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'I fell 70m off a mountain': When Van Est plunged off the Aubisque and Koblet was king: The Re-Cycle

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Wim van Est - Re-Cycle

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ByFelix Lowe
25/06/2020 at 11:28 | Updated 25/06/2020 at 12:46

Felix Lowe remembers the first Dutchman to lead the Tour de France: Wim van Est, in 1951. But he crashed 70m into a Pyrenean ravine – and was lucky to escape with his life – before Pédaleur de Charme Hugo Koblet reigned supreme

Sixteen riders have withdrawn from the Tour de France while wearing the Yellow Jersey – but none more dramatically than Wim van Est.

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Sickness and a broken bike accounted for Francis Pélissier and Victor Fontan in the 1920s, while another French duo – Bernard Hinault (in 1980) and Stéphane Heulot (in 1996) – bowed out with knee injuries.

Belgium's Sylvère Maes and Italy's Fiorenzo Magni left in protest in 1937 and 1950 respectively, while another Belgian, Bernard van de Kerkhove, was laid low by sunstroke in 1965. Then, in 1983, came France’s Pascal Simon, who soldiered on for six days with a fractured shoulder before quitting in yellow almost within touching distance of Paris.

Others, under the darkness of a doping cloud, were booted out. That includes Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, in 2007, and Michel Pollentier, the Belgian who attempted to use someone else's urine sample during a doping test in 1978.

Pollentier’s method is worth a mention. The rider had rigged up a system that held the sample in a condom under his armpit. It was then fed down through a tube under his jersey to give the impression, with his back turned, that he was passing it as his own. Pollentier was uncovered only after another rider had difficulty operating his own system of tubes and aroused the suspicion of the doctor, who then demanded Pollentier lift his own jersey.

Then you have those unfortunate souls who, despite sitting on the top of the deck, were dealt a fateful card, with huge opening-week falls dashing the hopes of Chris Boardman in 1998, Fabian Cancellara, and Tony Martin – both in 2015.

And so, we turn to the only Dutchman on the list.

Wim van Est had barely ridden two thirds of his first day leading the Tour when he careered off the road and into a ravine in the Pyrenees. He came to rest just metres above a sheer drop that would have ended not only his race, but his life.

Who was Wim van Est?

Known as Iron William, TheLocomotive and even The Executioner, Willem van Est was best known, simply, as ‘Wim’. The beefy, barrel-chested Dutchman was born in Brabant in 1923, the second of 16 – yes, sixteen – children. His younger brothers Nico and Piet were also cyclists, with the latter winning a stage of the Giro in the early sixties.

Life was tough for the Van Ests, who lost everything during the First World War and lived on a makeshift farm. When one of Wim's brothers died of a respiratory illness, Van Est's father couldn't afford to buy a coffin. He had to make one himself before cycling to the local church, the coffin under his arm and a shovel attached to his frame with an inner tube, to bury his son.

To help support his impoverished family during the Second World War, Wim cycled across the border to Belgium to smuggle cheese and tobacco as a teenager, often returning with soap that he would sell on the black market – an illicit activity that earned him six months in prison, but also helped build his strength.

With the War, and his stint behind bars, over, Van Est turned his thoughts to racing to earn his crust. He had watched a race in his village, St-Willebrord, and reckoned he could go faster. And with good reason. In those days, coal delivery lorries were used as broom wagons on the amateur circuit; Wim had a knack of attacking from far out, making him rather unpopular among his soot-covered rivals.

The happy-go-lucky Van Est turned pro in 1949 at the age of 26. A year later, he won the gruelling 600km Bordeaux-Paris marathon classic, returning in 1951 to finish second. Strong as an ox, Van Est's armoury was a melange of passion, guile and brute force – exactly what you'd expect from a hard-working farmhand with a weather-beaten face, calloused fists and a Dutch dialect so severe that even most of his compatriots struggled to understand what he was saying.

