How Charly Gaul Became the Angel of the Mountains

By Martin Atanasov

No other sporting event has produced as many legends as the Tour de France in its century-old history. Every generation has at least 2 or 3 cyclists worthy of becoming household names (at least in the cycling community). However, just a few deserve to be dubbed with a nickname that transcends time and generations and remains a beacon in cycling history. Charley Gaul has earned to be one of them, and thanks to his performance at the 1958 Tour de France, he will remain in cycling history as “The Angel of the Mountains”.

Gaul before becoming the Angel

The Luxembourgian cyclist looked more like a salt stick than a man. Everyone described him as fragile, with a sad-looking face and legs as short as his temper. Gaul looked more like a butcher, which was fortunate, as this was his job before he started racing. By 1953, when he started his first pro-cycling race, Charly already had over 60 individual wins as an amateur. When he was 17, he impressed the cycling world by winning the climb of Grossglockner during the Tour de Austria, setting a stage record.

Gaul finished 8th in his first professional race, Criterium de la Poymultipliee, and later the same year, he achieved his first victory in the national cyclo-cross championship in Luxembourg.

1953 was truly eventful for the 20-year-old Gaul as he recorded his first Tour de France appearance. However, cycling across vast distances in France turned out to be more than Charly could handle, and he gave up at stage 6. In 1954, he tried for a second time but once again didn’t get to the finish. This bumpy start, however, only motivated Gaul, and only a year later, his phenomenal physique started dominating the cycling world.

Gaul ascending

1955 was the year when the Luxembourgian rider began to show his potential. Being part of one of the weakest teams at the time, Magnat-Debon, certainly didn’t help him in the opening stages of the 1955 Tour de France. His time suffered horrendously and by stage 7, he was 37th. Once the Tour reached the Alps, however, Gaul was ready to shine. Stage 8 from Thonon-Les-Bains to Briancon featured several tough climbs. When crossing col du Telefraphe, the Luxembourgian had over 5 minutes on the cyclist behind, which he extended to 15 minutes on top of Col du Galibier.

Charly Gaul
Charly Gaul at the 1955 Tour. © Profimedia

Gaul started the stage 37th and finished 3rd. Instantly, he became the centre of attention. The next stage, once again, Gaul was showing no mercy as he was going after the yellow jersey. He had to drop another 10 minutes, which seemed like an easy enough task for the Luxembourgian. However, a hard crash on a slippery descent, thanks to the heavy rain, declined his offensive. When the race reached the Pyrenees, Gaul once again tried to fly away but his strength was enough only to win the mountain competition and get third place in Paris.

Gaul becomes the Angel of the mountains.

After five years of disappointments, Charly was determined to finally conquer Paris. His tactics changed drastically, and instead of waiting for the Alps, Gaul kept close to the leaders, and at stage 8, he won the individual time trial at Châteaulin. Despite this success, Gaul continued to lose time in the following stages. The leadership was chaotic as the yellow jersey changed its owner every 2-3 stages. Many thought that Gaul would abandon another Tour de France in the hopes that next year it would be better.

Instead, Charly was waiting for his time to shine. He knew his opponents were getting more exhausted by the day, and the Alps were on the way to Paris. At stage 18, the Tour finally reached the Alps, and the first stage was a time trial from Bedoin to Mont-Ventoux. A 21-km run with 1,600 m of elevation. Gaul wasn’t cycling – he was flying. He managed to set a record that would remain unbeaten for 31 years. Gaul conquered the summit in 1:02:09 despite the horrendous road conditions at the time. This allowed him to jump from sixth to third place, and Favero and Geminiani were already anticipating what was coming.

Fortunately for them, the bad luck that followed Gaul once again put a stick in his wheel, and a mechanical problem stopped him for 10 minutes at stage 19. Favero was more than three minutes ahead. In the twentieth stage, Gaul once again lost time on the leaders, with Geminiani more than sixteen minutes in front. All seemed lost but Gaul wasn’t ready to give up. Not when there were still two stages in the Alps.

When the Angel became a legend

Stage 21 was a 219-km ride from Briancon to Alx-les-Bains. The day’s weather was terrible. Heavy rain was drenching the road, and everyone was gloomy except for Charly. He was smiling. This was his day, and the weather was perfect for his plans. He went to Bobet, a cyclist toward whom Gaul had burning hatred, and told him that he would attack the first climb of the day. Gaul stayed true to his word and escaped with Bahamontes following him closely. However, the bad weather forced the Spaniard to drop out. Charly, on the other hand, was like a locomotive. His margin grew by the minute.

1955 Tour de France
The pack at the 1955 Tour. © Profimedia

In desperation, Geminiani asked the French team for help but they refused. Furthermore, he forgot to take food from the food zone, and by the end, all his energy had burned away. Finally, when darkness was settling, Gaul crossed the finish line with a slight smile, despite being soaked to the bone. Nonetheless, he had finished 12:20 in front of the chasers and a staggering 15 minutes in front of Geminiani. Now Gaul was only 67 seconds away from the new leader, Favero and only 39 seconds from Geminiani.

This was a soul-crushing defeat for the two riders who were only awaiting their fate. The flat 22 stage offered no changes, as all were riding rather defensively, waiting for the time trial that was coming up. This time trial was on flat land but still at stage 23, just after the Alps. Geminiani and Favero were exhausted, while Gaul had enough energy to go for another Tour across France. The Luxembourgian set the winning pace, and the Frenchmen and Italian were no match. They lost more than three minutes and Charly Gaul claimed the yellow jersey for the first time. The last stage was just a parade for Gaul, as he faced zero resistance from his morally, physically and emotionally defeated rivals. The Luxembourgian rider finally reached the top after so much bad luck and drama.

A bitter-sweet end for a brilliant cyclist

Charly Gaul recorded a total of 10 stage wins at the Tour de France and another 11 at Giro d’Italia. He grabbed two GC and MC titles in the Giro in ’56 and ’59. However, his grumpy, gloomy, and often aggressive demeanour never allowed him to become a fan favourite, and in his later years, they even started booing the Luxembourgian. After his career ended, he renounced biking and was secluded from the public eye in a small forest hut in Ardennes. Charly refused to pick up his phone and removed himself from the phonebook. This continued till 1983 when he met his third wife who turned his world around. From a grumpy old man, he became, for the first time in his life, cheerful, loved and happy. This final chapter of his life was the reward he should have had all those years ago.