Former Tour de France champion Roger Walkowiak has died

Former Tour de France champion Roger Walkowiak has died at the age of 89.

Walkowiak’s wife told The Associated Press her husband died early Tuesday in a hospital near Vichy.

The Frenchman had been the oldest living Tour winner after Ferdy Kuebler died in December at 97.

Walkowiak, the son of a Polish factory worker, created a major upset when he won cycling’s biggest race in 1956. The win was so unexpected that it originated a French expression still in use today: “à la walko,” which translates as “Doing a Walko” and means a surprise win by an unheralded rider.

From 1930 the Tour de France had been contested by national and regional teams. Roger Walkowiak was recruited for the French regional Nord-Est-Centre team, representing the North-east and Centre of France, despite coming from Montluçon in the South-West. He was the only rider available at late notice to replace an original team member, Gilbert Bauvin, who had been promoted to France’s main team.

Walkowiak escaped on the 7th stage from Lorient to Angers in a group of 31 riders that won that day by over 18 minutes. The advantage was enough to give him the yellow jersey of the overall race lead. At this stage the race’s stars did not consider this ‘insignificant’ rider to be a risk.

Walkowiak lost the jersey to Gerrit Voorting at the end of stage 10 which took some of the pressure off his shoulders. In the Pyrenees Belgium’s Jan Adriaensens took the lead. At Aix-en-Provence (stage 15) Dutchman Wout Wagtmans took the jersey, but Walkowiak was still well placed.

He  took back the yellow jersey in stage 18 after losing only 8 minutes in the Pyrenees.

For the last four stages, Walkowiak defended his lead, reaching the finish at the Parc des Princes on 28 July just over a minute ahead of Gilbert Bauvin. The race was won in a then record speed of 36.268 km/h.

Walkowiak became the second rider to win the Tour without winning on any of the individual day’s stages that make up the race, and is the only rider to ever win the Tour de France and never win an individual stage in any year.

France, however, remained unimpressed after his win and for many years, Walkowiak’s name passed into the language, so that do something “à la Walko” meant to succeed unexpectedly or without panache.

That reaction depressed Walkowiak. He rode the Tour the following year, but slipped from top of the field to almost the bottom. He rode the Tour of Spain, the Vuelta a España, in 1957 and won a stage, raced a further two years and then retired to run a bar in the area from which he had left, as an unknown, to win the Tour de France. When even his customers teased him about winning the Tour, he lost confidence still more and went back to working on a lathe in the car factory in Montluçon that had employed him as a young man.

It took many years to persuade Walkowiak that there was merit in what he had done and, though he lived quietly in south-west France, he did talk about the day he became the unknown who won the world’s greatest cycling race.

The oldest living Tour winner is now Federico Bahamontes, who won the Tour in 1959.