As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been takes us off the race route for local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.
We travel through the ancient region of Occitanie, which you may know from the Route d’Occitanie stage race. You will easily spot the red flags with the Occitan cross on the side of the road. The region is more a cultural and linguistic entity than a political one.
The Occitan language used to be called a ‘patois’, a dialect and in French it had a negative connotation of ‘inferior language’. The French government suppressed Occitan to confirm its hegemony of the French language. France has only one official language, so there is no official government documentation in Occitan or Breton, for example.
The total number of speakers, mostly elderly people, is around 600,000.
Efforts are being made to revive the language. This is done by encouraging parents to raise their children bilingually and, if they do not speak the language themselves, grandparents.
Today we run from Lourdes to Hautacam via the Col d’Aubisque. There is another great cycling story to tell here.
In 1951, the Netherlands celebrated their very first yellow jersey wearer. His name was Wim van Est. He came to cycling quite late because of World War II which started when he was 17 years old. During the war of 1940 to 1945, Van Est smuggled butter and tobacco from Belgium just across the border from where he lived in the southern Netherlands. He did it on his bike but one day he wasn’t fast enough and was caught by the Germans. Van Est spent six months in prison.
In 1946, when he was 23, he started racing as an amateur. His experience of smuggling through fields and sand made him very strong and he was immediately successful. In 1951, he lined up for his first Tour de France and won the 12th stage in Dax after being part of a ten-rider breakaway, which counted 18 minutes on the peloton containing the yellow jersey Roger Levêque.
Van Est only wore the jersey for one day because the next day, stage 13 of this Tour de France, the peloton climbed the Col d’Aubisque, and that’s where a very famous piece of history of Dutch cycling has been written.
He had never seen mountains like the Pyrenees. The runners felt like explorers. After climbing the Aubisque, Van Est wanted to stick with Italian Filippo Magni but the Dutchman crashed on the first corner of the descent (there are fantastic footage available of the stage here). He had never climbed such high mountains let alone descended safely. His training routes in the south of the Netherlands were flat as a pancake and at the time there were no high camps. Van Est had literally never done this before and might have been a bit reckless, his grandson said.
Van Est fell 70 meters deep into the ravine. The Belgian Roger Decock who was right behind him saw him go over a small wall and down the mountain. He immediately stopped traffic but looking down the mountain they couldn’t see him. Until he nods.
With bike tires strapped together and physically relatively well, he was lifted. He left the Tour de France that day but became famous, and an advertisement was produced by his team sponsor, the watch brand Pontiac, in which he was told: I fell 70 meters into a ravine, my heart stopped but my Pontiac didn’t.
Van Est rode until the age of 42 and also became the first Dutch rider to win a Giro stage and wear the pink jersey. He was also the first Dutch runner win the Tour of Flanders.
The yellow woolen jersey featuring all the holes from the accident is still on display at the Velorama bicycle museum in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, as is Van Est’s mangled bike.
And of course, this famous Pontiac watch. It still works.
There is a plaque on the Aubisque which was revealed in 2001, 50 years after the crash. Van Est was in France to reveal it. He died in 2003, at the age of 80.