to go for a while before the favourites started what they thought would be a standard reeling in of some foolhardy breakaway rider. But the debutante, in ‘time trial mode’ learnt from the track, was in the middle of brilliantly executing what would later become his signature move. The pack didn’t stand a chance and Koblet finished nearly two minutes ahead. He was up to third in the overall, Schär doggedly held onto pink and Switzerland celebrated. Three days later Koblet showed that he was more than just an opportunist breakaway rider. He attacked on the day’s major climb, the Pian delle Fugazze, with the Legnano rider Pasquale Fornara and both managed to stay away till the finish in Vicenza, where Koblet won the two-up sprint. Not only had he won his second stage, he was now in pink.

Kübler by contrast had been ploughing along. He was having a solid but uneventful race, mainly staying with the main favourites in the mountains. He was ninth overall and not far off the likes of Robic and Bartali.

The next stage, still in the mountains and with the Rolle, Pordoi and Gardena to go over, was the one which Bartali chose to make his first move in the race. His fierce rival Coppi had been in a terrible crash, breaking his pelvis before the climbing began and was out. Bartali, realising he now had a great opportunity to win another Giro, was first over the final climb, the Gardena Pass. He reached the finish in Bolzano with only two other riders and nearly three minutes over the best of the rest. Those two riders were the Swiss pair Kübler and Koblet. Koblet stayed in the maglia rosa while Koblet had moved into fourth.

Over the next few days Bartali kept attacking the race leader, trying to shrink his lead, but Koblet swatted everything away with ease. The 25-year-old Swiss even increased his advantage by winning some of the bonus seconds that were awarded at the top of the major climbs. By the end of the 13th stage he now led Bartali by 7’12”. ‘Beautiful Hugo’ also now seemed to have the help of Coppi’s Bianchi teammates. After their team leader abandoned they would have offered their services to anyone for a fast buck and it seemed Koblet had paid out rather than the notoriously tight-fisted Bartali.

The proud Tuscan, incensed that the Italian Bianchi gregarios had “accepted Swiss gold  over love of country” fought on but with only five stages left Koblet’s advantage was too large. At the race finish Koblet became the first foreigner to win the Giro d’Italia. Ferdi Kübler, finishing a Grand Tour for the first time, only just missed out on the podium by four seconds. And so began a remarkable run of Swiss success.

KÜBLER AT LAST

The next big race of 1950 was, of course, the Tour de France. Koblet sat it out and Coppi hadn’t recovered from his Giro crash but the field was still strong. The Italian team had both Bartali and Magni, the French also looked promising with Louison Bobet and Raphaël Géminiani, Stan Ockers was there for Belgium and Kübler was ready for his third assault on the Grande Boucle.

Kübler won his fourth Tour stage in the time trial at the end of the first week and it was a day that perfectly displayed the two sides of his character. As we have seen, he gained much in life when he took his time to plan out his moves, he accomplished his goals by following small steps. On the bike though he was often guilty of ill-advised, spur of the moment attacks that usually got him nowhere. This gave rise to yet another of his nicknames, ‘the pedalling madman’.

A bright start for Switzerland, but by the end of stage eleven the race was in crisis.

Bartali had just won the stage into Saint-Gaudens and Magni was in yellow but come the morning there wouldn’t be an Italian left in the race. During the stage on the final climb of the day, the Aspin, Bartali and Jean Robic collided and both riders went down. The French fans at the roadside were furious and surrounded the Italian, hurling abuse at him before the race was able to be continued. Bartali won the stage but he was incensed. He claimed that during the scuffle on the mountain a knife was pulled on him, it seemed that it was a butter knife of one of the picnicking fans but that didn’t matter to the proud Tuscan. He withdrew the Italian team, including the new race leader Magni, and the Italian B team of young riders.

Was Bartali genuinely concerned for the safety of his countrymen or did he see it as an ‘honourable’ way of abandoning a race he couldn’t win? It was true the Italians had been facing ill-feeling from the roadside fans for most of the race. It is also true that Bartali hated the thought of anyone but him winning. He would have baulked at the thought of helping someone else, even his teammate Magni, win. Bartali was the guy who was once asked for a sip of water by a dehydrated Hugo Koblet. Bartali gave him his bidon, but only after opening the top and emptying the water on to the road.

