Tour de France - Re-Cycle: When Abdel-Kader Zaaf collapsed in a ditch, woke up and rode off in the wrong direction
Sunstroke and a bottle of wine made Abdel-Kader Zaaf a household name at the 1950 Tour after he passed out on his bike then, in a daze, rode back towards the peloton. A year later, the Algerian trailblazer finished last after launching the move that ended the grieving Fausto Coppi’s bid for yellow. Felix Lowe remembers a man who blurred the lines between myth and reality
Re-Cycle: when legendary Lanterne Rouge Abdel-Kader Zaaf collapsed in a ditch, woke up and rode off in the wrong direction
Lying in a Paris hospital bed three decades after the event for which he became most famous, Abdel-Kader Zaaf was happy to set the record straight. “Twenty kilometres from the finish, a guy offered me something to drink. I accepted, because it was as hot as the desert. I’m not a camel, you know.”
If Zaaf had already overcooked the metaphorical bend, this is perhaps where he skidded over the edge of the cliff. He’d been on the attack with his friend Marcel Molinès, a fellow member of the Tour’s first North African team in 1950. They were approaching the finish in Nîmes when disaster struck for Zaaf. Overcome by sunstroke and fatigue, he started to zigzag across the road, then fell. He got up; then fell again.
After he collapsed for a third time, Zaaf had to be pulled out of the ditch and attended to by the gathering spectators. Once revived, he remounted his bike and set off in the opposite direction. “Oh! Not far, a few metres,” Zaaf recalled. “That didn’t stop people from claiming I was drunk. Obviously, I smelt of booze, but that’s because they splashed my face with a bottle of plonk. Do you think I would have done 200km at 42kmh if I’d been drunk? I ask you.”
Zaaf was speaking to Vélo magazine in 1982 after he’d resurfaced having supposedly disappeared following his retirement in 1955. The interview was revisited by the author Max Leonard in Lanterne Rouge, his critically acclaimed 2014 book devoted to the slowest finishers in the Tour. In a robust chapter focusing on Zaaf coming last in the 1951 race, Leonard, with the dexterity of a top sommelier, also uncorks the wine myth from the previous year.
Image credit: From Official Website
During the intervening years between the incident and the 65-year-old Zaaf’s retelling of his own recollections from that day of delirium, the story had assumed many extra layers of embellishment and intrigue. Molinès might have gone on to become the first rider born in Africa to win a stage of the Tour that day, but the legend of Abdel-Kader Zaaf was born underneath the tree against which fans propped the so-called “drunken Algerian”.
When he ‘won’ the Lanterne Rouge a year later, Zaaf’s fame snowballed. He skilfully took advantage of his new-found celebrity by making a lot of money on the post-Tour criterium circuit. All because he finished last in the Tour off the back of a run-in with a grieving Fausto Coppi and an incident involving a daring breakaway, some wine and a tree that has passed into Tour myth, despite a sinister backdrop steeped in everyday casual racism and lazy stereotypes.
Who was Abdel-Kader Zaaf?
An established journeyman on the European circuit and certainly the most experienced rider on that first North African team at the Tour de France in 1950, Abdel-Kader Zaaf was born in the Algerian town of Chebli in 1917, when Algeria still included three overseas French departments. He was a regular winner in the amateur ranks both in North Africa and in France after starting his cycling career in the mid-1930s. Doors were opened to the European circuit after he become Algerian champion in 1946 – Zaaf earned a contract on the Volta team in 1948 and competed in numerous races, mainly in Belgium.
French-Algerian cyclist Abdel-Kader Zaaf during the Tour de France in 1950, in France. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystine via Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
As a last-minute call-up for the French south-east regional squad, his Tour de France debut came that same year – although it was a bit of a non-event (the 31-year-old did not make it through the first stage). Zaaf was not, however, the first African to participate in the Tour – that accolade went to the Tunisian Ali Neffati, in 1913.
But Zaaf went on to compete in four Tours during his career, building up a bit of a reputation as a hot-headed swashbuckler who targeted the bonus sprints as a way of supplementing his income. One newspaper at the time remarked of the man whose nicknames included ‘The Digger of Chebli’ and ‘The Old Lion’: “With Zaaf there’s no middle ground. Either he wins the award for the unluckiest man on the stage; or he tries to escape, in a disorderly fashion perhaps, but always full of heart.”
