One-hit wonders in yellow: The men who won the Tour de France… but not much else

More than 40 riders have won the Tour de France just once, but only a very select band have worn the Yellow Jersey on the podium in Paris without achieving a single success in any other major professional road race. In fact, there are just six of these remarkable one-hit wonders*.

Rene Pottier

Tour de France victory: 1906

Next most prestigious win: none

With his curling moustaches, long, handsome face and moist dark eyes, Rene Pottier looked more like the tragic antihero from a symbolist poem than a racing cyclist. Perhaps that’s just the wisdom hindsight, for the winner of the 1907 Tour de France was to die young of a broken heart. He deserves an opera, really.

As a youngster Pottier won the amateur edition of Bordeaux-Paris, aka The Derby of the Road – a race so gruelling it made the Ronde Van Vlaanderen look like a trip down the shops on a mobility scooter.

Pottier was durable and had the stamina of a springer spaniel. After turning pro he finished on the podium twice in The Hell of the North and second behind the splendidly named Hippolyte Aucouturier in the 1905 professional edition of Bordeaux-Paris. 

Pottier’s performance during the 1906 Tour was remarkable in more ways than one. Wearing a sun hat that looked like a cross between a turban and a Jane Austen bonnet, he crossed the finish line first in stages 2, 3, and 4.

On stage 5 he built up such a massive lead during a mountainous 345km slog from Grenoble to Nice that he decided to relax a little. Stopping in a bar, the good-looking Frenchman plonked himself down at a table and quaffed a bottle of red wine before remounting and beating the field.

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He went on to take the general classification prize – in those decided by a points system – by a massive margin from Georges Passerieu – a London-born Parisian.

One of the fastest and most skilled climbers of the sport’s early years, his crushing victory suggested Pottier had a bright future ahead of him. Sadly it was not to be.

Sometime after winning the prestigious Bol D’Or 24-hour race on the track of the Buffalo velodrome in Paris, the racer discovered that his wife had used his absences during the cycling season to begin a love affair.

Depressed and desperate, Pottier committed suicide in January 1907 by hanging himself from his own bike hook.

Lucien Buysse

Tour de France victory: 1926

Next most prestigious win: Stadsprijs Gerrardsbergen, 1927

Buysse was an archetypal Flemish racer with tree-trunk legs, a torso like a back boiler and a face you could grate cheese on. Though no relation to triple Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Achiel Buysse, Lucien was part of an illustrious cycling family – his brothers, Jules and Marcel, were also pros (the latter won the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1913), and so were his nephews Norbert and Albert.

Buysse, from Wontergem in East Flanders, had a fine career as an amateur, winning the non-pro Tour of Belgium. He turned professional just in time for World War One to apply a juddering brake to proceedings.

After the Armistice, Buysse resumed his career. He finished third in the 1920 edition of Paris-Roubaix and soon afterwards signed with the Italian Automoto team to serve as a gregario to the brilliant Venetian bricklayer, Ottavio Bottechia. He was joined at Automoto by both his brothers.

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Buysse’s role as a servant to Bottechia could not mask his talent. The Fleming was undoubtedly one of the greatest water-carriers of his, or any other, generation. He finished third in the Tour of 1924 and second the following year, while helping his Italian capo win both.

The 1926 Tour was the longest in history, a mad counter-clockwise circuit of 5745 kms on roads that were often more theoretical than real, organiser Henri Desgrange having apparently decided that if a goat could jog along a track then a cyclist could ride it.

Buysse took yellow on stage 10 during a wild Alpine storm on the climb of the Col D’Aspin. Bottechia lost an hour in the rain and hail and sensibly abandoned, handing the team to his Flemish lieutenant.

Buysse would hold onto the lead all the way to the finish in Paris ably supported by Jules and Marcel.

Like Bottier, Buysse would find victory overshadowed by domestic tragedy – his young daughter died during the race. Unlike the Frenchman, the Fleming would live to a ripe old age, dying in his native Flanders in 1980.

Romain Maes

Tour de France win: 1935

Next most prestigious victory:  Circuit de l’Ouest, 1933

Another Flemish Tour winner with a famous surname. Romain Maes was surprisingly no relation to his Belgian team mate, double-yellow-jersey-winner Sylveer Maes from Gistel, though the two men were great friends and rode together in pairs events on the track.