Kübler was now in yellow though he refused to wear the leader’s jersey for the next stage out of respect to the Italians. He led by 49 seconds and had his chance to win the Tour, and if he did he would be desperate for it not to be thought of as a hollow victory due to the Italian withdrawals. He accomplished his mission by winning two more stages in the mountains (one against the field and one crushing time trialling display) to put him nine and a half minutes ahead of second-placed Ockers at the finish in Paris.

AN EXCELLENT YEAR

The following year, 1951, would prove an extremely successful one for Swiss riders.

First, Kübler won La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It was the first time that this particular double had been done and it was all the more impressive when considering the two races were held on the same weekend. 

The organisers, Les Sports, had been looking at ways to raise the profile of La Doyenne. They first moved the race from summer to late spring and then decided to hold Flèche the day before it. On the Saturday Kübler had to contend with 220 kilometres full of cobbles and hills and a lead group containing himself, Jean Robic, Louison Bobet and Gino Bartali. After finishing first no one would have thought him capable of winning the main race the following day – 211 more kilometres of lumpy terrain.

It seemed that assessment would be proven right as the Belgian rider Germain Derycke was descending towards the finish alone on the Sunday. Suddenly though, a maniac appeared, flying down the final climb, shouting and gesticulating at the team cars between him and the race leader. It was the pumped-up Swiss champion and as he caught Derycke there was little question who would win the sprint for victory.

He followed that up with a solid third at the Giro where Fritz Schär again wore pink and Koblet won a stage. Koblet was unable to reclaim his title and finished sixth, but he must have been saving himself for the Tour.

Kübler sat out the 1951 Tour, but even though all the other favourites from the previous year were there, plus Fausto Coppi, Hugo Koblet put in one of the most impressive and dominating displays of Tour history. He won five stages and finished 22 minutes ahead of his closest challenger, Raphaël Géminiani.

The first stage and yellow jersey of the race was won by Giovanni Rossi of the now dominant Switzerland. During the day Koblet hinted at what was to come by attacking from the off and staying clear for 40 km. It was stage 11 from Brive to Agen that will be most remembered though. He attacked with one rider, Louis Dèpres, after 37 km. His escape partner soon fell back meaning Koblet would have to spend over 100 km on his own to win the stage. Despite the legends of that great era of cycling team time trialling in an effort to catch him he won the day with a minute and a half to spare, plenty of time to apply his aftershave and sort his hair out for the cameras at the finish. It was during this race that Jacques Grello nicknamed him ‘Le Pédaleur de charme.’

Kübler won the World Championships later that year by beating the Italians in Varese, a race the host nation thought they were guaranteed to win. More success was to come for the Swiss in the following years.

Ferdi completed his second Flèche-Liège double in the spring of 1952, then finished third again at the Giro, where Koblet finished eighth and Fritz Schär won a stage. The next year Koblet won a stage and finished second at the Giro while Fritz Schär won the opening two stages of the Tour, wore yellow for three days, finished sixth and claimed the first ever green points jersey.

PODIUM BOYS

Continuing the fine run of national form, 1954 saw one of the most dominant displays from any country at the Tour and Giro in the same year.

It started when Carlo Clerici, an Italian-born but naturalised Swiss rider and (normally)  gregario of Hugo Koblet, put together a fughe bidone [an Italian term for a breakaway that looks hopeless but winds up being successful – Ed] that ranks among the most effective ever seen at a Grand Tour.

On stage six to L’Aquila Clerici was in a group that broke away from a seemingly uninterested peloton. Many of the riders were annoyed at the huge appearance fee that the organisers had given to Fausto Coppi instead of sharing their money round more widely. Ironically the star rider in his rainbow stripes was in terrible form after eating some dodgy oysters the evening after his Bianchi team won the opening time trial. As the peloton, and Coppi, grumbled along through the stage the breakaway kept increasing their lead and Clerici eventually won the stage with more than 34 minutes to spare on the top GC men. He was by no means a world-class climber, but the huge advantage was big enough to hold pink all the way to the race finish in Milan. Koblet who supported him well through the mountains won two stages and finished second, while Fritz Schär ended up ninth.

Later that year at the Tour, Carlo Clerici rode to a solid 12th. Ferdi Kübler won two stages while finishing second, one spot ahead of Fritz Schär. Swiss riders occupied four of the six podium spots for the Giro and Tour, something Belgium and France have never managed to do to this day.