His most successful season was 1950, the year of the famous wine incident, in which Zaaf notched nine victories including two stages of the Tour of North Africa and five wins in the Tour of Morocco. If most of his career successes came in races back in Africa, Zaaf was a constant animator and able domestique on the European scene – although it’s likely that he would not be remembered so keenly today had he not collapsed in a ditch, or finished last in the Tour.
The wine myth from 1950
It’s hard to know what or who to believe when it comes to the story for which Zaaf made his name. Much of what happened that day seems to have been reconstructed as far as possible by the meagre TV footage and few photographs available, with authors and journalists joining the dots with their own imaginations or adding flourishes to a story already gilded through the grapevine. Everyone who was present that day and witnessed Zaaf’s meltdown is now probably dead, while the man himself only seemed to speak about it on record some 30 years later and while clearly quite ill.
A North African team participates in the 1950 Tour de France. The team is: Max Charroin, Custadio Dos Reis, Ahmed Kebaili, Marcel Molines, Abdel Kader Zaaf, and Marcel Zelasco. (Photo by Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
But first, a little context from Leonard in Lanterne Rouge about what was a golden age for cycling: “This was an era when men were still men and the Tour still a dusty, dangerously heroic thing to do, but the riders’ stories and images were enjoyed by more people than ever before through print, radio and finally TV. It was a time of the Hollywood smile of Louison Bobet, the comb and the slicked-back hair of Hugo Koblet, the effortless cool of Fausto Coppi or the harrowed, debonair chic of Jacques Anquetil – each combining the allure of James Dean, Cary Grant and Elvis Presley in their own unique way.
“In such company,” Leonard stresses, “Abdel-Kader Zaaf stuck out like a sore thumb, not least because he was a Muslim from Algeria and Lanterne Rouge instead of maillot jaune. Yet his force of personality, his rapport with the public and the myth he created meant he stood up there with the rest of them.”
The 1950 Tour played out in murderous temperatures. At one point, the heat became so unbearable that half the peloton took a collective plunge into the waters of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez. Tour director Jacques Goddet was livid, delivering this delectable curmudgeonly aside: “Surely the cyclists should have been acquiring, or re-acquiring, the rudiments of their strenuous profession, instead of indulging in these carnival antics?”
It was Stage 13, from Perpignan to Nîmes, and another scorching day in southern France when the Zaaf incident occurred. The 215km stage spirited the riders from Languedoc to Provence and, shortly after the start, Zaaf attacked with teammate Marcel Molinès. Molinès was known as a pied-noir – the French term meaning ‘black-foot’ and used for people of French origin born in Algeria during the period of French rule from 1930 to 1962.
Abdel-Kader Zaaf (left) and Marcel Molinès during stage 13 of the 1950 Tour de France
Image credit: Eurosport
“We had nothing left to lose,” Zaaf later said, although the conditions where hardly conducive to making big efforts in the saddle. As Leonard writes of this rugged region near the imposing Cevennes forested hills: “In the summer it’s like a hairdryer, hot and remorseless and no comfort to a pair of Algerians toiling up a false flat on a long, lonely breakaway in the 40°C heat.”
The pair nevertheless managed to establish a lead of more than 20 minutes on the peloton, and the stage win was all but guaranteed for the unstructured and chaotically run six-man team of four Algerians and two Moroccans. A strong rouleur with an aggressive streak and a love for solo breaks, Zaaf was the star rider of the North Africa team thanks to his time living and racing in Belgium. Keen to improve on his disappointing debut from 1948, Zaaf had ridden the Tour de Suisse earlier that year as part of the alleged 20,000km he’d put in to prepare for the Tour.
“He was impulsive, direct and confrontational,” writes Leonard, “a chunky, balding man with huge arms like a boxer’s, a ready laugh and an ever-present urge to attack.”
After a saddle sore hindered his performances in the Pyrenees, Zaaf had gone on the offensive in the previous stage before being dropped. “I’ll give it another go in a stage before the Alps,” he told the newspapers. “After that, it’ll be too late – but this time I’ll go solo.”
