The remarkable tale of Alex Virot, the tragic Tintin of the Tour de France
Sixty-one years after his death, and with the circumstances of his tragic demise more relevant than ever, we remember a forgotten legend. An artist and adventurer who flew planes and crossed oceans; an intrepid reporter who rubbed shoulders with presidents, kings, popes and dictators; a pioneering broadcaster who brought the Tour to life, and in doing so, paid with his own.
" The motorbike started to accelerate. Then, about fifty metres in front of me, lost its balance on the gravel and started zigzagging as the driver fought to keep it upright. It hit a barrier, then another, then flew into emptiness. I saw two sets of legs in the air and shoes flying off. Never in my life will I forget it."
Marcel Queheille was the last person to see Alex Virot alive and the only person to witness, first hand, the chilling death of a man who was part of the Tour de France furniture.
It was Bastille Day during the 1957 Tour de France – a race dominated by the host nation. A promising French debutant called Jacques Anquetil had a firm grip on the yellow jersey and the whole of France tuned in to follow Virot’s trademark radio updates as the race headed back into French soil in the undulating stage 16 from Barcelona to Ax-les-Thermes.
(The media roadbook of the 1957 Tour de France signed by Alex Virot, fellow Belgian reporter Luc Varenne and the accordionist Yvette Horner; photo courtesy of Colin Jarman)
Covering his 22nd Tour on the back of a motorcycle, Virot had drawn up alongside Queheille to give the rider information about the time gaps: Queheille, a Frenchman from the nearby Pays Basque, rode in pursuit of lone leader Jean Bourlès, another plucky second-tier régional rider from Brittany, when the accident happened. Bourlès – like his pursuer, 27 years old and riding a maiden Tour – held a large gap as the road snaked up towards the Catalonian town of Ripoll via a gorge carved out by the river Ter. The Breton rode towards the biggest win of his career, unaware of the drama playing out in his wake.
“My victory was beautiful,” Bourlès told La Dépêche in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough win. “But it was spoiled by the accident that cost Alex Virot, the sports journalist, and René Wagner, his driver, their lives.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Virot – who had made the Tour’s first live radio broadcast in 1929 – fractured his skull when his motorcycle careered into the ravine in the foothills of the Pyrenees. He was killed instantly. His driver, Wagner, died soon after in hospital. Virot remains to the day the only journalist in the Tour’s 104-year history to be killed in action.
Alex Virot while covering a race (L), and (R) at his home in Chamonix (photos courtesy of Sophie OlchanskiEurosport
1.Who was Alex Virot?
Virot had already carved out a budding career in written journalism when he picked up a radio microphone for the first time. The 22 Tours he would subsequently cover were littered with landmarks: the Tour’s first remote radio broadcast made outside a studio in 1929 (for Radio Cité); the first live recording from a mountain stage in 1932, atop the Col d’Aubisque; and, in the same year, the first recording made from the cockpit of a plane. Virot, you see, was a trained pilot who fought in the trenches during the First World War.
Cycling was by no means his only specialism; Virot covered football, boxing, motorsports and skiing. His familiar voice announced the inaugural draw of France’s national lottery in 1934 and thereafter. In 1935, Virot brushed shoulders with the great and the good while accompanying President Gaston Doumergue on the maiden trans-Atlantic crossing of the Normandie – the largest, fastest passenger ship of its time. There followed a stint in New York as he honed his journalistic techniques at NBC.
Three of Virot’s sketches from his time as an illustrator for newspapers and magazinesEurosport
" In front of my eyes the first waves of German soldiers marched by"
As a respected war reporter, he capped his coverage of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia with an exclusive interview with King Haile Selassie. Months later, he reported on the Spanish Civil War. His crowning moment, however, came in 1938 when covering the ski world championships in Switzerland. On hearing rumours of the German invasion of Austria, Virot caught the first train to Vienna from where he defied strict Nazi censorship to snare one of the biggest pre-War radio scoops: speaking down a telephone line in a bar, Virot dictated a live report that would go down in history.
“In front of my eyes the first waves of German soldiers marched by,” Virot said, according to the memoirs of Marcel Bleustein, his boss at Radio Cité. “I opened the cabin and stretched the wire as far as I could so that I could stand by the entrance. I saw the first lines of soldiers entering Vienna and the familiar sounds of their boots could be heard over my report. My idea had succeeded perfectly.”