DECLINE AND FALL

Clerici never came close to matching his displays of 1954. In 1955 Schär was 30 and would manage some decent results on home soil but never see a repeat of his stage-winning, leader’s jersey-wearing days abroad. Nor ever finish a Grand Tour again. Kübler, the elder statesman, was 35.

At the 1955 Tour Kübler rode Mont Ventoux for the first time. ‘The Beast of Provence’ would appear at the midpoint of the race and with Kübler down almost half an hour in the GC he was hoping that the mountain would provide some salvation for him. On its lower slopes Ferdi was looking frisky and drew out a warning from Raphaël Géminiani that Ventoux “wasn’t a mountain like any other.” The story, since denied by Kübler, goes that the Swiss proudly replied, “Ferdy’s a racer not like others” and attacked 10 km from the summit.

Whether he said it or not, it’s a matter of record that his efforts on the Ventoux were too much for the ageing star and Kübler soon became delirious, weaving up the road and foaming at the mouth. He refused the pleading of his manager running beside him to take it easy and ended up crashing numerous times on the descent. He reached the finish in Avignon 26 minutes behind the stage winner Louison Bobet and announced that evening that he was giving up racing. “He is too old, Ferdy, he is too sick; Ferdy killed himself on the Ventoux.” He left the Tour that night, never to return. He did carry on racing till 1957 with his last major victory being Milano–Torino in 1956.

Hugo Koblet raced on till 1958, time enough to win his third Tour de Suisse, one more stage at the Giro and a runner-up spot at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. He even won a stage at the 1956 Vuelta, becoming the third rider to win a stage at all three Grand Tours.

In truth though his powers had started to wane in the summer of 1952, just one year after his magnificent Tour de France win. On the morning of a mountainous stage four of the Tour de Suisse, Koblet started suffering from cold shivers and a high fever, he had a ureteral inflammation and wanted to abandon the race. The authoritarian race director Carl Senn was not keen to let this happen. He put pressure on his star attraction to continue and told the race doctor to make Koblet fit for the race. The habitually positive rider happily went along with his orders and started the stage. The pace was hot that day and the sick rider quickly became exhausted. He had no choice but to step off on the final climb.

He visited his family doctor soon after expecting to be prescribed a course of antibiotics but instead he was told that he had suffered from cardiac dilatation – bursting of the ventricle and valves, impairment of the function of the aortic valve and loss of a quarter of the cardiac capacity. Basically, his heart couldn’t pump blood effectively.

It was unclear when the condition started. Was it the result of racing with a broken-down body during his home tour? Or was there another reason? René de Latour wrote that he noticed his power had decreased after a trip to Mexico in the Autumn of 1951. Koblet visited various specialists to try and sort out his heart but everyone agreed he was never the same rider. Jean Bobet noted that he would start suffering an odd sickness at 2,000m and as time passed that suffering would happen at 1,500m then 1,000m. “His face grew older and his personality somber,” wrote the Frenchman.

Koblet failed to finish the two Tours de France he entered after his 1951 victory, his second place in the 1954 Giro was achieved ahead of a dispirited peloton who were unwilling to put on a show for the organisers they were in dispute with, and the runner-up spot at the race the year before – while admirable for most – was the result of a dreadful capitulation on his part.

Koblet had taken the lead of the race after his victory in the stage eight time trial. He led Fausto Coppi, his closest rival in the GC, by 1’21". The stage 11 team time trial saw the lead cut to only 55 seconds but on stage 18 he showcased his skills as the great cyclist he was by escaping on a descent and increasing his overall lead again to 1’59”.

There were three stages left, two in the mountains and the flat final run in to Milan. The nineteenth day of racing was over four climbs and ended in the Bolzano velodrome. Koblet attacked on the penultimate climb, the Pordoi, only to be caught and passed by Coppi on the slopes of the Sella. Again the Swiss rider descended like an eagle and was able to catch his prey. Coppi easily won the sprint by a few lengths, Koblet had nothing left in the tank, but the officials gave both riders the same time perhaps believing they had witnessed the new Giro champion graciously conceding the stage. Coppi must have agreed telling Koblet, “My compliments, the Giro is yours. You are the strongest.”

