My closest encounter with Raymond Poulidor came at this year’s Grand Départ in Brussels. I saw him several times at the back of the press room. I couldn’t quite believe it was him but I checked with other journalists who confirmed the sighting.
While everyone else was either rushing around or beavering away at their keyboards, whether busy or keen to give the impression of busyness, the 83 year-old simply sat at one of the desks, arms folded, often with a patient smile on his face. He seemed content. Happy to wait to be called into action. A model for being, I thought.
That he was required to wear a yellow polo shirt in his role as an ambassador for Crédit Lyonnais, despite the fact that he never got to wear the actual maillot jaune, seemed cruel to some. Yet those who thought that Poulidor was somehow the victim of a joke missed the fact that he was very much in on it.
Besides, Raymond Poulidor won plenty of big bike races. The list included seven Tour stages, the Dauphiné Libéré (twice), Paris-Nice (twice) and La Vuelta. That the grand boucle’s general classification did not adorn his palmares does not alter the fact that he was an immense athlete.
A five-time Tour de France winner is an aberration. Poulidor’s bad luck was that his career crossed over with two of them in Anquetil and Merckx. If you choose to look at it as bad luck, though he certainly didn’t.
Because, what more would one Tour win (or even two) have brought him?
We romanticise – perhaps overly so, because there are so few of them about these days – the idea of the rider who is born on the lowest rungs of life’s economic ladder for whom the sport provides a way up. Vin (“Vic”) Denson, who rode for Anquetil for a time in the 60s, described Poulidor as “a farm worker who found an old bike in the hedge, jumped on it and tried to beat the big champion.” What would Poulidor’s life have been if he hadn’t discovered a talent for cycling? We can’t know but he probably had some idea himself.
Two weeks ago Bradley Wiggins told the Rouleur Classic audience that “I don’t feel entitled to earn a living out of the sport but I love it. It’s given me everything,” and Poulidor seemed to see it the same way. There’s only so much room for retirees on the circuit and he seemed grateful that he was one the sport would always find a place for.
And it wasn’t because of what he did on the bike. Or not only what he did on the bike, though the rivalry with Jacques Anquetil was the stuff of legend.
And the fallacious notion that you have to be a bastard to win the best bike races was arguably born out of the contrast between the respective characters of those two. Those who buy into it need lessons not only in correlation and causation, but also to be reminded that who a rider is off the bike is not necessarily who he is on it. Anquetil and Merckx were two of the greatest riders of all time. Being the best of the rest was no modest accomplishment.
It’s untrue that Poulidor was wheeled out each summer to make fun of his sporting “failures”. France wanted him there for the opportunity to show him its love, not to laugh. To them the eternal second was not an “almost”. There’s more than one way to be great.