The two Algerians might have been used to this kind of heat, but they were not immune to dehydration – as Zaaf’s quip about ‘not being a camel’ shows. Leonard explains how, back then, drinking too much water was thought to hinder performance. Drinks were rationed and riders could even be penalised for taking on liquids from team cars. This meant that it was not unheard of for riders – especially in such sweltering conditions – to accept bottles from spectators. If this appears to be the undoing of Zaaf, Leonard adds that: “It is here that we enter the realm of myth.”
Abdel-Kader Zaaf, on the left, and Marcel Molinès, both of the same team "North Africa", pedal side by side during the 13th stage of the 37th Tour de France in Perpignan-Nimes in July 1950.
Image credit: Getty Images
When the leaders reached Beziers with around 60km remaining, they passed through the town where they received a welcome hosing down from a man on the side of the road. Here, Zaaf did what he promised, dropped his younger teammate, and soloed clear.
“I was suffering at that moment, and I couldn’t stop myself crying in impotent rage when I saw him distance me,” Molinès later said. The next time he saw his compatriot, he was laid out cold under a tree 28km from the finish.
So, what actually happened?
Reports vary. Most stress that Zaaf took a bottle from a spectator – and that bottle contained not water but wine. Some reports, rather specifically, claim the wine was Corbières, the local plonk. Zaaf supposedly downed it in one. Then he, perhaps, took on another. It’s all a bit of a blur – just as it would be for anyone in that situation. Especially someone not used to drinking alcohol. As Leonard writes: “For a dehydrated man in a heatwave, this would be bad enough. But for a conscientious Muslim, unused to even a drop, it is catastrophic.”
It is here that the supposedly tipsy Algerian started to sway across the road, falling off his bike and remounting a few times before collapsing into a ditch, cutting his knee badly, being dragged out and then laid down by spectators under a tree. Another version of the story is that there was no bottle of wine – at least, if there was, Zaaf didn’t drink any. Instead, he was consumed by fatigue and heatstroke. Some have added that amphetamines might well have been involved. The net result was that he lost consciousness and had to be revived by spectators, who sprayed him with some wine to help bring him round.
Whatever happened, Zaaf found himself slumped against one of the plane trees lining the road between the towns of Restinclières and Sommières, surrounded by a crowd – we have the images that prove this much. Whether he actually fell asleep at this point, though, is not clear. Some say he only woke up two hours later once the peloton had passed; others say it wasn’t too long before he snapped out of his stupor, jumped back on his bike, and set off in the wrong direction – cycling towards either the approaching peloton or, according to some sources, the broom wagon.
Whatever happened – and Zaaf himself confirmed in 1982 that he did cycle the wrong way, but only for a few disoriented metres – it quickly became clear that he was in no state to complete the stage in anything but an ambulance. This much was confirmed by the journalist Roger Ulma in the newspaper L’Humanité the next day, who was already peddling the wine line, albeit with a different type of plonk: “The ambulance gave asylum to the unfortunate Algerian, who on arrival was not still awake. The Hérault wine had succeeded where his adversaries had failed.”
Some say Zaaf was given the all-clear by a doctor at Nîmes, and that he was then seen walking the streets in his kit, still in a daze, at 6am. Most agree on Zaaf imploring the Tour organisers to let him complete the remaining 28km that he had missed that same morning before the Stage 14 start in Toulon. After Goddet declined, Zaaf reluctantly agreed to withdraw.
Leonard explains how French journalists mourned his departure. “The unlucky hero,” one wrote, had a “desire to shine in the twilight hours of an African career. He has been battered, but not beaten. Zaaf will go back to Algiers with tears in his eyes and a full heart, but I am certain that his city will welcome him like a great champion. He who has been so unlucky, eliminated by this curse that has followed him his whole career.”
Over time, the wine-drinking myth morphed into Zaaf being pigeon-holed as the only rider to be eliminated from the Tour for being drunk and disorderly during the race. Leonard argues that the whole thing probably stemmed from a cryptic comment Zaaf had apparently made to the newspapers earlier in the week, in which he joked that a glass of good wine helped him ‘uncork’ – that is to say, let his hair down, let loose, or give his all. It’s worth adding that, despite any offence he might have felt being tarnished by claims of being drunk on duty, Zaaf clearly saw the funny – and commercial – side of things. He appeared in an advert for the aperitif St Raphaël, the brand of fortified wine that went on to sponsor one of the most famous and successful cycling teams in the 1960s.