Van Est's bike-handling and cornering also left a lot to be desired – but being a tough nut, he would always pick himself up and get back in the saddle. By 1951 he had done enough to catch the eye of the Dutch selectors, who picked him to make his Tour debut. Growing up in poverty meant Van Est had travelled very little – those two trips to Bordeaux were the farthest he'd ever strayed from home.

Now the 28-year-old was to embark on a tour of France. It would be the first time Van Est had seen – let alone ridden up – a proper mountain.

Setting the scene: Swiss roll

The route of the 1951 Tour de France stood out for two reasons – it was the first Tour to feature Mont Ventoux, and the first route to stray from France's hexagonal circumference and visit the country's interior, with two stages in the Massif Central.

The defending champion, Ferdinand Kübler, was not present at the start in Metz. After a stellar spring in which he'd won the Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Romandie, the Swiss rider had finished third in the Giro before winning the Tour de Suisse. If Kübler was due a rest, he also had no desire to ride in the services of his compatriot and rival Koblet in France.

Koblet had been beaten by Kübler in both the Tours of Romandie and Switzerland either side of finishing sixth in the Giro, one year after becoming the first non-Italian winner – and that on his Giro debut. But the 26-year-old – five years his rival's junior – was a star on the rise, and he'd been promised leadership of the Swiss team in France despite Kübler's win in 1950.

Theirs was a rivalry that, if not quite of Coppi-verses-Bartali stature, was just as intriguing. Two huge, powerful engines, Kübler and Koblet were not so much chalk and cheese on the bike as Emmental and Gruyère – and there was no debate as to whom was riddled with more holes.

Kübler was a strongman, instantly recognisable from his hooked nose and demonic grin which, at times of saddle-bound hardship, gave him a look of a crazed Mr Punch. Often frothing at the mouth when making big efforts, he earned himself the nickname ‘The Pedalling Madman’.

No such moniker for Koblet, the original Pédaleur de Charme. Tall, manicured, urbane – Koblet had matinee idol looks and rarely raced without a comb in his back pocket, sometimes alongside a small bottle of eau de cologne. A smooth, elegant rider, he wasn't averse to striking out from distance – after all, winning by a big margin gave him the chance to wash his face and sort out his wavy fair hair before taking the arm of a hostess on the podium.

The peloton had not seen anyone this beautiful since the days of Charles Pélissier. If the French dandy was the Beau Brummell of the bunch, then Koblet was called "Apollo on a Bike" by L'Équipe.

Behind every smooth façade, however, the truth is often less pristine. Take Koblet's habit of combing his hair during races, for instance. It is thought he employed this tactic to gain a psychological advantage over his rivals by giving the impression he was finding it all too easy. It was a tactic he used on the hardest climb of the 1950 Tour de Suisse. In reality, he was actually suffering from acute haemorrhoids.

It was an open field that started the Tour in Metz on July 4, 1951. On paper, Fausto Coppi should have been the man to beat, but the Italian campionissimo was reeling from the death of his brother following a crash in the Tour of Romandie just weeks earlier.

The grieving Coppi had threatened to quit cycling, but decided to take to the start just days after burying his beloved Serse, the 1949 joint Paris-Roubaix winner and was in no state to compete for yellow. Indeed, he seemed preoccupied in trying to persuade the Tour organisers to bend the ‘men only’ rule in the caravan so he could be accompanied by his wife during the race.

A strong Italian team still boasted the talents of Gino Bartali and the so-called "third man" of the golden age, Fiorenzo Magni, while the Belgians were led by the dependable Stan Ockers, runner-up to Kübler in 1950.

Koblet's biggest challenger perhaps came from France’s ranks, which boasted the 1947 champion Jean Robic, the climber Raphaël Géminiani, and the all-rounder Louison Bobet, the French national champion who had won Milan-San Remo in the spring.