Virot’s ingenuity and resourcefulness was further rewarded when, by some fluke, Hitler’s car – flanked by tanks, motorcycles and a sea of swastikas – stopped “hardly three metres away. The Chancellor got out and saluted a general right in front of my eyes.” Six months later, Virot ran into the Führer again (as well as Messrs Mussolini, Chamberlain and Daladier) when covering the Munich Crisis. It was probably not as blessed an experience as his previous audience with Pope Pius XI (who had inaugurated the Vatican Radio in 1931). Later, under the French Occupation, Virot became a key player in the Resistance in his native Savoie, where he earned his nickname ‘Captain Alex’.
After the War, the swashbuckler returned to his roots to become the Tintin of the Tour: following brief stints at L’Équipe and the French national broadcaster RDF, he joined Radio Luxembourg where he worked until (and on) the day he died. As far as CVs go, Virot’s bordered on the fictional.
Virot poses in his maquis uniform (photo courtesy of Sophie Olchanski)Eurosport
2. Making waves
If radio radically altered the way the French public experienced the Tour by creating a vivid immediacy the print press was unable to match, then Virot was at the epicentre of this seismic shift. With live television images from the Tour not introduced until the year after his death, Virot was very much the Phil Liggett, Carlton Kirby, David Duffield or Ned Boulting of the pre-TV era.
It is said that Virot drew on his artistic heritage to paint colourful spoken portraits of riders and their surroundings that were unmatched by his peers. Recalling his memories of the Tour as a child, the writer Noel Tulot wrote in L’Équipe in 1990: “For me, cycling was first and foremost a voice – and Virot wrote a sonorous text with his microphone that lay somewhere between the popular novel and an epic tale.”
This year, every stage of the 2017 Tour is being broadcast in its entirety on Eurosport: an unprecedented move that could shape the way future Tours are designed and raced. Rewind 80-odd years and the advent of live radio broadcasts during the Tour had a similarly profound effect on the world’s biggest bike race. Virot was at the forefront of the radio revolution that helped people discover the noises of the Tour and the regions it passed through – from the cheering crowds on the Aubisque, to the clicking cicadas of Provence or the poignant sobs of a dethroned leader.
“He carried out his work with such a consciousness that he noted all the details – believing they were all important. From his reports, we discovered his desire to describe as faithfully as possible what he had just seen,” the Swiss newspaper Nouvelliste Valaisan reported after his death. There were moments when Virot did get a little carried away, mind. On hearing him, in 1930, describe in bold detail a crash on the Galibier involving a “practically dead” André Leducq, the Frenchman’s grief-stricken parents allegedly closed their post office and drove all the way to the Alps. Legend has it they arrived just in time to see their son win the stage and consolidate his yellow jersey.
Virot, in full leather jacket, hugs 1933 Paris-Tour winner Jules Merviel. In a written dedication, Merviel thanks ‘Monsieur Virot’ for the ‘eulogies and good publicity through the microphone’ (Photo courtesy of Sophie Olchanski)Eurosport
Despite occasionally over-egging the crème-brûlée, Virot was for the most part a bastion of level-headedness, objectivity and precision. He was a man, according to his colleague Raymond Marcillac, “plagued by restlessness. After he had finished running after the facts, he ran after his microphone; once he had his microphone, he ran after his observations, after all those evocative adjectives, and after the riders he wanted to interview.”
If you believe the rumours, riders were not the only thing Virot chased.
3. Virot’s secret
“Yes, he was very attractive to women,” Sophie Olchanski, Virot’s granddaughter, concedes. “Not only was he handsome, he had a free spirit that ensured he lived a very nice life. He never stood still, didn't fear anything or anyone. He always lived with his luggage ready at home and a map of the train times in his pocket. He never married – he loved women far too much for that. In fact, he always told my father to avoid marriage and just enjoy life.”
Being unattached, it’s fair to say having children was not part of Virot’s life plan. “It’s funny,” Sophie tells Eurosport, “no one actually knew Alexandre Virot had a son – even he didn’t know at first.” Virot had been conducting an amorous liaison with the high-society wife of a rich industrialist – and close friend of Charles de Gaulle – called Roger Olchanski. It was a marriage of convenience and Roger’s wife, Alice, would often stay with Virot in his chalet at Chamonix. When Alice fell pregnant, she confided in her husband. “There was no divorce. It was all hushed up and Olchanski agreed to raise Daniel, my father, as his own.”