Born in Zerkegem, Romain came from a huge family – he was the thirteenth child. Unlike his namesake Sylveer, he wasn’t a Flemish folk hero. Not that he wasn’t a little unlucky. Many felt he’d crossed the finish line first in the 1936 edition of Paris-Roubaix but the judges enraged the crowd by awarding victory to Frenchman Georges Speicher instead.

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Misfortune also befell Romain two years later at the conclusion of Paris-Brussels. He was over 100m ahead of the chasing group, but stopped when he crossed the line in the velodrome, apparently unaware that he had another lap of the track to complete.

He realised his error too late and was pipped to victory by Marcel Kimt.

Romain was chunky as a pillar-box and muscular as an eel, with a centre-parting that seemed to have been applied using a set-square and ruler. He generally rode in the then familiar Flemish-kamikaze fashion  – starting out full tilt in the hope of burning off the opposition and often hitting the buffers long before the finish.

The approach paid off on the first stage of 1935, however. On the road from Paris to Lille Maes made a solo break. He’d built up a two-minute lead when he arrived at a level crossing in the mining town of Bruay and sneaked across just ahead of the train.

His pursuers were thwarted as heavy goods wagons rumbled slowly past adding over a minute to the Fleming’s lead. He won the stage and took the race leader’s jersey.

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With the aid of a Belgium team that was bursting at the seams with talent, he would defend it all the way to Paris – a display of such ferocious tenacity the press nicknamed him ‘The Yellow Demon’.

Romain won the final stage into the French capital and burst into tears when he was presented with his winner’s jersey, a display of Edwig Van Hooydonck-style emotion that melted the hearts of mums and grans across Flanders.

Like many Belgian Tour victors, Romain used his winnings to open a café. Close by Brussels Nord station it was named In de Gele Trui (In the Yellow Jersey).

Jean Robic

Tour de France win: 1947

Next most prestigious victory: Trophee des Grimpeurs, 1952

Like fellow Breton, Bernard Hinault, Jean Robic was feisty, egotistical and enigmatic. He was also one of the oddest looking figures ever to startle race-watchers with his grin.

Barely taller than the average bike, thin as his handlebars, with sticking out ears that drew comparisons to Walt Disney’s Dumbo and weird concave face that was likened to a rotten apple, Robic was known by the mocking nickname “The Hobgoblin of Brittany Moor”.

As tough as a tortoise, Robic fell during the 1944 edition of Paris-Roubaix but still completed the race despite having a fractured skull. After that he took to wearing a protective helmet – a novelty in those days – and earned himself another nickname ‘Leatherhead”. 

When the Tour de France recommenced in 1947, Robic was selected for the regional North-West squad. To describe him as a race outsider is an understatement.

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He was barely a household name even in his own kitchen. Few fans or journalists even knew who he was. Yet Robic was oddly confident, assuring his wife before the race that he was going to return home in yellow.

That he did so was one of the most extraordinary tales of underdog triumph in sporting history.

Amazingly Robic didn’t actually lead the race until the final day when in a furious stage into Paris that clicked along at such clip it shaved an hour off the estimated arrival time, the tiny Breton battered his rivals into total submission finishing over 13 minutes ahead of the field. He is one of a select band of eleven riders to win the Tour at the first attempt.

The improbable energy of the performance led to understandable suspicion, though Robic denied any dope taking, saying that the strongest thing he ever imbibed during a race was coffee with a dash of calvados.

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Robic won the world cyclo-cross title in 1950 and three stages of the Tour between 1949 and 1953, but after breaking his back in a fall during this last race his life entered a dark phase of depression.

He carried on riding as a pro until he was 40 without winning anything more. After that unemployment and poverty saw him cashing in on his fame in increasingly desperate ways – including acting as a clownish professional wrestling referee. He died in a car crash aged 59.

Roger Walkowiak

Tour de France win: 1956

Next most prestigious victory:  Grand Prix de la Trinite, 1955

Walkowiak was another of the underdogs who won. Yet unlike the victories of Robic and Maes, his success didn’t inspire any affection. Indeed in France for years after the rider from the Auvergne’s unexpected triumph the phrase ‘fait a la Walko” meant to succeed through dullness and good fortune.  To the French he was the nonentity’s nonentity.