Koblet takes control

On his first day in the Tour, Koblet could not resist having a dig. Barely had the gun fired for the opening stage to Reims when the Swiss charmer put in a rasping attack. After 40km of frantic chasing, Koblet was brought to heel and a truce ensued, but he had left no one in the dark as to his over-arching intentions.

The race settled until the first time trial, a mammoth 85km offering for Stage 7, when Koblet didn't so much throw down the gauntlet as toss in an entire suit of armour, winning in Angers while eliminating a dozen riders in the process.

A time-keeping botch, however, initially had Bobet down for the win – which would have put the Frenchman in yellow. But the intermediate timings showed this was impossible, and Koblet was duly granted his rightful triumph. With an extra minute time bonus, he rose to third place on GC.

The next three stages saw the Tour head inland to the Massif Central, but it was Stage 11, a transitional ride south between Brive and Agen, where Koblet really came into his own. With the Pyrenees and Alps still on the horizon, no one expected anyone with designs on the Maillot Jaune to attack on such an innocuous stage – but Koblet was king of the unconventional.

As the debutant zipped clear with 135km remaining, his rivals laughed into their musettes, no doubt believing he would burn himself out before the mountains. Soon, the gap was up to four minutes and panic spread like wildfire.

A puncture for Bobet meant the French team had to drop back, leaving only the Italians to chase. The gap was still three minutes with 70km to go – and despite the best efforts of the peloton, Koblet held his nerve. The Swiss rolled into Agen more than three-and-a-half minutes ahead.

Philippe Brunel wrote in L'Équipe that:

Followers were astonished to see him sit up, blow kisses to girls and take out of his pocket a sponge soaked in water. He was barely across the line when he rinsed his face in Perrier, combed his hair, then started his stopwatch.

The stopwatch was to avoid a repeat of the incident that marred Koblet’s time trial victory: he wanted to make sure the officials got it right this time. It was after this great escape that the cabaret singer Jacques Grello coined the famous "Pédaleur de Charme" phrase that would become part of cycling folklore.

Koblet stayed in third place in the standings, but slashed his deficit to leader Roger Levêque to 3'27" with Gilbert Bauvin splitting the two at 36 seconds. Another Frenchman, Géminiani, was up to fourth, but under no illusions as to who was in control of the race.

"That was a performance without equal," he said. "If there were two Koblets in the sport I would retire from cycling tomorrow... If he climbs like he races on the flat, then we can say goodbye to the Yellow Jersey. None of us will wear it. If he avoids any problems, then we can all start looking for another job."

Red hot Dutch

But what of our man Wim van Est in all of this? The Dutch debutant had enjoyed a solid start to his Tour career, having been part of the Stage 6 break – alongside Levêque and Bauvin – which stole a 13-minute march on the peloton.

One day after Koblet's masterclass, Van Est struck out to make history. Alongside compatriot Gerrit Voorting, he was part of a 10-man break that quickly built up a big lead over the pack during the 233km stage from Agen to Dax. With no GC threat in the move, the gap continued to grow. Voorting then led out his teammate, who got the better of French fast man Louis Caput on a cinder running track in the spa town of south-west France.

With the peloton coming home more than 18 minutes down, Van Est not only took a debut stage win, but wrested control of the Yellow Jersey. And he made a piece of Dutch cycling history in the process.

Speaking at the time, a jubilant but clinical Van Est said:

I won the sprint because it was on a track. And on a track, you have to take care to stay as close as possible to the inner lane. Normally, I should have lost the sprint because Louis Caput was in our group too. That night we had a nice party.

Little did Van Est and his Dutch team know that his first day in yellow would be his – and their – last in the race.

Van Est's fall from the top

Our hero's day of reckoning had arrived: his first rendez-vous with the high mountains saw Van Est determined to do the Yellow Jersey proud. He anticipated the difficulty of the Col d'Aubisque by striking out early on the 201km Stage 13 to Tarbes.

The tactic paid off. Despite his minimal climbing experience, Van Est went over the top of the climb still in contention with the likes of Koblet, Coppi and Ockers, who were riding in pursuit of Géminiani, the first man over the summit.

