© Presse Sports
Far behind riders of the stature of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Mark Cavendish, in the history of the Tour de France there have been almost three hundred men who only got a fleeting taste of glory. As the countdown to the start of the race on 7 July continues, letour.fr is retracing the steps of 10 champions who clinched a single stage win. Spaniard Federico Ezquerra demonstrated his climbing abilities in the 1936 Tour under grievous circumstances. Back home, the uprising of Francoist forces had just pushed the conflict between Republicans and Nationalists past the point of no return.
In the history of France, 1936 is remembered as a time of harmony, optimism and social progress, as seen in the Tour de France itself following the introduction of a week of paid leave. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pyrenees, the electoral victory of a coalition also known as the Popular Front in February sparked a wave of violence that led to the Spanish Civil War several months later, when the Nationalist faction launched a failed coup on 17 and 18 July. Spanish riders had started the Tour de France on the defensive —on the cobbled sectors, for example—, but the start of the mountain stages brought with it their chance to shine. The leg-breaking course of the stage from Nice to Cannes on 19 July whetted the appetite of Federico Ezquerra, possibly the most explosive member of the Spanish Armada. Ezquerra’s climbing abilities had caught the attention of L’Auto, which nicknamed him the Eagle of the Galibier after he was first over the top of this mountain pass in his debut in 1934. On this occasion, the Spaniard dropped his breakaway companions Sylvère Maes and Félicien Vervaecke like a stone on the ascent to La Turbie. However, the two riders were still hot on his heels, and there were 30 kilometres to go before the finish in Cannes. After crowning the ascent, the Basque rider decided not to change gears, which at the time required stopping for half a minute to spin the back wheel. Ezquerra’s gamble paid off and he went on to claim the greatest win of his career on the French Riviera.
Team of exiles in 1937
L’Auto seems to have missed the political significance of his triumph, but Jacques Goddet meticulously analysed and heaped praise on Ezquerra’s style. “Good old Federico is not particularly aesthetic when he gets up on the pedals, hunched towards the front, jumping from one thigh to the other like a metronome. He thrusts from his kidneys, seemingly from the bottom up. The hip seems to pull the pedal upwards instead of pushing against it. This type of movement evokes the feeling of levity that has become the hallmark of climbing talent.” One year later, in 1937, Republican Spain fielded a team composed mostly of exiles, with Mariano Cañardo and Julián Berrendero also taking their only victories at the Tour de France.