For now, let’s give the final word on the matter to Leonard, who writes of Zaaf: “His attacking mentality and particular brand of beautiful madness were attractive to the cycling public and this haphazard, jokey catastrophe endeared him to them further.”
1951 Tour de France: Zaaf the Lanterne Rouge
A year later and Zaaf was back on the Tour, this time with a larger eight-man Afrique du Nord team that was nevertheless still four riders short of the usual 12-man requirement. To prepare for the race, they rode to the start in Paris from Metz. It took them two days.
With the opening stages of the race heading into Belgium, Zaaf wanted to make an impression, given he was considered a part-native of this neck of the European woods. There were also many large primes, or cash prizes, up for grabs at special sprint points along the route – and Zaaf, as we now know, was always quite calculating when it came to subsidising his income. In the third stage, Leonard reports that he had such a large lead after winning a prime that he was able to stop outside his friend André Rosseel’s house when he passed. After waiting for a few minutes, two Belgians arrived – including Rosseel, who stopped to greet his pregnant wife – and they all set off together. Germain Derycke was soon dropped.
“I could also have dropped Rosseel, but he was my friend and it would have been lousy of me to leave him. Luckily, he was thirsty. ‘Why not stop for a beer?’ I said to him, since Belgians love beer… He stopped, and since I wasn’t thirsty, I carried on alone.”
Zaaf would have soon sat up had he not been informed of another prime worth 20,000 francs just 20km up the road. One thousand francs per kilometre was too much of an opportunity to turn down. The winnings pocketed, he stopped to eat his lunch and let the peloton go past. It is thought he made up to 100,000 francs that day, although the tactic of sitting up and taking things easy in the aftermath was reflected in his lowly position in the standings.
What’s more, Zaaf was losing teammates rapidly; in the Stage 7 time trial alone, four of the remaining six North Africans were eliminated after finishing outside the limit during the 85km race of truth. Zaaf himself finished rock bottom – and a mere seven seconds ahead of the cut. He also found himself falling foul of the French team, who seemed to be treating his sideshow antics with disdain. “They were making my life hell,” Leonard reports Zaaf as saying. “If I wanted to go, they set the dogs on my tail, dangerous dogs that watched me as if I was a robber.”
A crowd of spectators watches cyclist Abdel Kader Zaaf as he breaks away from the pack in the third stage (between Gand and Le Treport, France) of the 1951 Tour de France. (Photo by Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
Leonard has managed to dig out some delightful soundbites from the Algerian, who clearly hyped his own legend by speaking about himself in the third person: “‘Zaaf,’ I said to myself, ‘you’re going to use the opportunity to attack, and get your name in the papers.’ They [the journalists] can’t write anything if everyone buries themselves in the peloton and never comes out again. So Zaaf will entertain them. It’s my right to go on solo attacks. I’m only doing my job.”
With his teammates falling like flies and the French ganging up against him, Zaaf planned to form an alliance with the Italians. He always claimed that he and Fausto Coppi were good friends, that the Campionissimo had even come to visit him in Algeria, so it was time to pull in a few favours. Coppi, who’d won the Tour in 1949 and also had three Giro titles to his name at the time, entered the 1951 Tour grief-stricken by the death of his brother, Serse. Two years after the younger Coppi had won Paris-Roubaix in 1949 in controversial circumstances . Serse had caught his wheel in the tram tracks in the Giro del Piemonte, and later died of his injuries in Fausto’s arms. Commercial reasons meant Coppi had to ride one week after the tragedy, but he did so with a leather helmet and clearly with his mind elsewhere.
After a shaky start, Coppi had ridden into some form in the Alps and had risen to fourth place, five minutes down on the leader Hugo Koblet of Switzerland, as the race entered Stage 16 from Carcassonne to Monpellier. With the Pyrenees ahead, the great Italian could not be discounted from completing an astonishing comeback. Zaaf approached the Italian team and proposed a pact. He would attack, and two Italians would make a show of chasing him while the rest of the Azzurri blocked the peloton: “I’ll work for you, but let me win a stage. I have a lot of mouths to feed at home.”
In return, Zaaf promised to ride in the service of the Italian team for the rest of the race. Coppi agreed and the plan was put into action the day after Zaaf’s chum Rosseel had taken his second win of the Tour. The plan, put simply, backfired. On another stiflingly hot day, Zaaf approached the Italians 150km from the finish to put the wheels in motion. When they said it was too early, Zaaf was perturbed because he felt he needed a big cushion if he wanted to hold on for the win and avoid a sprint.