But going up was only half the challenge; if Van Est had never scaled anything in the league of the Aubisque – the mountain that caused those early Tour trailblazers to curse the organisers as "murderers" – he'd never ridden down such a sinuous and steep slope, one that was known to be among the hardest in cycling.

After gingerly taking the opening hairpins, Van Est skidded once but pressed on. Moments later, he was flung from the road in a dramatic somersault. Unhurt and unfazed, Van Est climbed back up and set off again – just as the Italian Magni zipped by.

As the Dutchman recalled, he "just went in his wheel, because Magni was known to be a great descender. I didn't see the danger, and we both came closer to the leaders very fast."

Van Est's inexperience coupled with his risk-taking, poor bike handling, and the treacherous nature of the Aubisque descent all made for a terrible combination. The road was narrow – with a wall of rock on one side, an abyss on the other, and numerous hairpins often hidden by the rock face.

Dropped by Magni, Van Est was caught by Spanish duo Francesco Masip and Dalmacio Langarica, as well as Belgium's Roger Decock. Then came his third and final fall.

"It was wet from the snow and there were sharp stones on the road that the cars had kicked up, my front wheel hit them and I went over," Van Est said many years later, as reported in Les Woodland's Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France.

I wanted to go left, but the bike went straight on. Nowadays there is a wall [on the same corner], but not in 1951. I was lucky because I unlocked the pedal straps just before I started to descend. When I fell, I kicked my bike away and held my hands over my head. In a few seconds I saw my whole life flash before me. My fall was cushioned by some young trees, and I caught one of these trees.

Van Est plunged over the vertical walled edge of the road and then fell some 70m into a ravine. Thanks to those trees and a large dollop of good luck, he came to rest on a ledge of a tiny outcrop perilously perched above a sheer drop.

"A metre left or right and I'd have dropped onto solid stone, six or seven hundred metres down,” Van Est explained. “My ankles were all hurt, my elbows were kaput. I was bruised and shaken up and I didn't know where I was, but nothing was broken. I just lay there as other riders were going by."

One rider who didn't just go by was Decock, the Belgian who would win the Tour of Flanders in 1952. Having witnessed Van Est's theatrical fall, he stopped to sound the alarm and warn the other chasing riders, oblivious to the drama, on the descent. Below, there were no signs of life as the Dutch team manager Kees Pellenaars arrived and some of the other Dutch riders gathered. They called out for Van Est, but all they heard was an echo.

The official Tour Centennial Edition Annual (1903-2003) picks up the drama: "Some deity must have been watching over Wim van Est. First one arm lifted, then the other! Bent double, he picked himself up and staggered towards his bicycle. Dragging it on all fours, he tried to climb back up. The followers on the edge of the precipice, sick with anxiety, could hardly believe what they were seeing."

Clambering up, Van Est soon realised that his bike was a mangled write-off. Miraculously, the individual components of the Dutchman's personal frame did not seem to be broken. Looking up, he could make out his teammate Gerrit Peeters, who would later tell him that, in the resplendent Yellow Jersey, he looked like a buttercup (according to Decock, he was more like a dandelion).

One of the first figures to reach the rider was a Belgian photographer by the name of Piron, who, while lending a helping hand, couldn't resist taking a snap or two. It was his photo of a tearful Van Est, steadying himself and in visible shock on the edge of the ravine, which would adorn the pages of newspapers and magazines.

Pellenaars took a rope out of the Dutch team car and threw it into the ravine, but it was not long enough. Some improvisation was needed.

"They got 40 tubular tyres, knotted them together, tied them to the tow rope and threw it down to me," said Van Est, who was later described as the miraculous survivor of the Aubisque. "It was all the tyres that Pellenaars had for the team. By the time they'd pulled me up, they were stretched and wouldn't stay on the wheels anymore."

