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Charly Gaul: The Angel of the Mountains

With this year’s Tour de France less than a week away and one of the favorites being Andy Schleck from Luxembourg, I am reminded of Charly Gaul (Pronounced Gowl.) a former TDF winner from that same country.

Luxembourg is a tiny land-locked nation bordered by France, Germany, and Belgium; just under 1,000 square miles (2,586 sq. km.) with a population of 500,000 people.

Charly Gaul is still regarded as one of the greatest climbers of all time, his frail innocent look, and his ability to go up mountains with apparent ease earned him the title, “l’Angelo della Montagna.” (The Angel of the Mountains.)

He won the Tour de France in 1958, and the Giro d’Italia twice in 1956, and again in 1959.

He was also an accomplished time-trialist winning all three time-trials in the 1958 TDF beating one of the greatest ever against the clock, Jacques Anquetil.

His other Tour de France successes were 3rdplace in 1955 and 1961; he also won the TDF King of the Mountains Jersey 1955 and 1956. And as well as winning the Giro d’Italia twice Gaul was 3rd in that race in 1958 and 1960. He won the Giro King of the mountains in 1956 and 1959.

Charly Gaul’s climbing secret was no secret at all really; he rode a very low gear and pedaled at an extremely high cadence.

He would simply decimate the opposition by his relentless pace, infrequently climbing out of the saddle he would do so with an air of apparent ease.

Another great rider of that time, Raphaël Géminiani once said Charly Gaul was, "A murderous climber, always the same sustained rhythm, a little machine with a lower gear than the rest, turning his legs at a speed that would break your heart, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock."

He was especially good during cold, wet weather. In the heat he would often suffer and sometimes lose out to lesser climbers.

With his boyish good looks and “Giant killer” style, Gaul was loved by fans of cycle racing, but by his fellow riders, not so much. For a man who had the nick name “Angel” it seems he possibly had certain demons.  

He spoke to very few people, and never seemed happy; even his own team members said he would not discuss team tactics with them or share his prize money.

When he retired in 1962 he became a recluse, living alone in a cabin in a forest.

Gaul  emerged from isolation in 1983 when he was honored on the 25th Anniversary of his Tour de France win.

Many were surprised to see him as a shadow of his former self, a some-what curious figure with scruffy beard and a large paunch.

Charly Gaul died in 2005 of a lung infection two days before his 73rd birthday. VeloNews said: "Gaul raced in a different era, and his like will never be seen again."



Reader Comments (6)

Dave, so do you think he was using some PED, or perhaps at that time they didn't exist? Is it possible for someone to be so naturally good as to decimate other top pro riders?

June 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicheal Blue

Thanks, Dave. Entries like today's are what keeps me coming back.

June 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim Joe Comstock

Dave - thanks for the great post. It is neat to read on the history of past champions. Hopefully the Angel lead a peaceful life after his retirement. He had a lot to look back on and be proud of!

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Wow, the shot of him climbing with huge snow piles to the right and left is impressive! I guess that high cadence kept him nice and warm? Great story, as usual Dave!

July 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Katz

Micheal Blue - The modern concept of "PEDs" did not exist at the time. They were neither illegal nor banned by the sporting rules. In much of the world they were available over the counter and certainly from any doctor for about the price of a cup of coffee; perhaps at the truck stop you bought the coffee from.

Thus there were freely available to all who wished to use them and there was no "cheating" involved. Amphetimine and cocaine use was quite common. Alcohol was nearly ubiquitous. Only some considered this to be even a moral issue.

Different times; different standards. This is one of the times when saying "we can't judge them by our contemporary standards" is actually true.

August 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkfg

gaul was without doubt the best climber of that or any othet era
i was lucky to see all the greats in action and i can judge i hope without
emotion. he was the finest mountain man i ever saw. when he had one
of his days no one could match him. he was also a good time trialist
something not always given to climbers . he was a one off and i

do not think we shall see his like again.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermilton

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