OBITUARY: Ferdinand ‘Ferdi’ Kuebler, Swiss national hero and 1950 Tour de France winner

 

OBITUARY: Ferdinand ‘Ferdi’ Kuebler, Swiss national hero and 1950 Tour de France winner

He didn’t quite make it to the century but Ferdinand ‘Ferdi’ Kuebler fell short of few things he set his mind to in his near-century on earth.

The Swiss cycling legend was 97 when he passed away as the light went out on 2016 but in becoming the first man from his country to win the Tour de France in 1950, his legend was secured long before his death.

He was a merchant of pain and a glutton for suffering and if his glittering wins haul didn’t attract him his legions of followers, it was the down-to-earth nature of his personality that did.

He had many nicknames, including ‘the Eagle of Adliswil’ in reference to his elegant climbing style, ‘the Cowboy’ for his penchant for Stetson hats and his own personal favourite, Mr 100,000 volts for his all-or-nothing style in which he rode — and conducted himself off the bike.

Indeed, to win a Tour de France, one needs to be able to climb mountain passes, ‘play the game’ with rivals and turn on the power when the opportunity presents itself.

Kuebler was a champion of each, and long before the sport produced modern-day Swiss icons like Fabian Cancellara and Tony Rominger, he was his country’s leading sportsman.

In much the same way as Irish totems Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche defined and put cycling on the map in Ireland in the mid to late-80s, so too did Kuebler and his fierce rival Hugo Koblet.

In fact, it would be unfair not to mention Koblet in the context of what made Kuebler the rider he was.

“I will not decide in the debate which of us was the greatest,” Kuebler said in an interview to Swiss TV on his 90th birthday.

“If I have achieved magnificent results, I owe it to Hugo in the same way as he owes me part of his record.”

Kuebler was a long-distance kind of guy known for attacking the peloton at seemingly unwise times during races. Koblet, by contrast, was tight and aggressive in his approach, waiting and waiting to strike.

Kuebler was instinctive and impulsive and that won him countless races and legions of followers.

He shot to national fame as a completely unknown 21-year old in 1940 when he won gold on the track for the individual pursuit – then the most prestigious event on the home scene.

And it was on the boards where he first showed promise as a rider before being unleashed into the professional road circuit as a member of the shoestring budget Cilo team of 1945.

By then he’d racked up the first of three Tours de Suisse titles and a Tour of Romandie crown, then and still the two most important road races in Switzerland.

But outside of his homeland his burgeoning CV held little sway and as World War II was waging at the time, the world would have to wait until 1947 before seeing Kuebler’s true potential.

With his contract with Cilo about to expire, he won the opening stage of the ’47 Tour de France, meaning he would wear the yellow jersey the following day where he lost it to French favourite Rene Vietto.

Riding the race for a combined Swiss/Luxembourg team, Kuebler took a second stage win four days later, though his winning margin after the 250-kilometre journey from Strasbourg to Besancon was not enough to see him retake yellow.

Still, with two stage wins from the opening five days, his chatty, witty, and self- deprecating demeanour saw him become an instant hero in France.

It would get no better for him in that Tour but three years later after improvements in his climbing and a team around him to protect him in the mountains, Kuebler was ready to challenge for the General Classification.

With the sport growing in popularity, so too did race winnings and for every day spent in the yellow jersey, the wearer would receive 100,000 French Francs.

Stage victors would take home 50,000 instead of 30,000 while for the first time, an African team entered the race to spread the race’s appeal beyond European borders.

With defending champion Fausto Coppi out through injury and the aforementioned Koblet (winner of that year’s Gior d’Italia) deciding not to compete, the race was deemed the most open in years, though Gino Bartali from Italy was favourite.

Two days before the flag dropped a poll amongst journalists shortlisted eight potential winners. Kuebler was not amongst those considered a contender.

In short, it was an utterly bonkers race with Bartali crashing on stage 11 and taking down home favourite Jean Robic.

So irate were the French Bartali received death threats and left for his own safety, as did the two Italian teams in protest.

It turned the standings in favour of Kuebler’s way who took the yellow jersey but refused to wear it out of respect for the man who had been wearing it until he withdrew, Fiorenzo Magni.

Under pressure to prove he was deserving of the famed yellow jersey, Kuebler delivered a climbing Tour de Force on stage 16 from Menton to Nice.

And four days later he delivered the coup de grace when he obliterated his rivals on the 100-kilometre time-trial from St Etienne to Lyon.

It was his third stage win of the race and fifth of his career and by the time they crossed the finish line in Paris, he was almost 10 minutes clear of the man in second, Stan Ockers of Belgium and Louison Bobet of France a further 22 minutes down.

“I wanted to become someone and I knew I would either be anonymous or become a champion,” he said on the podium in Paris.

His career didn’t end with Tour de France victory.

In the two years that followed Kuebler won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallone over a weekend.

The organisers saw sense in the meantime and gave riders three days to recover between events but back then, it was close to 500 kilometres in two days.

Book-ending those highlights was a gold medal at the 1951 world road race championships in Varese, Italy, a feat that makes him the last Swiss rider in 65 years to win the biggest one-day event on the world cycling calendar.

“I became a champion because I was poor,” he told French newspaper L’Equipe in 2013.

“I struggled to eat, to have a better life.

“I won the Tour de France because I dreamed, because I knew that afterwards I would never be poor again.”

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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