It took an hour to winch Van Est to safety. Grazed and bleeding, he collapsed, repeatedly uttering words of thanks through the tears. Although his injuries were only superficial, Van Est was put onto an ambulance as Pellenaars shooed away the swarming photographers. One journalist offered the rider his flask of cognac, which Van Est accepted. Perhaps emboldened by the booze, the Dutch hardman regained some composure and started to say: "I want to go on, I want to go on."

But Pellenaars convinced Van Est to go to hospital to be checked out. He decided to pull the entire Dutch team from the race – hardly a surprise, given they no longer had any spare tubulars. Half the peloton, meanwhile, had no idea what had happened until they reached Tarbes, assuming simply that the Yellow Jersey was still out on the road and having an off day.

Koblet's coronation

While Van Est was being taken to hospital in an ambulance, the Italian Serafino Biagioni was awarded the stage win in Tarbes when Géminiani, who appeared to win the sprint, was demoted to fourth place after an altercation on the home straight. Bauvin, also part of the four-man winning move, finally took the Yellow Jersey as the quartet came home some nine minutes clear of Koblet and the other GC favourites.

Koblet dropped to fifth in the standings, now trailing his main rival Géminiani by more than six minutes. But the Swiss turned the race on its head in the Pyrenean Queen Stage the next day. Coppi went over the Aspin and Peyresourde in pole position, before Koblet fought back from a puncture on the Tourmalet to win in Luchon and seize the Yellow Jersey, which he would keep all the way to Paris.

If his advantage over Géminiani after Stage 14 was just 32 seconds, it would swell to a massive 22 minutes over the next 10 days. He won his third stage in Montpellier before Lucien Lazaridès became the first rider to scale Mont Ventoux in Tour history, in a stage won by Bobet in Avignon.

Coppi finally got his win for Serse in Briançon on Stage 20 after a superlative solo attack over the Col de Vars and Izoard. That same day saw the end of Géminiani's challenge, after he finished seven minutes back on Koblet. Two days later, in a whopping 98km time trial to Geneva, Koblet gave his home fans something to cheer with an emphatic victory to all but secure the overall win.

In a priceless moment, Koblet caught the great Gino Bartali, who had started eight minutes before him. Passing the Italian, Koblet placed his water bottle in his colleague's cage. "Take it, Gino, there's still some left," he said, according to the website BikeRaceInfo.

This was apparent revenge for an earlier incident in the race when, dehydrated, Koblet had asked Bartali for a drink from his bidon, only for the Italian to take a sip before calmly emptying the rest of the contents on the road while staring the Swiss directly in the eyes.

Two days later, Koblet rode into Paris to become Switzerland's second Tour winner in as many years. After a career-high Tour finish, and the Polka Dot jersey, Géminiani joked: "Chasing after these white crosses [referring to the Swiss national jerseys], you could end up finishing at the Red Cross!"

Such was Koblet's indomitability, the Frenchman claimed to be the real winner. When asked about his rival, he simply replied: "He doesn't count. I'm the first human."

On his debut Tour, Koblet's bounty exceeded his four stage triumphs and the Yellow Jersey. An Italian businessman reputedly greeted him after the race and presented him with a cheque for one million lira for naming rights on a special "Koblet" comb.

What happened next: cashing in

The Pédaleur de Charme was not the only rider to cash in on his reputation. After his well-publicised tumble off the Aubisque, Van Est became something of a folk hero. Noticing that the Dutchman had been wearing a Pontiac watch at the time of his fall, the Belgian brand capitalised on the episode by using Piron's iconic photo of the tearful Van Est on the edge of the mountain.

With an arrow pointing to his left wrist and the intact watch, the slogan ran: "I fell 70m off a mountain – my heart nearly stopped but not my Pontiac."

It was the start of a long sponsorship and an innovative ad campaign with the Dutch team, who came back to the Tour the next year to win two stages. In 1953, the Dutch won four stages, which included Van Est – now sporting the latest timekeeper in Pontiac's new Maillot Jaune range – taking the spoils in Monaco ahead of a brace from his good friend Wout Wagtmans.

