Wim van Est wins stage 16 of the 1953 Tour de France in Monaco, two years after becoming the first Dutchman to wear the yellow jersey.

Hors Course stage 18: the first Dutchman in yellow and his watch that never stopped

The last mountain stage takes the Tour de France peloton to the scene of a heroic story born from extraordinary adversity.

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As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been is taking us off the race route for some local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

We race through the old region of Occitanie, which you may know from the stage race Route d’Occitanie. You will easily spot the red flags with the Occitan cross on the side of the road. The region is more a cultural and language entity than a political one. 

The Occitan language used to be called a ‘patois’, a dialect and in French this had a negative connotation of ‘inferior language’. The French government suppressed Occitan to confirm its hegemony of the French language. France only has one official language so there isn’t official government documentation in Occitan or Breton, for example. 

The total number of speakers, mainly elderly people, comes to about 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, the grandparents. 

Today we race from Lourdes to Hautacam over the Col d’Aubisque. There is another great cycling story to be told here.

In 1951 the Netherlands celebrated their very first yellow jersey wearer. His name was Wim van Est. He came into cycling quite late because of the Second World War that started when he 17 years old. During the war from 1940 to 1945, Van Est smuggled butter and tobacco from Belgium just across the border from where he lived into the south of the Netherlands. He did so by bike but one day he wasn’t fast enough and got caught by the Germans. Van Est spent six months in prison.

In 1946, when he was 23 years old, he started racing as an amateur. His experience of smuggling through the fields and sand made him very strong and he was instantly successful. In 1951 he lined up for his first Tour de France and won the 12th stage in Dax after being part of a breakaway of ten riders, which had 18 minutes on the peloton containing yellow jersey Roger Levêque. 

Van Est wore the jersey for only one day because the day after, stage 13 of that Tour de France, the peloton climbed the Col d’Aubisque, and that’s where a very famous piece of Dutch cycling history was written.

He had never seen mountains like the Pyrenees. The riders felt like explorers. After climbing the Aubisque, Van Est wanted to stay with the Italian Filippo Magni but the Dutchman crashed on the first corner of the descent (there’s some fantastic footage available of the stage here). He had never climbed mountains this high let alone descended safely. His training roads in the south of the Netherlands were flat as a pancake and back then there were no altitude camps. Van Est literally had never done this before and might have been a bit reckless, his grandson recounted.

Van Est fell 70 metres deep into the ravine. 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 waved.

With bicycle tires tied together and physically relatively okay, he was pulled back up. He left the Tour de France that day but became famous, and an advertisement was produced by his team sponsor, watch brand Pontiac, in which they had him say: I dropped 70 meters into a ravine, my heart stopped but my Pontiac didn’t.

Van Est rode until he was 42 years old and also became the first Dutch rider to win a stage in the Giro and wear the pink jersey. He was also the first Dutch rider to win the Tour of Flanders.

The woollen yellow jersey including all the holes from the crash is still on display in the Velorama bike museum in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, as is Van Est’s mangled bike.

And of course, that famous Pontiac watch. It’s still working.

There is a plaque on the Aubisque that was revealed in 2001, 50 years after the crash. Van Est was in France to reveal it. He died in 2003, aged 80.

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