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The Angel of the Mountains

This great professional cyclist was a good time triallist and an excellent climber. He perfected a high-cadence, low gear style of pedalling years before Lance Armstrong favoured the technique. Like Armstrong, he liked cold wet conditions that often felled other riders, but heat was his Achilles heel. Gaul won the gruelling Tour de France in 1958 and the equally fearsome Giro d’Italia in 1956 and 1959, ensuring his place among the greats of the professional peloton.

Gaul was born in Luxembourg in 1932 and as an amateur won over 60 events. He worked in a butcher shop before becoming a professional in 1953; soon thereafter he placed second in the Dauphiné Libéré. In 1954 he won the third stage of the Circuit of the Six Provinces and took the overall victory; placed fourth in the Dauphiné after winning a mountain stage; and bagged a bronze medal at the World Championships.

Gaul first rode the Tour de France in 1953, but abandoned, as he did the next year. In 1955, however, he delivered, winning two stages, coming third overall, and taking the King of the Mountains classification. The next year he won the overall in the Giro d'Italia, as well as two stages, one of them epic in scope. This third-last stage was a beast, 242 kilometres long, with four huge mountain climbs rendered even more difficult by a blizzard that put many of the riders into grave trouble. Of the 89 riders who began the stage, only 43 would complete the stage, and the first to cross the line was Gaul. He was blue with cold, but also eight minutes ahead of the man in second place, over 12 minutes ahead of the defending champion Fiorenzo Magni. At the Tour soon after Gaul was again King of the Mountains, and won a time trial and a major mountain stage.

In 1957 he won two stages at the Giro but lost the overall lead when he stopped for a pee; his main rivals rode off (a move considered very unsportsmanlike, by the way), and he never got back on their wheels. The Tour that year was raced during a heat wave, not Gaul's ideal conditions, and he dropped out, leaving the young Jacques Anquetil to win his debut Tour. In 1958 Gaul was third in the Giro, then 18 days later entered the Tour. He yo-yoed up and down the general classification, beating Anquetil and winning a time trial, then losing almost 12 minutes on a long rolling stage. On the last stage in the Alps, Gaul was a huge 16 minutes behind the leader, Raphaël Géminiani, and nine minutes behind third-placed Anquetil, the defending champion. Luckily for Gaul, the day was cold, windy, and rainy, and he attacked, leaving his opponents in chaos behind him. By the end of the day he was just over a minute behind the leader, and he easily took that back on the final time trial, taking his first and only Tour de France victory in decisive fashion.

In 1959 he won the Giro again, beating Anquetil by over six minutes after a dramatic solo breakaway on the penultimate stage. He won one stage and was twelfth in the Tour that year, but was hampered by the system at that time of having national teams: his small country just could not match the talent available to citizens of larger nations. So he reached the truly dizzy heights of victory again, and after years of good but not great races he retired in 1963, made an abortive comeback in 1965, then slipped from public view. Years later it emerged that he had been living as a hermit in a small hut deep in the woods. He re-emerged in 1989 after being invited to the Tour as a special guest; in contrast to the whippet-thin scrapper he used to be, he appeared heavy, bearded, and slightly dazed. He befriended the brilliant and troubled climber Marco Pantani, the only cyclist he saw as a potential heir.

Charly Gaul died in December 2005, aged 72, after a fall at his home. He is survived by his third wife and daughter.

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