Cycling allegiances are powerful. They can divide nations and fuel lasting rivalries that extend beyond the sport. In the last of our three special edition Rivals collections we look to postwar France, where the clash between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor mirrored the country’s class struggle. It was the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. But who won?
The Duel on the Dôme
In a scrappy battle between two great French cyclists, the top dog won the great race but the underdog won the nation’s heart
By Susannah Osborne
Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor were compatriots. Two Frenchmen who had both served their nation, two cyclists riding under the same flag, yet on the road they were arch-rivals.
Over six years Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor played a game of cat and mouse. During five editions of La Grand Boucle between 1961 and 1966 they fought for seconds and minutes, on the roads and in the mountains of their country. And whilst it was Anquetil who emerged victorious each time, it was Poulidor, the eternal second, who enjoyed ‘la gloire sans maillot jaune’ and who won the affection of the fans.
In 1957 Jacques Anquetil, the son of a builder from Normandy, rode and won his first Tour de France, finishing nearly 15 minutes clear. Anquetil had style and finesse, his blond shock of hair swept up above his forehead. He was sharp. Yet within a year of his Tour success his reputation was called into question when spectators witnessed him assist Spaniard Federico Bahamontes, rather than Frenchman Henry Anglade, in the 1958 Tour.
Hard to love and full of contempt, Anquetil had a deadly will to win. Outwardly impervious to criticism he rarely showed his cards, even on the podium. Convinced of his own talents he stated before the 1961 Tour that he would win the yellow jersey on day one and wear it all the way to Paris, which he did. As a rider he conserved energy, rode at the back of the bunch, limited his losses and won by being one of the greatest time trialists of all time – he became known as ‘Monsieur Chrono’.
As a child Raymond Poulidor lived a humble life. His family were hard-working farmers who tended the land in Limoges. An aggressive, gritty, attacking rider, Poulidor, or ‘Pou-Pou’ was the darling of the peloton; his dark hair and film-star looks won adoration. To him the hardships of stage racing were nothing compared to tending the land. “No race, however difficult, goes on as long as harvest,” he once said. In his second year as a professional Poulidor won Milan-San Remo. He went on to win the Vuelta, Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré on two occasions, yet when it came to the Tour he would never grace the top step of the podium.
In 1964, during Stage 22 of the Tour de France, an intense battle commenced between the two riders. Coming out of the Alps and into the last climb, the 14km winding ascent of the Puy de Dôme, Poulidor was 56 seconds behind Anquetil on GC. Pou-Pou was the better climber but his rival knew the climb. Poulidor rode on the outer edge next to the sheer drop, with Anquetil just inside him. At times the men were so close that their elbows knocked. Newspaper reports spoke of how the riders felt their hot breath on each other’s arms. It was Anquetil who was suffering, yet he continued his fearless bluffing, poker face intact, until the last kilometre when he lost his grip. Poulidor gained 40 seconds on the Puy de Dôme but he was still denied the yellow jersey, eventually coming third in Paris (although it was said he got the loudest cheer).
Upset and annoyed at being dropped, the following year Anquetil set out to prove his worth by riding the eight-day Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, and the 572km-long Bordeaux-Paris back to back. The story goes that at 5.12pm in Avignon he received the winner’s bouquet at the Dauphiné and at 6.52pm he boarded a jet in Nîmes bound for Bordeaux. He started the race at 1.30am in the morning and fifteen hours later rode into the Parc des Princes velodrome alone and victorious, receiving the hero’s welcome he deserved.
The 1966 Tour was Anquetil’s last. He abandoned on Stage 17, yet he still denied Poulidor a win. Before he climbed off his bike Anquetil waged a campaign, some say a vendetta, that ensured his fellow countryman did not get what he wanted most – the yellow jersey. His own quest over, he made a reckless descent off the Col d’Ornon towing his teammate and protégé, Lucien Aimar, into the maillot jaune.
Anquetil retired in 1969 whereas Poulidor continued to ride for another eight years, but in his rival’s wake now stood Jan Janssen and Eddy Merckx. Anquetil once admitted that he wanted to see Poulidor win the Tour (in his absence) because it would “enhance” his reputation, but it was something that was never to be.
The rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor came to represent a France divided, a France old and new. Anquetil was the new, a country confident in its place, a winner, in the lead. ‘The Poulidor Complex’, a phrase still used, describes a life of hardship, denial and toil. Yet the more Pou-Pou lost, the more the public liked him, with one exception. In the 1965 Tour, with Anquetil not riding, Poulidor finished second to Italian Felice Gimondi, yet he was greeted in the Parc des Princes by 40,000 angry whistles. In the French supporters’ eyes he had let the Italian win and in doing so he had ceased to be a hero. Spectators are fickle like that…
*Rapha read Graeme Fife’s ‘Inside the Peloton: Riding, winning and losing the Tour de France’, Feargal McKay’s ‘The Complete Book of the Tour de France’ and Eric Reed’s ‘Selling the Yellow Jersey: The Tour de France in the Global Era’ while researching this article.