While Coppi seemed downbeat his teammates were sure that their leader could still overhaul Koblet on the penultimate stage and would have been keen to get their hands on a share of his winnings. They spent the evening trying to convince Coppi that Koblet was weakening and could be taken on the final climb of the race, the Stelvio. The next morning “Il Campionissimo” still hadn’t been turned but then one of his gregarios brought him some interesting information. Ettore Milano had seen Hugo Koblet earlier in the morning and had noted his dilated pupils and haggard looks. Coppi knew better than anyone what this meant. Koblet had been hitting the amphetamines hard, he needed them to survive the race and probably hadn’t slept a wink the night before. Coppi would go for his fifth title after all.

This was the time when doping wasn’t illegal and was therefore widespread and usually conspicuous. Fans and riders had different views on the morality of drug-taking though. Fritz Schär’s nickname was ‘Pillenfritz’ due to his fondness for tablets of all sorts, but his moniker didn’t seem to have an impact on his popularity. Ferdi Kübler was a little more coy on the subject. He was challenged with “assisting” his performance on a few occasions and after his nightmare on Ventoux various drug products were found in his hotel room. But he always denied being a doper.

On the lower slopes of the Stelvio, Coppi’s team set a fast pace. Koblet looked weak but Coppi seemed unsure of whether to attack and soon found himself out of teammates. As it seemed he was running out of time he asked Nino Defilippis of the rival Legnano team to attack. The 21-year-old, possibly star-struck, obliged. Koblet just needed to follow Coppi’s wheel but because of his nature he was unable to contain himself and he went after Defilippis. He soon began to falter and Coppi, sensing his moment, bridged up to the pair and shot up the mountain on his own to become the focus of the iconic images of the lone Campionissimo between the walls of snow on the Stelvio pass. Due to a mixture of drugs, tiredness and desperation Koblet was unable to put on another descending masterclass into the finish in Bormio that day. He finished 3’28" behind Coppi and had lost the race.

FINAL KS

Ferdi Kübler had a long and happy retirement after stepping off the bike. He stayed in the sport for a couple of years by managing the Italian Gazzola team, which boasted Charly Gaul on its roster. After this he bought a flower shop in Zurich but made sure he stayed active. He became a ski instructor and then took up curling. His first marriage ended in divorce but he fell in love with an air stewardess he met on the ski slopes named Christina Leibundgut. After many years he convinced her to tie the knot with him and they married in 1976 and had two sons together. Even in his later years people would recognise him and stop to ask him about his cycling days, get his autograph and have their picture taken. The friendly Ferdi would always be more than happy to give his time. In 1983 he was voted the Swiss Sportsman of the Century and in 1992 he decided that golf would be his game and spent much of his later years on the golf course. He passed away in 2016 aged 97.

As with almost everything else in their lives Hugo Koblet’s retirement was very different to his compatriot’s. It would be fair to say that Kübler had a frugal, cautious nature. This may have been because he had to work very hard to get where he was, both on and off the bike. Koblet on the other hand breezed through life and when it came to finances he was of a more generous disposition. He was always spoiling his mother and would support his brother who ran a number of struggling restaurant businesses. His friends in the peloton who weren’t accustomed to the financial rewards of winning Grand Tours could expect racing kit and equipment from Hugo.

Unfortunately this generosity led to him being taken advantage of. He would grant loans to slick talkers and never see the money again. In 1958 both Koblet and Fausto Coppi travelled to Bogota to perform in some exhibitions on the velodrome there. When they went to collect their appearance cheques though they found that they had vanished along with the trickster who had organised the event. Koblet involved himself with a number of business ventures with little success as he traversed the difficult transition away from professional cycling. He became the representative of some Italian brands such as Fiat and Alfa Romeo in Venezuela, but that didn’t work out so he moved back to Zurich and opened a petrol station. That also failed and he was soon facing bankruptcy. The pressures of the situation he was in started to affect his home life and contributed to the breakdown of his marriage.

He was often warned of the pitfalls of not putting aside money during his career by his sometime track racing partner Armin von Büren. Koblet told him "Armin, I do not love money the way you do, I do not care. I do not save, I spend the money, because I do not live long anyway.” On the 1st of November 1964 Koblet turned up at von Büren’s door asking for 20,000 francs to pay off some of his debts. He also told his friend that his divorce appeal was due to be heard in two days.

The next day near the town of Mönchaltorf south-west of Zurich a white Alfa Romeo was seen driving up and down the road, seemingly lost, searching for something. It made one last turn and accelerated up the road, faster than before, and instead of following the right-hand corner it left the tarmac and came to an abrupt stop as it thudded into a pear tree. The driver was Hugo Koblet. He passed away four days later aged 39.