Five Golden Fleeces

by Graeme Fife

27 September 1953, Lugano. Anquetil, a neo-professional, is on the start line of the Grand Prix des Nations, the end-of-season time-trial now superseded by the Worlds. Fausto Coppi leans over and tells him he’s riding too big a gear. Too late. He sets off in the rain, greasy roads, wins it by a street from Ferdi Kübler, the course record-holder, the first of an astonishing nine victories in the race. He was nineteen and the contre la montre became as fixedly his personal weapon as the eviscerating talons are to the stooping hawk.

One photograph of him in the final time-trial of the 1964 Tour de France, the familiar posture – crouched hump-backed low over the frame, nose over the headset, toes pointing at the tarmac – bears the caption: The hawk devouring his prey. The prey that day? Arch enemy, Raymond Poulidor, who had ridden up the Puy de Dôme elbow to elbow with him a few days before and finally peeled away, leaving Anquetil running with cold sweat, puce with effort, drained, spent, beaten by 42 seconds. Too timid though, Poupou. He missed taking the race lead by 14 seconds and Anquetil confessed that if Poulidor had taken yellow, he’d have quit the race that night. But that was another slash of the talons – he was telling good old Poupou that he’d fluffed his chance. ‘Oh, Raymond, is that all you’ve got?’ As to the slender lead, time-trial to come, Anquetil said: ‘It’s thirteen seconds more than I need.’

The public disliked Anquetil – they thought him cold, aloof, arrogant, dismissive – and on one memorable occasion (1961) they hooted and whistled as he rode into the Parc des Princes, having worn the maillot jaune from start to finish, but, in their view, shown no panache. His response? He bought a boat and christened it Siffleur (‘whistler’). By contrast, they adored Poulidor: amiable, affable, the man they called the eternal second, the loser.

Inside the peloton, a different story: Anquetil, the supposed haughty Norman, had no side, was immensely generous with his team mates as with his own effort. He knew his class all right, and was not shy of asserting its claims, mostly by proving it. Winner of his debut Tour, 1957, in the absence of triple winner Louison Bobet, he then found himself embroiled in French team politics. For whom would they ride? The returning champion or the new kid? He didn’t win again until 1960, first of four straight victories, first man to win the Golden Fleece five times. The catalogue of his career wins only confirms his superiority.

The accounts of Anquetil’s gourmandising add to the puzzle. Preferring a lamb barbecue to a team ride on the 1964 Rest Day in Andorra, he started up the Envalira next day in a pitiable state. Near the summit, Raphaël Geminiani, his directeur, passed him a bidon of champagne. ‘That’ll either finish him off or get him going.’ A few kilometres from the foot of the descent, Anquetil was leading the chase at 50kph. It was pride. Nearly falling off the bike in the dark hours of the Bordeaux-Paris, on the second leg of the crazy bet, Gem knew exactly how to stir his man to action. ‘Remember you are Anquetil’.

There is much to tell in mapping the complexity of what makes a man endowed with supreme athletic gifts into the being – heart, mind, spirit, morale – of a great champion, but head and legs will do. At once the shortest and the most dense of answers. The journalist Alex Virot told Anquetil, at the outset of his career: ‘Young man, if you set out to make money, you’ll lose races. If you set out to win races, you’ll make money.’ Virot and his driver plunged to their death off the road on the Barcelona – Ax-les-Thermes stage of Anquetil’s first Tour. It was, perhaps, one terrible loss which helped fuel Anquetil’s desire never to contemplate defeat, to win, always, à l’outrance… to the death.