Algeria's Abdel-Kader Zaaf and the Swiss rider Robert Lang (c.1949)
Image credit: Getty Images
“A Zaaf breakaway with 40km to go is not a Zaaf breakaway,” he complained. “If you don’t respect our agreement, I’ll go on my own and bring the house down.” Here he used the French expression ‘casser le baraque’, which would soon become the root of another nickname. Considering the pact void, Zaaf, perhaps rather contentiously, waited until the peloton eased up for a comfort break and made his move. But without the support of the Italians, he was chased down by the French trio of Louison Bobet, Raphaël Géminiani and Lucien Lazarides, as well as the race leader, Koblet.
“We’re going to spit you out the back now,” Zaaf later recalled Bobet saying on the next climb. “Keep talking – it won’t stop me from attacking,” came his typically ballsy reply. Needless to say, Zaaf was soon dropped and Koblet took the stage to consolidate his yellow jersey.
But that’s just half the story. Little did Zaaf know that Coppi had cracked in the confusion that followed Zaaf’s attack. Trying to respond to the flurry of shots off the front, Coppi had dug deep to follow but, having come within 30 seconds of the chasers, he was overcome by illness and had to vomit on the roadside. He was eventually chaperoned to the finish by his teammates Gino Bartali and Fiorenzo Magni, where he came home 33 minutes behind Koblet and 20 minutes adrift of Zaaf, the instigator of his collapse.
That night, Coppi is said to have burst into Zaaf’s hotel room to complain about his actions. To which the unrepentant Algerian said: “Fausto, the real culprits are your teammates who didn’t keep their word. I didn’t take the Italians for traitors, but you didn’t take me seriously.”
From that day, Zaaf was known as ‘Casseur de Baraque’ – The House Breaker. In the context of cycling, Leonard explains that this expression – conveying the sense of a bull in a china shop or a saboteur – would perhaps best be translated as ‘breakaway merchant’.
Abdel-Kader Zaaf (left) and Marcel Molinès during stage 13 of the 1950 Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
Making amends with the Italians
Now an enemy of the Italians as well as the French, on top of being rooted to the foot of the standings with just one teammate remaining, Zaaf was staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. It was time to rebuild some bridges. To do this, he unofficially put himself in the services of Coppi during Stage 20 to Briançon. The yellow jersey might have been unreachable, but Il Campionissimo still wanted to salvage his wretched Tour with a stage win.
In Lanterne Rouge, Leonard describes how Zaaf agreed to attack between the climbs of the Col de Vars and Col d’Izoard (the springboard of a previous Coppi victory) as a foil before the Heron took flight. Coppi gave his assent but thought it best to hide the details from his teammates. This time, the plan worked perfectly: Zaaf rode clear on the ledge beside the Guil river, only to slam on his brakes when everyone followed – just as Coppi attacked on the other side of the road. Roger Buchonnet – who had overheard the conversation between the two schemers – was the only rider who stuck to Coppi’s wheel, but the Frenchman was soon dropped en route to taking second place, 3 minutes 43 seconds back.
Koblet came home another 26 seconds behind, while the French arrived in dribs and drabs at least nine minutes in arrears. With second-placed Geminiani now nine minutes behind Koblet in the standings, this effectively ended his chance of the overall victory – a triumph of sorts for Zaaf.
“It was a consolatory victory for Coppi, and a Parthian shot by Zaaf,” writes Leonard, referring to the Ancient Persia people who perfected the military tactic of retreating on horseback while turning round and firing arrows at the enemy who, presuming victory, were advancing behind them. “By helping Coppi,” Leonard continues. “He had put himself in danger of elimination (Coppi was back in his hotel by the time Zaaf crossed the line) but stuck two fingers up at his enemies.”
Zaaf held on to Paris, where he finished rock bottom – 66th from the original 123 starters – almost five hours behind Koblet. His Lanterne Rouge legend was assured and his tale still told, 70 years on.
Criterium circuit breakthrough
Many Lanternes Rouges from the era have been forgotten, but not Zaaf. And for this, he probably owes a lot to the myth that had built up around him following the wine debacle the year before. As Leonard tells Re-Cycle: “The wine story is what everyone knows about him. It was his position as Lanterne Rouge that lets me tell the wine story – not the other way round.”