It was all very unfair. The real problem was not that Walko was uncharismatic and boring, but that the new darling of French sport, the youthful and dashing Jacques Anquetil, hadn’t entered that year’s Tour. To Anquetil’s legion of fans it appeared a victory by default.

In 1956 Walkowiak was a worthy but unremarkable pro whose best career result was winning stage 13b in that year’s Vuelta. He was selected for the regional North-East-Centre team, called in at the last minute because he was available and Gilbert Bauvin had been suddenly promoted to the French national squad.

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Walko took the yellow jersey on the stage 7 after finding himself in a large scale breakaway with 30 other riders that finished 18 minutes ahead of the main peloton.

He lost the lead shortly afterwards, but as the main contenders marked one another into oblivion, he snuck away on an Alpine stage and found himself in yellow once more.

There were just four stages to go. Using all his cunning and skill, Walkowiak defended his lead into Paris. But the watching crowds found his tactics and style lacking in that quintessential French quality: panache.  

One of only seven riders to win the Tour without taking a stage, his arrival at the finish line in the Parc des Princes was greeted with sullen applause. His lap of honour had the air of a funeral procession.

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Hurt by the cruel public reaction to what should have been a fairy story ending, Walkowiak rode on for a few more years winning another stage of the Vuelta and then shuffled off into the obscurity the French public seemed to feel was his natural place.

He lived quietly in rural France apparently unwilling to discuss his win and died aged 89 in 2017

Lucien Aimar

Tour de France win: 1966

Next most prestigious victory: French National Champion, 1968

Aimar’s right to wear the red-white-and-blue jersey of French national champion perhaps makes him the most marginal call on the list.

Having narrowly missed out on victory in the amateur Tour de L’Avenir, the Provence-born Aimar turned pro shortly after riding in the individual road race in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo (France failed to win a medal). He joined the Ford-Gitane team lead by the now mature and peerless Jacques Anquetil. 

1966 started well for Aimar with a podium finish in the lesser of the Ardennes spring races, Fleche Wallone.

The performance, however, was marred by his refusal to take part in the recently introduced post-race drug test.  Team leader Anquetil took a rock’n’roll attitude to drugs and it seems his teammate shared it.

In 1966, Maitre Jacques was entering the final year of his illustrious career. He no longer had the power to win the Tour and even his infamous ability to cow his opponents into submission by the force of his personality was waning.

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Once he realised his chances of retiring in yellow were unrealistic, he ordered his teammates to support Aimar who had taken the race lead with an attack on the Col D’Aubisque.

Another surprise spurt on the hilly stage through Turin cemented Aimar’s hold on yellow and he arrived in Paris over a minute ahead of his main rivals, Dutchman Jan Janssens and Anquetil’s arch-rival,  Raymond “The perpetual second” Poulidor.

Like Walkowiak, Aimar achieved overall victory without winning a stage.

Aimar was unable to build on his unexpected win. He had a number of top six finishes in major races including Paris-Nice, Paris-Tours and the Frankfurt Grand Prix, and came seventh in the Giro.

However he was undermined by injury and doping bans – he was disqualified from the 1967 French Championship Road Race and barred from the 1969 Vuelta.

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He’d later argue that the cycling authorities’ focus on testing for amphetamines after the death of Tommy Simpson had pushed riders into taking more dangerous substances. Which is possibly true, but a little like saying that making burglary illegal has forced people into armed robbery.

Aimar’s career ended in farcical fashion when he was signed to ride in the pink-and- white jersey of a team sponsored by elderly nightclub singer Miriam de Kova, the widow of a millionaire Greek shipping magnate.

The ageing, wealthy but clearly delusional De Kova saw cycling as the means of becoming a celebrity performer in France.

Aimar was the team’s biggest signing but by now he was more of a trophy name than a trophy winner. The team was utterly hopeless – arguably the worst in Tour de France history – and De Kova’s money and patience quickly ran out.

When the chanteuse pulled the plug, Aimar retired. He is now a race organiser in southern France.

*A case can also be made for 1929 winner Maurice de Waele, though I think the fact he also won the Tour of Belgium and the Tour of the Basque Country (twice) count against him.

2006 Winner Oscar Pereiro might also be worth a place. I’ve left him off because victory wasn’t awarded to him – after original winner Floyd Landis’s drug ban – until well over a year after he crossed the finish line in Paris.

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