Giro 100. The First Foreign Winner

Today’s stage is has the perfect terrain for an escape artist, slightly undulating with a couple of climbs at the end to gain an advantage then descend to the finish. The 6th stage of the 1950 Giro had a similar profile and would have passed through Valdengo, today’s start town.

Until 1950 the Giro d’Italia had always been won by Italians but as time passed it was inevitable a foreign rider would eventually win the Maglia Rosa. It would have been no surprise if he had come from France or Belgium but the emergence of two fine riders, Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet, meant the nationality would be a little more left field, and Swiss. Switzerland had produced a few decent cyclists in the first half of the century, Oscar Egg was perhaps the best with stage win in both the Giro and Tour to go along with his more famous World Hour Records. There was nothing ever to suggest though that two Swiss riders would dominate the top two stage races in the world for two years running. And it all started on that sixth stage of the 1950 Giro d’Italia.

The two had a few things in common apart from their nationality. They had both been national pursuit champion and their personalities were outgoing, friendly. Both also had a love for America, Kübler collected Stetson hats and was known as ‘The Cowboy’ and Koblet loved driving across the US, emulating his favourite American films. Their similarities didn’t go on though. Kübler and Koblet couldn’t have been any more different to look at on the bike. Kübler, older by six years, had a pointy nose and bony face while his riding style was clunky and sluggish. Koblet pedaled effortlessly over all terrain and always with perfect hair to complement his boyish good looks and playful smile. He always carried a comb and bottle of aftershave with him while racing and would use both before crossing the line while blowing kisses to any girls in his vicinity. He soon gained the nicknames ‘Le pédaleur de charme’ and ‘Beautiful Hugo’.

Going into the 1950 Giro Kübler was the slightly more experienced of the two. He had ridden two Tours de France winning three stages but never reaching the finish while Koblet was making his grand tour debut. The route probably suited the older rider too as it didn’t have time trials which were a speciality of Koblet’s. In any case, with the top three Italians Coppi, Bartali and Magni there no-one would have put them in the list of contenders. However as the riders started the 6th stage in Turin their countryman Fritz Schaer was in the pink jersey and the route headed north to finish in Locarno, Switzerland. Fate seemed to be on their side.

With over half of the stage to go Koblet attacked. Being a bit of an unknown the rest of the race let him go for a while but when they started to try and reel him back in they couldn’t as Koblet was now in time trial mode. It was a tactic they debutante would be renowned for in the future. He finished nearly 2 minutes ahead of the bunch and was up to third in the overall. Three days later on stage 8 Koblet showed that he wasn’t just strong on the flats. He attacked on the days major climb, the Pian delle Fugazze, with a Legnano rider Pasquale Fornara and both managed to stay away till the finish in Vicenza with Koblet wining the two-up sprint. Not only had he won his second stage, he was now in pink.

Kübler by contrast had been ploughing along, mainly staying with the main group in the mountains, but was up to 9th overall and not to far behind the likes of Jean Robic and Bartali. The next stage, still in the mountains and with the Rolle, Pordoi and Gardena to go over, was the one which Bartali chose to make his move. His fierce rival Coppi had a terrible crash, breaking his pelvis, before the climbing began and was out of the race. He had a great opportunity to win another Giro and was first over the final climb, the Gardena pass. He reached the finish in Bolzano with only two other riders and nearly 3 minutes over the best of the rest. Those two riders though were the Swiss pair Kübler and Koblet. Koblet stayed in the Maglia Rosa and was 3 minutes 42 seconds ahead of 2nd place Bartali while Koblet had moved into 4th.

Over the next few stages Bartali kept attacking the race leader trying to shrink his lead but Koblet swatted everything away with ease. The 25 year old Swiss rider even increased his lead by winning bonus seconds at the top of most of the climbs that came his way and by the end of the 13th stage he now led Bartali by 7 minute 12 seconds. ‘Beautiful Hugo’ also now seemed to have to help of Coppi’s Bianchi teammates. After his crash and abandon they would have offered their services to anyone for a fast buck and it seemed Koblet had paid out rather than the notoriously tightfisted Bartali.

The proud Tuscan incensed that the Italian Bianchi gregarios had “accepted Swiss gold over love of country” fought on but with only five stages left Koblet’s advantage was too large. At the race finish Koblet became the first foreigner to win the Giro d’Italia and had a healthy 5 minute 12 second gap over the second placed Bartali. Ferdi Kübler, finally showing some Grand Tour pedigree, only just missed out on the podium by 4 seconds.

That summer Kübler won the Tour de France to continue Swiss domination in Grand Tours and the following year Koblet took his title off him to make it two yellow jersey wins in a row for the small alpine country. At the Giro Kübler improved on his 4th place by finishing 3rd the following two years. Koblet on the other hand could never repeat his incredible performance. He did finish 2nd in 1953 and 1954 but it seemed that his playboy lifestyle was starting to effect his racing as his pedaling style became less effortless and more like Küblers.

Kübler raced on till he was 37 then enjoyed a long and happy retirement, passing away at the end of last year aged 97. As we have seen the two countrymen had many similarities as well as differences and unfortunately in the context of their lives after cycling the later is the case. Hugo Koblet retired in 1958 aged 33 and being quite reckless with his finances he soon ended up in debt and the stresses that this brought resulted in his marriage breaking up. It wasn’t long after this that he drove at over 100 kmh into a pear tree and died four days later aged only 39.

These two fine cyclists are sadly no longer with us but the time when they ruled the world should always be remembered.

You can read a profile of Kubler and Koblet in the lovely magazine Conquista:

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