Those ordering ‘un Zaaf’ in the bars around Nîmes during the long, hot summer of 1950 would be brought a small glass of red wine. While it must have been humiliating being known for physically collapsing rather than competing for victory, Leonard says Zaaf took it on the chin. Hence that advert for the fortified wine tonic St Raphaël, which featured Zaaf and the strapline: “Everybody wants to drink a glass with me.”
Finishing last on the Tour de France only further wrote Zaaf into the folklore of the race – and coming as it did after his wine escapade, it allowed him to milk the additional publicity as much as he could. It is, Leonard reckons, why Zaaf is remembered today when other Red Lanterns are forgotten. It is said that his teammate Molinès was maddened into his old age that it was Zaaf who went on to make the headlines and the money – severely overshadowing his landmark win in Nîmes. Indeed, the day after Molinès’s victory in 1950, Custodio Dos Reis – another rider from the North Africa team –won in Toulon. And yet today the Portuguese-French-Algerian pied-noir rider is largely forgotten.
Instead of Molinès or Dos Reis, it was Zaaf – who hadn’t even completed that Tour, let alone won a stage – who soon travelled to the lucrative post-Tour criteriums alongside Louison Bobet in his car. Zaaf later admitted that his contracts in the weeks that followed the 1951 Tour were worth 35,000 francs, considerably dwarfing his daily wage of around 7-10 francs. Quizzed about his friendship with the superstars of his era during the 1982 hospital bed interview, Zaaf admitted that he remembered Coppi with the most fondness, but said that he got on very well with Bobet – despite their disagreement on the fateful stage where his attack poleaxed Coppi.
“He let me win a lot of money,” Zaaf said. “Or, more like, he stopped me from losing it.” For Bobet did not ask for petrol money when he drove Zaaf to races, allowing his grateful passenger to attend more events while saving what he would have spent on train tickets.
What happened next?
Abdel-Kader Zaaf rode one more Tour, in 1952, but with little fanfare. He was eliminated after finishing outside the time limit on Stage 11. But his cycling career continued for a few more years as a domestique on trade teams with Charly Gaul in 1953, and then the Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes a year later, so he must have brought something to the table. Seven of his 27 career victories came in his final year as a pro.
After retiring in 1955 he returned to war-torn Algeria, where he disappeared. It wasn’t until he was spotted at the Gare de Montparnasse in 1982 that he returned to the public’s consciousness. He’d been shot in the leg and had spent time in prison during the turbulent years after his return to north Africa. Untreated diabetes had almost cost him his sight, and Zaaf was en route to hospital for surgery on his eyes. It was his friend, the former rider Henry Alglade – runner-up behind Bahamontes in the 1959 Tour – who had pulled the strings to organise his operation. Far from disappearing from the scene however, Zaaf told the reporter Georges Pagnoud from his hospital bed, he’d regularly returned to France in the intervening years – often to take part in organised races. In one case, he’d ridden 3,000km in training for a criterium in Lyon.
Zaaf claimed he still rode his bike and was involved in coaching, notably two of his sons – Ahmed and Boualem – who showed much promise. He said that Belgian TV were interested in making a programme about him, but that his priority was to make sure he could attend an eight-day cycling event later that summer in Brittany.
Asked what he thought of the current French champion, Bernard Hinault, Zaaf did not mince his words. “Hinault is a good rider, of course. But let me tell you something. The competition is very weak. Before, there would be dozens who could win the Tour. Now there’s three at most. There’s no one capable of standing up to Hinault. It’s an empty field. There’s no fight. You have time to take food out of your jersey pocket. Back in my day, you couldn’t take your hands off the handlebars. Now they all ride around like postmen.”
Vélo magazine couldn’t resist giving the interview the headline: Abdel-Kader Zaaf – “Les Casseurs de Baraque N’Existent Plus” (“No one breaks down the house anymore”). Zaaf died four years later, aged 69.
The legend seen through a different prism
One of the reasons why Zaaf did not appear on the Tour beyond 1952 was simple: that was the last year where a North African squad was invited. Algeria at the time was experiencing a full-scale revolutionary war of independence that tore the country apart. And while there’s no evidence of Zaaf being overtly political – his bringing down the house was no rally against France – the political situation was inescapable.
