Koblet and Kübler at the 1951 Tour de Suisse. Kübler won the Tour ahead of Koblet.
Koblet and Kübler at the 1951 Tour de Suisse. Kübler won the Tour ahead of Koblet. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Wheel to wheel

Highs and lows are part of everyday life in Swiss cycling – both figuratively and literally. The sport of cycling can look back on a history filled with anecdotes.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

A frame, a set of handlebars, two wheels, and bam – you’ve got yourself a bike. This piece of sporting equipment is as basic as its uses are varied. On the road, in the arena or across country through the mud: the invention of the modern bicycle in the mid-19th century also marked the birth of cycling as a sport. Approximately 150 years later, the sport boasts a history full of dazzling characters, superhuman achievements and entertaining anecdotes. But it’s also full of scandals and tragedies.
When the racer still had to lend a hand himself in the event of a puncture: Walter Diggelmann changes a defective tyre at the 1950 Tour de Suisse and eventually comes 29th.
When the racer still had to lend a hand himself in the event of a puncture: Walter Diggelmann changes a defective tyre at the 1950 Tour de Suisse and eventually comes 29th. Swiss National Museum / ASL

The K and K duel

One of the undoubted highlights of Switzerland’s cycling calendar is the Tour de Suisse. The 1950s are considered the golden age of this event. Back then, Hugo Koblet and Ferdinand Kübler were the “heroes of the highway”. The face-offs between these two riders are the stuff of legend, and the public and the media lapped up every second of their rivalry. Koblet and Kübler both came from humble backgrounds. Their rise through the sport was as steep as the Alpine passes over which they battled their way on their road bikes. Kübler’s style, characterised by struggle and willpower, appealed in particular to the working classes. Koblet, on the other hand, was effortless and graceful in the saddle. The bon viveur and “Pédaleur de charme” was the antithesis of the “toiler” Kübler. They pushed each other to greater and greater success. Hot on the heels of Koblet’s victories in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de Suisse in 1950, Kübler won the Tour de France in the same year, and the World Road Race Championship title and victory in the Tour de Suisse a year later, beating Koblet into second place that time. A month later, Koblet won the Tour de France. The two “Ks” always went head to head: Kübler’s spectacular bursts of speed provoked lively discussion among spectators, as did Koblet’s dominance in the time trials.
Hugo Koblet in the Tour de Suisse yellow leader’s jersey, 1950.
Hugo Koblet in the Tour de Suisse yellow leader’s jersey, 1950. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Ferdinand Kübler in the 1940s.
Ferdinand Kübler in the 1940s. Swiss National Museum / ASL
After Kübler’s retirement in 1957 and Koblet’s in 1958, the life stories of the former rivals took very different trajectories. The rivalry had now turned into a friendship. Kübler remained a firm favourite with the public – he was voted Swiss athlete of the century in 1983, and died at the grand old age of 97. But Hugo Koblet met a tragic fate. He died in a car accident in 1964 at the age of 39. Everything pointed to a suicide – the former cyclist was deeply in debt and facing a divorce.
Portrait of Ferdy Kübler in the 1970 show "Sport" (in German). SRF

Siesta on the Simplon Pass

Other episodes from the history of the Tour de Suisse are much more innocuous. Certain legends from the golden age are quite a few years old now, but they’ve aged well. Their veracity is difficult to check, but that makes them all the more entertaining. Such as the incident that is supposed to have happened in 1949 on the longest stage of the Tour de Suisse ever ridden. The killer 350-kilometre stage started in Ascona at 7 a.m. on 2 August; hours later, Frenchman André Brulé was the first to cross the finish line in Geneva. In between lay the Simplon. Brulé is said to have reached the top of the pass, at 2,009 metres, with such a huge lead that he allowed himself a siesta, and is even said to have sat in the restaurant and written a few postcards, signing them “Salutations du Simplon, André”. What is certain is that Brulé won the stage by nearly 12 minutes. Whether the rest of the story is true can no longer be verified because back then, naturally, the tour wasn’t as thoroughly organised as it is today. Riders had to stop and fix their own punctures, a task that was often necessary on the unsealed roads of the pass…
André Brulé after crossing the finish line at the end of the 350-kilometre stage on 2 August 1949.
André Brulé after crossing the finish line at the end of the 350-kilometre stage on 2 August 1949.
André Brulé after crossing the finish line at the end of the 350-kilometre stage on 2 August 1949. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Wheels, races, glory. Swiss cycling

15.07.2022 16.10.2022 / National Museum Zurich
On the road, in the arena or across country: the exhibition presents the world of Swiss cycling in all its facets. Photographs tell the stories of mountain ascents, cycling acrobatics both highly skilled and unintentional, duels in the arena and out on the roads, and the good old military bicycle.

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).