Anquetil, Poulidor and the legacy of the Puy de Dôme

This story starts almost 11,000 years ago. A volcano erupts, magma bubbles up from deep inside the earth. It cools, solidifies and leaves a lava dome standing proud above the surrounding landscape.

The legacy of that violence is the Puy de Dôme. It has an ethereal quality. The Celts worshipped at its summit. The Romans built a temple there. All seemingly preparing the ground for what was to come.

***

1964. One mountain. Two men. One cold and calculating. One an emotional favourite of the crowd.

Jacques Anquetil.

A name you can only say in a French accent.

Tall, slim with swept-back blond hair. If he rode today, he would have a marketing deal with an aftershave company.

A thoroughly modern cyclist. A rider who carefully measured his effort, expending no more than necessary. His preferred strategy was to limit his losses in the mountains, and build a lead in the time trials. He would win by one second if he could. A human computer. A machine.

He concealed his suffering behind a poker face and a liquid pedalling style. It worked, delivering him four Tour de France victories by 1964.

A self-confessed doper. “You can’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water,” he said. “Leave me in peace, everyone takes dope.

Off the bike, a playboy. His favoured in-race meal was langoustines and champagne. He raced sports cars around the Paris streets by night. Without headlights. He seduced and married another man’s wife. Then seduced her step-daughter. For more than a decade, they all lived together. Then, bored, he seduced his stepson’s ex-wife.

You would think the French would love a man like this. But perhaps his riding style was too cold, too lacking in panache.

The crowds favoured another man.

Raymond Poulidor. 

The Eternal Second, or Pou-Pou (no giggling at the back). A rider most at home when the road went up, who raced with his heart more than his head.

The son of a farmer from rural France with a farmer’s muscular frame and a square jaw covered in dark stubble. A human version of the eagle from The Muppets.

He was the first rider ever to be drug tested at the Tour de France. In 1966 the testers arrived in Bordeaux but most riders left their hotels to avoid them. Poulidor didn’t. Nor did he object to the tests. The following day, many riders protested. Not Poulidor.

Do you believe in luck? He had crashed on Stage 1 of the 1964 Tour. The finale of Stage 9 was on the velodrome in Monaco; he sprinted a lap early. He punctured in the individual time trial of Stage 10b. In the mountains of Stage 14, he built a lead of almost five minutes on Anquetil, but then botched a tyre change and ended up 2:36 down. Altogether more human than machine.

***

There are four days left in that year’s race. Anquetil is in yellow, 55 seconds ahead of Poulidor. With just two flat stages and a time trial left, this final day in the mountains is Poulidor’s last chance to overhaul Anquetil and record his first Tour victory.

After 203 kilometres of riding, they approach the foot of the Puy de Dôme. 14 kilometres of road remain, all up hill, at an average grade of 9%. A brutal climb with no respite.

Anquetil and Poulidor are in a group of four riders leading the stage. Poulidor, in his purple and yellow Mercier jersey, the peak of his cap turned up. His arms and legs shimmering with sweat, a look of determination on his face. Anquetil is at the back of the group, his blond hair impeccable, floating on the pedals like foamed milk on a cappuccino.

At the beginning of the climb one of the four riders, Julio Jimenez, attacks. Poulidor quickly marks him, rocking on his handle bars. Anquetil climbs out of the saddle and drags himself onto the wheel, but the effort is suddenly all too obvious. Would this finally be Poulidor’s day?

Higher up the slopes, the hot sun beating down through the trees, Jimenez attacks again and is followed by Federico Bahamontes.

This time Anquetil, Poulidor and the television cameras are left behind. The duel is on.

Anquetil is struggling, the liquid pedalling replaced with something altogether more viscous. Milk being churned to Camembert.

So what to do? Surely Poulidor will try to ride away form him up the mountain? Surely Anquetil will put all his efforts into staying on Poulidor’s wheel, catching a ride to the top?

Not for Anquetil, the conservative route. There is to be no riding in the slip stream. If he can’t dominate Poulidor physically, then he will dominate him mentally.

He drags himself up alongside Poulidor, riding shoulder to shoulder. A visible demonstration that he will not be destroyed. As Poulidor glances across at him, he must feel what Arnold Schwarzenegger felt as the T-1000 regenerated yet again.

Anquetil’s brow is creased. His eyes stare blankly at the road ahead. His hair is obviously still perfect. Poulidor is basalt-faced, his head turned downwards, watching the beads of sweat drip from his frame.

Pedal turn by pedal turn, Anquetil matches Poulidor.

When Poulidor stands and increases the effort, Anquetil mirrors him.

Mere inches separate the two riders. At one stage they actually touch, momentarily fused together.

With 900 metres left to the summit, Poulidor launches another attack. Anquetil rises in the pedals but there is nothing left. Poulidor presses again. He senses his opportunity. At last there is clear road between them.

But did Anquetil have nothing left? Or had the human computer calculated his effort perfectly yet again? By the summit, after over 7 hours of riding, Poulidor had gained 41 seconds. Anquetil remained in the lead by 14. He would keep the yellow jersey to Paris. Tour win number five.

Poulidor: “I never felt as bad again on a bike.”

Anquetil: “All I cared was that I was directly next to Raymond. I needed to make him think I was as strong as he, to bluff him into not trying harder.

***

Legacy.

For Anquetil it was five Tour de France victories, the founder member of that select group. A name that became synonymous with the Tour, that every cycling fan knows.

Poulidor never did win the Tour. He never even wore the yellow jersey. His legacy? A linguistic one: “à la Poulidor.” To finish second.

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