Both men took stages again in 1954, with Wagtmans wearing the Yellow Jersey on as good as home ground after winning the opening stage from Amsterdam to Brasschaat, across the border in Belgium – his first of two stints leading the race that year.

In 1955, the Dutch even won a 12.5km team time trial as part two of the opening stage, putting Wagtmans in yellow for a third time. In the remainder of the 50s, Van Est (twice), Gerrit Voorting (twice) and Wagtmans donned the jersey again in what became something of a golden period for Dutch cycling.

Such was their success over the roads of France each summer that Van Est and Wagtmans even recorded their own song in 1958 called Tour de France, complete with jaunty drums and accordion.

A translation of the catchy chorus reads: "Tour Tour Tour de Tour de France / Who will ride in the laurel wreath this year? / Who will sit at the front, who will hang out the back? / Come on, push a little more, the Yellow Jersey's worth it."

Van Est's verse, flatter than an opening week transitional stage and in an accent heavier than an elephant, contained the knowing lines: "You might fall into a ravine, struggle from the pain / And with a flat tyre, you're standing at the side of the road / But if your legs go fast, you win a stage / Then you're flying without bad luck, like the king of the road."

Van Est rode the Tour nine times between 1951 and 1961, finishing a career-high eighth in 1957, the year the young Jacques Anquetil snared the first of his five victories. On the track, he won three world championship pursuit medals and a national title on four occasions. He added two more Bordeaux-Paris titles to his palmares, in 1952 and 1961, and was also the Dutch road race champion in 1956 and 57.

By winning the opening stage of the 1953 Giro, he also became the first Dutchman to wear the iconic Pink Jersey – five weeks after he took a maiden Dutch victory in the Tour of Flanders. Van Est retired in 1964, aged 41 and having just made his second appearance at the Vuelta.

Capitalising on his Locomotive nickname, he worked as a subcontractor for the digging of railroad dykes and ditches for cables. He ran this business for 18 years before retiring – but continued cycling well into his seventies.


Koblet of fire

Hugo Koblet never won the Tour de France again. Like a proverbial bus, the Swiss waited almost half a century before two came in rapid succession; they've been waiting for a third ever since. Despite the best efforts of Alex Zülle and Tony Rominger – both Tour runners-up in the 90s – Switzerland still awaits a worthy successor to Kübler and Koblet.

After Koblet's win in the 1951 Tour, he toyed with the idea of shooting a film in Italy before accepting an invitation to ride the amateur Tour of Mexico in October. While in Central America he contracted an illness that caused him kidney and lung problems that would plague him for the rest of his career. He never rode at the same imperious level as he had done that July in 1951.

Jean Bobet, the brother of triple Tour winner Louison, said Koblet began to suffer in the mountains at 2,000m, then 1,500m, then at 1,000m until "we saw him unable to ride over the smallest hill".

It was not as if the wins disappeared; Koblet won another Tour of Romandie and two more Tours de Suisse, with multiple stage wins in both, plus stage wins in the Giro and Vuelta. But something was not the same and he never finished another Tour de France.

The efficiency of his smooth pedalling was lost somewhere in the Atlantic between Mexico and Europe. Koblet's sudden loss of form was one of cycling's great mysteries. When his hair started thinning, he lost the need for the comb for which he was now being paid seven million lira to promote. And as those Hollywood looks went south, so too did Koblet's morale.

Koblet had married the 22-year model Sonja Buhl in 1953 but things were already going sour when, having retired in 1957, Koblet moved to Argentina to work for Pirelli and Alfa Romeo. After suffering from homesickness, the profligate Koblet returned to Switzerland just as his marriage started to disintegrate.

After Sonja refused a reconciliation in 1964, Koblet, by now heavily in debt, went into a downward spiral. He died later that year in an apparent suicide after driving his white Alfa Romeo into a tree at a speed of more than 120kmph. By an odd twist of fate, the doctor who signed the death certificate listed Koblet's name as Kübler, that of his great rival.