Undeniably, the tone in French newspaper reports of the time was, according to Leonard, “casually racist” towards Zaaf and his North African teammates, who were subjected to “a constant stream of patronising news coverage” and were “belittled, disadvantaged and diminished at every opportunity”. He reckons it was perhaps emblematic of how the French treated its colonies at the time and typical of the wider societal feeling that no doubt contributed to Algeria seeking independence rather than continue being treated that way.
“Yes, Zaaf is praised, as are Molinès and Dos Reis for their stage wins,” writes Leonard. “But it’s as if they’re being given a gold star for trying – precisely because their achievements do not threaten the normal scheme of things. They are feted for their brave efforts to join the European peloton, filling spare column inches on the inside pages while the European stars continue to fight for the big prizes in the front-page headlines and the photo pages of the magazines.
“In the reports, the North Africans are always braves garçons or gars gentils – brave boys, good lads – and sometimes Zaaf is a garçon amusant. All of which may be just the mateyness that pervades all-male sports environments. It was by no means solely the North Africans who were called these things in the papers, and if it’s okay to call a 34-year-old man a garcon, this one was more amusant than most: larger than life, an undoubted one-off, an animator of the race.
“But there’s a thin line between diminutive and derogatory. Given the context, it’s tempting to see it as paternalism of the worst sort, a way of keeping the North African riders in their place.”
Leonard notes how during one of the Belgian stages in the 1951 Tour, fans had shouted “Joe Louis” to Zaaf – in reference to the US boxer of African American and Native American descent, and Zaaf’s own dark skin tone. Le Monde said he resembled in body and mind a marchand de tapis – carpet-seller – and mocked his accented French. The journalist Jean Castera opined that Zaaf could build on his success by taking “three more wives and offer[ing] his friends great feasts of couscous” back in Algeria.
And following the wine incident, the author Pierre Debray, in his 1967 book Contre le Tour de France, even ridiculed both his religion and the lowly status of those who came to his aid: “The Muslim Zaaf, oblivious of all the commandments of the Prophet, won glory by getting drunk on the big red offered to him by the peasants, during a scorching stage.”
Leonard is adamant that Zaaf deserves to be seen as more than a mere Forrest Gump-like comedy figure. He was a hustler, a grifter and a showman, but he was also a sharp operator who had panache: “He knew how to play the press as much as they were playing him. But definitely their attitude towards him was one of an idiot – and I don’t think he was.”
Could a revisionist view of Zaaf not cast him in a wholly different light, Leonard asks? After all, he was “ballsy enough while Lanterne Rouge to make the moves to influence the top of the GC, and savvy enough to do the deals that needed doing to keep him in the race, all the while working the system to attract fame – or notoriety – and make the money that came with it.”
Funnily enough, Leonard views the wine myth with which Zaaf became synonymous as one of the least interesting things about him.
“Zaaf was a complex figure, both popular and likable and mercenary and untrustworthy, and far cleverer than the usual tales give him credit for,” he writes. “The French have a wonderful phrase for an unruly bunch of riders: un panier de crabs – a basket of crabs – which seems to me to perfectly describe the volatility, bad temper and self-interest of a 10-man breakaway, say, 10km from the finish, in which everyone is fighting their own battle to win and be damned with the rest. Zaaf was a basket of crabs, all by himself.”
Speaking to Re-Cycle, Leonard elaborates: “I was interested in the serious story behind this often-repeated tale of the clown who went the wrong way. It was a bit of a gift to be able to look into that – not to just retell the same old stuff, which people do without thinking.”
It was in unpicking the myth that gave Leonard a greater appreciation of the falsities and embellishments that have, over time, become part of Tour folklore, many of which were encouraged by the race’s founding father.
“I love all the myths of the Tour – and I love them because they’re myths – but most of them are completely untrue or made up by a grandstanding Henri Desgrange. The more you read the old newspaper reports, the more it becomes clear that they didn’t really care about the truth. Desgrange and that lot were just interested in flogging their newspaper and bolstering their race.”
The antics of Abdel-Kader Zaaf certainly gave a leg up to the newspaper circulations as much as they added to the allure of the Tour. And without the tale of the joker who drank wine, fell asleep under a tree, and then cycled in the wrong direction, Zaaf could well have become another one of the many forgotten figures who finished last in the Tour de France.