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Tales from the peloton, May 5, 2007

The maillot jaune saga of '49

Every young rider dreams of donning the Tour de France's prestigious yellow jersey. But for one rider the euphoric feeling most experience was taken away and replaced by trouble and torment, as Les Woodland recounts.

If you've never dreamed of being the maillot jaune of the Tour de France, well…if it ever happens, you'd at least like it to happen properly. That's the way Norbert Callens thought, too.

Never heard of him? Well, not too surprising, maybe, because he never did that much on a bike. But he was nevertheless the man for whom the yellow jersey turned into a nightmare. A nightmare that kept him out of the Tour for ever more.

Callens, who died in March 2005 just short of his 81st birthday, was such a talented rider in his youth that at just 21 he joined Louison Bobet, Stan Ockers and Rik van Steenbergen in the Mercier pro team. He won the Tour of Belgium in 1945 and made the Belgian team for the first Tour after the war, an era, remember, when the race was still disputed by national selections.

"They'd been waiting to find a big enough stick to beat me with...finally they'd found it."

-Callens recalls his nightmare Tour de France experience

Sadly for him, things went horribly wrong on the Tourmalet and he drifted off the road and crashed on the descent. The next year's Tour was no better and so in 1949 he naturally hoped that the third time he'd be lucky. And sure enough he was: he won the second stage, from Brussels to Boulogne-sur-Mer. He attacked towards the end with the Frenchman César Marcelak and another member of the Belgian team, Florent Mathieu.

That early in the Tour, an attack like that was certain to bring him the yellow jersey. That's precisely what he'd have got, had the van with all the jerseys and trophies not broken down on the way to the finish. Somehow they found Callens some sort of yellowish jersey, though not an official one, and that's what they gave him to stand on the rostrum and get his kiss from the singer Line Renaud.

To add to his misery of being shabbily treated, as he doubtless thought he had, Callens found he had also fallen out with his team. The race leader that morning had been his teammate Roger Lambrecht, considered a much stronger bet than Callens. If Callens had had any sense, he was told pointedly, he'd have let Marcelak win the stage and not selfishly taken it for himself. That would have given the Frenchman the bonus but made no difference to the overall result. As it was, Belgium now had to defend an upstart.

The next morning they found a proper yellow jersey for him but he was in such a foul mood that he refused to wear it, even though it cost him a fine of 3,000 old French francs. Or, according to another version, the jersey had been given to his team but had been left behind in a hotel by the soigneur and Callens had had to ride in a yellow T-shirt, maybe the one he'd been given the day before. Either way, the organiser, Jacques Goddet, rounded on him for not honouring the world's greatest race and its most vital symbol.

The rest of the race took the hint that it should get him out of the lead - if not the yellow jersey - as quickly as it could. For that reason or perhaps just by miscalculation he didn't get into the break of the day on the way to Rouen next morning. He lost a quarter of an hour and, with it, his leadership. By the end of the ninth stage, things were going so badly that he was eliminated for finishing too far back.

You can only feel sorry for him because the man who had once led the Tour was thrown out of it because he had spent so much time waiting for and then nursing Florent Mathieu, the man with whom he'd crossed the line in Boulogne.

As if that weren't sad enough, the judges let Mathieu start again next morning but told Callens that he couldn't. "They'd been waiting all that time to find a big enough stick to beat me with," Callens said, "and finally they'd found it." And, according to him, they kept on beating because he insisted that Goddet had ordered the Belgian federation never again to pick him for the Tour. Which he never was.

Well, now he's left us. Norbert Callens: a man who stayed interested in cycling to the end and became a firm friend of a still greater old-timer who left us lately, Briek Schotte. The latter was by far the greater rider of the pair but it was Callens who had a yellow jersey and not Schotte. How come? Because in 1994 the Tour finished once more in Boulogne-sur-Mer and the city's mayor knew his history. He presented Callens with the yellow jersey he should have had half a century earlier.

In 1952, just 28 years old, Norbert Callens realised his greatest day had passed, been spoiled and would never return. He never again reached that level, never again felt the happiness he had felt if only just for a moment at Boulogne-sur-Mer. I like to think that somehow, somewhere, his ghost is right now swanning past that of Jacques Goddet, thumbing his nose and wearing a bright yellow jersey.

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