" No one knew that Alex had a son"
It was during this time that both father and son finally learned the truth. “It was the start of a good relationship,” says Sophie. “They stayed in touch after War. Alex was a very good father for my dad.” Daniel was 28 when he heard Virot's death announced on a news bulletin on television. “It was a huge shock. He went to the funeral but he had to keep to the side because no one knew that Alex had a son.”
Virot and his son, Daniel, in the Alps (photo courtesy of Sophie Olchanski)Eurosport
4. In the thick of it
Conscious of the risks but driven by his meticulous professionalism, Virot followed cycling races only by motorcycle, covering the last 10 of his 22 Tours as pillion to his friend Wagner. Neither man wore a helmet – not compulsory on French roads until 1973.
“People often ask me why I insist on covering five-thousand kilometres of the Tour on the back of a motorcycle – at an age when you’d expect me to be offered the best comfy chair back at home. It’s quite simply so that I can follow all the battles at close quarters – to see something you cannot view or experience from a car.”
These were the words of Virot as reported by Le Monde, two days after his death. Covering the Tour was an eternal time trial for these early radio pioneers, who were constantly battling to make it to the next phone box to deliver three daily reports. The Radio Luxembourg car – effectively a makeshift studio emblazoned with Virot’s name on a panel across the top – would drive ahead to scout out broadcasting locations while Virot sought material by getting as close to the action as possible with Wagner.
It’s worth adding that the experienced Wagner was known for his bike-handling skills and excellent safety record: his first ever bike crash would be his last.
5. July 14, 1957: Virot’s last day
The site of Alex Virot's death - Phil GallowayEurosport
This year’s Bastille Day stage is the shortest of the Tour – an undulating 101km from Saint-Girons to Foix in the Ariège, on the apron of the Pyrenees. Sixty years ago, the Bastille Day stage won by Jean Bourlès finished some 40 kilometres south-east of Foix in the spa town of Ax-les-Themes. The day before, Tour debutant Jacques Anquetil retained his yellow jersey with commanding victory in a 10km time trial in Barcelona.
Anquetil was the Tom Dumoulin of his era when it came to racing against the clock: such was the then 19-year-old’s imperiousness during a time trial in Rouen in 1953, Virot had even questioned on air whether kilometres in Normandy were only 900 metres long. Having taken the race lead a week earlier in the Alps, Anquetil carried a four-minute lead over compatriot Jean Forestier into the Pyrenees. With a second, longer time trial on the horizon, his maillot jaune looked increasingly safe.
" Right, see you later. The Tour is over"
Given that it was a national holiday, French fans would have tuned in en masse for Sunday’s 220km stage 16, which brought the race back into France via the Col de Tosas. Bourlès rode clear after 60km, prompting another French régional, the local favourite Marcel Queheille, to set off in pursuit. Virot and his driver followed suit. With the first climb approaching, Virot delivered his lunch-time report at 12.30 p.m. It was to be his last.
In a tribute published in L'Humanité in 2001, the veteran Miroir-Sprint journalist Émile Besson recalled his friend's final moments. “The die had been cast, the atmosphere very calm,” Besson wrote in the article, entitled Adieu au capitaine Alex. “Next to us and on his motorbike, Alex Virot, the great reporter at Radio Luxembourg, chatted away with his hand clasping our wing mirror. In front, Bourlès rode clear on his long break. Virot said to me: ‘Right, see you later. The Tour is over.’ A few hundred metres later we saw a crowd gathered on a slight uphill corner. Virot and his driver Roger [sic] Wagner were lying in a gully. We ran down quickly but Virot had died on the spot.”
A report in the Nouvelliste Valaisan expanded on the cause of the accident, claiming the motorcycle was driving at only 30kmh because Virot had slowed to speak to Queheille. “Suddenly, the motorcycle skidded on some gravel and clipped a road marker with one of its cylinders. Knocked off balance and no longer under the control of the driver, the motorbike fell into a ravine, 10 metres deep, where it crashed against the rocks beside a small river.”