Sonja refused her husband's inheritance rather than take on his chronic debts and unpaid tax bills. It was a sad and sordid end for a rider once renowned for his charm and elegance.

Curse of the Aubisque

On Koblet's return to the Tour in 1953 – having not defended his crown in 1952 because of injury – the Swiss had crashed twice on the descent of the Col du Soulor, the neighbouring climb to the Aubisque in the Pyrenees. On the second occasion, he skidded and hit a pylon at more than 70kmph before being taken to hospital with several broken ribs in the back seat of a car.

Around the same time, on the descent of the Aubisque, a 20-year-old French debutant called Guy Buchaille lost control and fell 35m into a ravine in an incident remarkably similar to Van Est's two years previously. His bike was found 150m further down the mountain, while Buchaille – who was presumed dead at first – had his fall cushioned by a bed of moss and ferns.

Following the Van Est incident in 1951, all Tour vehicles were supplied with safety kits including long lengths of rope. Buchaille was hauled back up to the road where, despite passing out twice, he was given the all clear – although he was forced to withdraw from the Tour.

Half a century after his sensational crash, the significance of Van Est's brush with death was marked by the Tour de France with a monument on the apex of the corner where the Dutchman plunged off the road.

On the second rest day of the 2001 Tour, Van Est, then 78, made the sentimental trip back with Marinus Wagtmans, the nephew of his old friend and singing partner Wout. ‘Rini’, as Wagtmans was known, was himself a successful cyclist who amassed no less than three Tour stages in his career. Also present was Roger Decock, the Belgian who had first raised the alarm after witnessing the fall.

In an emotional scene, which you can find on YouTube, Van Est rubs tears from his eyes as the plaque is unveiled bearing the inscription: "Here, during the Tour de France on 17 July 1951, Wim van Est fell 70m deep. He survived the crash, but lost the Yellow Jersey."

Referring to his survival that day, an emotional Van Est, his grey hair immaculately combed, says:

Boys, we're still here. We're still here. What did I do to deserve all this? And to think of all those people who aren't here anymore…

Wagtmans embraces the old man and gets out a tissue. "Wim, be happy," he says.

"Yes, we're still here, Rini," Van Est replies.

Later during the ceremony, Wagtmans pulls Decock forward, saying:

If this man had thought not as a person, but as a cyclist, then Wim would have been still lying there in the evening…

Van Est lights up a cigarette – a habit dating from his old tobacco smuggling days. "Cold up here," he says. Taking a drag, his jacket sleeve rides up a little to reveal a Pontiac watch on his wrist. "Same as before," the old man grins.

"He was the Johan Cruyff of cycling," says Wagtmans of his best friend, also comparing Van Est to the footballer Abe Lenstra and the athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen. "They got statues and are showered with honour and fame. Stadiums and streets have been named after these greats, but nothing has ever been done for Wimme."

During the poignant ceremony, Karel Hubert, the director of the marketing company that coordinated the memorial, says: "There, in that ravine, is the beginning of Dutch Tour history."

Another significant chapter was written in 1968, when Jan Janssen became the first Dutchman to win the Tour, with Joop Zoetemelk following suit in 1980. A 30-year barren run was ended in 2019 when Mike Teunissen became the first Dutchman to wear the Yellow Jersey since 1989 following his surprise win on the opening stage in Brussels. Teunissen was the 17th Dutchman after Van Est to don the Maillot Jaune, and the last in a list that also includes Wagtmans' nephew, Rini.

Two years after unveiling the plaque on the Aubisque, and not long after his 80th birthday, Wim Van Est, the pioneer who broke the seal and almost paid the ultimate price, died. The twisted remains of his bike are on display in the Velorama bike museum in the Dutch city of Nijmegen.

-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the Re-Cycle Podcast by Eurosport for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history

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