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Tales from the peloton

Wim van Est's fall

This year, the Tour de France will unveil a plaque on the Col d'Aubisque to commemorate the fiftieth anniversay of one of the Tour's wilder days.

Van Est crying with shock and relief after his fall.
This photo by Belgian photographer Piron appears this month in Dutch sports magazine 'Centripress Sportmagazine'. The caption means 'A buttercup in the grass' and was what van Est's team-mate Gerard Peters said he looked like on the mountainside in his yellow jersey.

The Dutchman Wim Van Est was a professional cyclist for 16 years, completing the Tour de France nine times and along the way winning three stages and wearing the maillot jaune for several days in 1955 and 1958, with his best ever result being eighth place in 1957. But when Van Est first entered the Tour de France in 1951, he had never really seen a proper mountain.

He was known in France because he had won the marathon-classic Bordeaux-Paris in 1950. So on July 4 he started in the Tour on the Place de la Republique in Metz.

After 11 stages he was well placed in the GC and in the 185km-long stage 12 from Agen to Dax he was in a breakaway group of 10, along with teammade Gerrit Voorting. They built their lead to up to 10 minutes and continued to work together, when in the sprint Voorting led out Van Est for the win - at the line they had 18 minutes on the peloton.

Van Est said at the time "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 innerlane. Normally I should have lost the sprint because Louis Caput was in our group too. That night we had a nice party."

The party didn't last long, as the next day was a brute of Pyreneeen-stage: 201km from Dax to Tarbes. For Van Est, although it was his first time in the serious mountains, he could follow the leaders on the Tourmalet and hung on as they climbed the Aubisque. Just as he reached the summit of the climb, he punctured and lost three minutes on the leaders as he got a wheel change. Once he got mobile the Italian rider Fiorenzo Magni came past and the Dutchman "just went in his wheel, because Magni was a great descender. I didn't see the danger. We both came closer to the leaders very fast," Van Est recalled.
Wim van Est being hauled back up to the road (from the book, Het Ijzeren Uurwerk)

After a few hairy hairpins Wim fell and slipped over 30 metres down the side of the mountain. He was unhurt and quickly climbed back onto his bike to set off again after the leaders, taking incredible risks. The next time he wasn't so lucky, as he punctured while braking hard for another hairpin and lost control of his bike, flying off the edge of the mountain.

"I wanted to go left but the bike went straight on. Now there is a wall (on the same corner) but not in 1951. I was lucky because I undid the pedalstraps 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. My fall was broken by some young trees and I caught one of these trees." Behind Wim, the team cars stopped and there was major panic. When his team manager Pellenaars got out he saw Van Est some 60 metres down, climbing his way slowly back up the mountain.

One of the first people to reach the rider was the Belgian photographer Piron, who helped the manager get the rider back onto the road, with people above making a chain of tyres.

Although he only had grazes, he was put in an ambulance as his manager fought with photographers who wanted to capture the drama. Yet Van Est got back out of the ambulance and went looking for his bike. His manager convinced him to go to hospital to be checked out, where doctors found there was nothing wrong.

The following day, the manager withdrew the team, a move which some thought made the team as heroes when they went back to Holland. Van Est went on to finish the Tour nine times.

You can read more about how Wim van Est was childhood hero to another Wim: Van Rossum to be precise. Wim van Rossum runs the cycling4all.com site, and has placed the Iron William story there.

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