French newspaper Miroir Sprint reports the tragic news.Eurosport
6. Cycling in mourning
Unsurprisingly, the incident made front-page news in France. “The peloton,” wrote an editorial Miroir Sprint, “didn't seem to understand the commotion as it passed the tragic spot. The Tour continued, for sure, but its spirit was no longer there. Everyone was thinking about Virot and his driver. When they later found themselves in Ax-les-Thermes, squeezed side by side, the radio reporters felt an immense emptiness. In front of the microphone, one of theirs was missing. How could these two men who had completed 10 Tours together die in such a way?”
" Engulfed in sadness"
Le Monde spoke of the “horrifying” accident which had killed the doyen of the press room. Virot had become “a victim of his mission to inform” in the “very dangerous game” that journalists faced daily while following the race. “To lose one's life in a sporting spectacle in which one is not even participating is to pay too much,” it concluded. The Nouvelliste Valaisan spoke of the “cruel destiny which forever deprives us of a man esteemed by all and whose serious and sympathetic voice stirred thousands of listeners”.
A minute’s silence preceded stage 17 with the media caravane “engulfed in sadness,” according to Miroir Sprint. Many riders and journalists wore black ribbons around their arms. When Anquetil was crowned champion less than a week later in Paris, the 23-year-old paid homage to Virot on the podium. Like many of his peers, France’s new Tour champion would attend the funeral. A commemorative plaque was soon erected at the spot where both men lost their lives.
A commemorative plaque was soon laid for Virot and Wagner (photo courtesy of Sophie Olchanski)Eurosport
But it was not just those directly involved in the Tour who felt an acute sense of loss. Think of those very listeners for whom the voice of Virot had become as familiar as that of a dear relative. In his memoirs, the journalist Maurice Achard – at the time a young boy – recalls his despair, claiming it was up there with the death of his father. “My half-sister could have died, too, and I would have been less touched by her death,” he added.
The void left by Virot is apparently still felt today. Writing to her local paper Vosges Matin on July 3 2013 (the day Mark Cavendish notched his 24th Tour scalp in Marseille), amateur historian Renée Viard expressed her admiration for “the bees of the Tour” – the moto men who bring the race to the people and whose work is often overlooked.
“I remember returning home in a hurry after work to listen to the ‘Good evening, dear listeners’ of bon papa Virot (I still haven’t forgotten his voice). Then, one evening, the reporter who followed the Tour with him, in floods of tears, announced the sad news: our bon papa Virot had fallen into a ravine with his driver and we would no longer be able to hear his voice. All the listeners (for we didn’t have television at the time) were deeply saddened. Poor papa Virot seems to be forgotten now – but I still think of him during every Tour stage.”
7. A 21st Century problem
Some good came of the tragedy: a reduction in numbers of race motorbikes was introduced in 1958 along with a special Prix Alex Virot awarded to the Tour’s most loyal rider. Frenchman Édouard Delberghe was the first to win a prize which ran for a decade alongside a host of other minor gongs, such as luckiest rider, most elegant rider and most pleasant rider. There was even talk, among the Tour’s motorbike drivers, of introducing a Prix Wagner for the rider who yielded the most space when being overtaken.
“I am proud when I think of this prize,” Sophie Olchanski tells Eurosport. “For me, loyalty means honesty and a loving heart. It’s one of the most beautiful values and proof that my grandfather was clearly a good man with a strong character. He was passionate, focused on his goals and very alive.”
The French press were quick to claim Virot’s death was an accident waiting to happen. Le Monde listed a handful of similar incidents which had almost cost journalists their lives – most notably Jean Leulliot, the Paris-Nice organiser and close friend of French rider René Vietto. When, during a decisive Tour time trial in 1947, Vietto witnessed the aftermath of a bloody motorcycle crash involving Leulliot, he was allegedly so traumatised that he conceded 14 minutes, scuppering his chances of winning the Tour.
" Let us hope that the organisers do not forget this death in a hurry"
“What the public must know is that to throw 80 riders onto mountain roads in the rain and mist, with 50 motorcycles and 10 cars belonging to journalists who must see and hear everything – and get to the finish ahead of the riders, whatever the weather and at all costs – is a dangerous game,” said Le Monde. The author, Jean Castéra, spoke of “two races” – one between the riders and the others between the journalists jostling to cover the action. “Let us hope that the organisers do not forget this death in a hurry.”
