It was no new experience for Raymond Poulidor to find himself in 1976 battling to become the top Frenchman in the Tour with the whole population of race followers ranged like an invisible host of angels at his back. It was simply gratifying to experience it once more at forty: Poupou tu es le papa indeed.
Meanwhile a more celebrated adversary of his was also with the Tour, an energetic man with longish blond hair who looked younger than his forty-two years and was employed as a TV and newspaper reporter. On one stage in the south he stopped at a country bar and was chatting to an elderly farmer about crops and stock when the subject of the Tour came up. No, said the farmer, he didn’t follow it any longer. It wasn’t like the old days when Poulidor and Anquetil used to fight it out on the climbs.
Even then nobody told the farmer that it was Anquetil he was talking to, and it was understandable that he had failed to recognise him. Anquetil had filled out a little. His eyes no longer had the sunken look of a man who had just emerged from the trenches.
He was dressed like a businessman on holiday, which in effect he was. He talked like a successful farmer, which he also was. During the heat and drought of the Tour he was constantly concerned about the 200 cattle on his ranch in Normandy, whether he could continue to feed them, whether he ought to send them to slaughter. Yet it was only seven years since he had retired as a professional cyclist, and only twelve since he had last won the Tour, beating Poulidor by fifty-five seconds (below).
As constant rivals through the sixties the pair were as famous as Tom and Jerry, though how far their competition was charged with genuine dislike of each other, and how far it was a figment of the Press is difficult to establish. ‘Contrary to what people think,’ Poulidor wrote in his first book of memoirs, Glory Without the Yellow Jersey, ‘I have never detested Anquetil.’
And in turn Anquetil protested that he felt no personal animosity towards Poulidor. ‘Of course I would like to see Poulidor win the Tour de France in my absence,’ he told a reporter in 1965, adding drily, ‘I have beaten him so often that his victory could only add to my reputation.’ Never a man to hide the profit motive, he went on to talk of the money they could make out of a series of revenge matches.
Beyond their common agricultural background, there is a marked contrast in personality, style of life, and certainly in physical appearance. Anquetil, the fair-haired, fair-skilled Norman has always been at ease among the businessmen on the fringes of the sport, and has diversified into property and farming as well as the natural extensions of the bike game like equipment manufacture, publicity and journalism.
Poulidor, with swarthy complexion and dark, regimentally short hair, is reserved, even secretive, much attached to the privacy of his family life and the familiar surroundings of his native department of La Creuse to the north-east of Limoges. He has few commercial interests, and though he, too, is now thinking of setting up as a cattle farmer, it will only be after he finally retires, at which point he is determined to cut completely his connections with cycle racing.
You get the impression that, in their racing days, Anquetil looked on Poulidor as a bit of a yokel. For three years Vin Denson, an amiable, adaptable Cheshire man, found himself riding as domestique to Anquetil. ‘They weren’t always quarrelling,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen them at the table together, joking and drinking. But Anquetil often used to remark that he found Poulidor uninteresting, and not at all good company.’
These differences in character were also expressed in their approach to racing. Anquetil was subtle and calculating; he used his head. Poulidor used his physical strength, forcing a confrontation in which he would gain minutes or perish. It was often the latter; a perpetual Most Unfortunate Rider’s trophy might well have been struck for him.
So, too, they drew their support from separate sections of the public. Anquetil was admired by other racing cyclists for the pure speed, the sheer mechanical efficiency of his riding, and by urban young men for his shrewdness and habit of winning.
But he never excited the same warmth of feeling as Poulidor, especially in the countryside. All along the route there were, and still are, banners reading Courage Poupou, Allez Poupou, Poupou tu es le plus fort. He would have preferred to be called Pouli, as he was early on, but he came to accept his absurd nursery nickname as a compliment. Nobody ever devised an affectionate diminutive of Anquetil’s name.
‘Poulidor’s one of the peasants, one of the boys,’ says Denson. ‘A farm worker who found an old bike in the hedge, jumped on it and tried to beat the big champion.’ And the legend survived both Poulidor’s growing fortune and, at least in the Tour, his repeated failure even to draw blood from the champion, let alone kill him.
‘Dear Monsieur Poupou,’ wrote a six-and-a-half-year-old boy in a letter quoted in Poulidor’s book, ‘All the family, papa, maman, Xavier, Édith, Brigitte and myself, love you very much.’
All these contrasts were played up by the Press and cherished in the minds of the fans who created the kind of hero they wanted. Anquetil was never as circumspect as he was made out to be; no great climber, he nevertheless rode with courage and whole-heartedness in the mountains. A man who was stingy with his effort could never have won five Tours.
This is an edited extract from The Great Bike Race, written by Geoffrey Nicholson and published by Velodrome Publishing