Viewers of last year’s gripping Bastille Day stage to Mont Ventoux also witnessed bizarre scenes of the yellow jersey, Chris Froome, running through fans after yet another motorcycle incident. Meanwhile, as recently as May’s Giro d’Italia, a badly parked police motorcycle caused the mass pile-up which ended the chances of Froome’s Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas. With more motorised vehicles involved in bike races than actual cyclists, it’s clear that the issue of motorcycles and safety is just as pertinent today as it was in Virot’s era.
8. Prudhomme’s praise
Sixty years after his death, Virot’s legacy still lives on. And while there are no plans for ASO, the Tour organisers, to reward loyalty in the peloton by reinstating the Prix Alex Virot, Christian Prudhomme, the race director, is keen to pay homage to a forgotten man who had a huge impact on the race we have come to love.
" He will remain an important narrator of the Tour de France story"
“Alex Virot was a great witness of the Tour: by plane or by motorbike, he was one of those who created and wrote the legend,” Prudhomme told Eurosport. “The Tour is what it is today thanks to people like him, who put words on the race and described the story of its champions. The Tour is an invention of journalists, created by the written press and popularised by the radio – and Alex Virot was one of radio’s first stars. He had a great talent of gauging the atmosphere and bringing the race alive for those who couldn’t be there. He tragically ‘died on stage’ – like Molière, as we say in France – on the day of the French national holiday. But he will definitely remain an important narrator of the Tour de France story.”
9. Virot’s final broadcast
With help from RTL (formerly Radio Luxembourg), Eurosport managed to track down the last pre-stage broadcast made by Virot that fateful day of his fatal accident. It makes for moving listening.
"Radio Luxembourg listeners, good morning. As you can hear from the loudspeaker we are deep in the theatrics of the sign-on before today's stage. Here we are in the Place de Catalogne and the people of Barcelona have got up bright and early – which is not normal, I tell you. They must really love the Tour to have come to see the start at this hour.”
First, Virot accosts Jean Bobet, the less illustrious younger brother of triple Tour winner Louison, who talks about his injured finger and his ambitions for the rest of the race: to be best placed of the French regional riders come Paris. “And it's a beautiful ambition,” says the avuncular Virot.
“We've really been forced to make do with the scraps thanks to the superiority of the French national team,” replies Bobet. (In all, France would win 17 of the 24 stages that year, as well as the overall, points and team classification; a Frenchman wore yellow from start to finish – sweeping Gallic success unfathomable for us fans today.)
“Yes, they're running away with everything, they are rather formidable!”
" Listeners of Radio Luxembourg, I’ll return for our programme at the arrival of today's stage"
“Well, they're obviously very strong.”
“They're strong, of course, but they're also extremely greedy,” jokes Virot (a nod, perhaps, to Anquetil, whose voraciousness was well documented).
“Good for them,” says Bobet, “It's just a pity for us.”
“But don't they have indigestion?”
Bobet laughs. “Maybe they will!”
Reminiscent of a latter-day Martin Brundle patrolling the Formula 1 pits, Virot continues bumping into riders and media personalities alike. He talks to Nicolas Barone, the yellow jersey for a day in the opening week, before questioning another Frenchman, Pierre Ruby. He then tells a journalist his thoughts about the upcoming stage, claiming: “It’s a bit unknown. No one is familiar with the profile and so it’s hard to make any predictions.”
A trio of Belgian riders are Virot’s last port of call before he bids adieu to those listeners having their Bastille Day breakfasts. Given the gift of hindsight, his final words prove particularly poignant. “Alors... Listeners of Radio Luxembourg, I’ll return for our programme at the arrival of today's stage, which should be around 4.27 p.m. Of course, provided we're not delayed in any way... Bon appétit!”
- Chapter 11.Who was Alex Virot?
- Chapter 22. Making waves
- Chapter 33. Virot’s secret
- Chapter 44. In the thick of it
- Chapter 55. July 14, 1957: Virot’s last day
- Chapter 66. Cycling in mourning
- Chapter 77. A 21st Century problem
- Chapter 88. Prudhomme’s praise
- Chapter 99. Virot’s final broadcast