Tour de France 21 Stories: Anquetil Pulls A Fast One

Stage 17: Berne—Finhaut-Emosson

It’s 1963. There are five stages left till Paris and Jacques Anquetil, who has already won three Tours in crushing style, is only three seconds behind the race leader, Federico Bahamontes. Raymond Poulidor is fourth, a further 2’50” back.

The only result of the race organisers’ plan to make things harder for Anquetil and easier for his rivals (less time-trials, more summit finishes) has been to slow his inexorable progression towards yellow. With a time-trial still to come, Anquetil should gobble up those three seconds in the opening kilometre. But that’s still two days away. In the meantime, as everyone knows, anything can happen.

Such as this Alpine stage: 225.5 kilometres from the Val–d’Isère to Chamonix. This is the day Poulidor is going to finally win the Tour, with a breathtaking sally on the hulking Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, where Anquetil will flounder, unable to respond to the Auvergnat’s superior climbing skills.

Anquetil will destroy himself here, his stubborn pride forcing him on. He will ride himself into the red, he will endure unimaginable pain, and when the time-trial rolls round, The Metronomewill be broken, ticking out of tock. The whole of France will then burst into a standing ovation for the brave country lad who took on the machine and brought it down. That’s the plan, anyway.

But Poulidor’s team is not the only one hatching plots. Anquetil’s directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani, knows something his rivals don’t: that a rockslide has triggered a last-minute change to the closing kilometres, which will now feature a climb up the ‘Vieux Forclaz’, whose narrow, unsurfaced roads have sections at 18%.

Anquetil’s not bothered about Poulidor. His main concern is Bahamontes (below): there is no way he’ll be able to stick with the Spanish bandit and his oxygen-depleting accelerations on those crazy final slopes.

The only solution on La Forclaz would be a lighter frame with a 26-tooth sprocket. But you’re not allowed to change your bike mid race. Unless – unless… you can prove it’s broken…

Here’s a transcript (not really) of the conversation around Anquetil’s table at breakfast:

“Here’s what we’ll do,” says Gem. “You start the stage on your regular bike. Before La Forclaz you summon the team car and start shouting about your derailleur being bust. Use some emotion. When no one’s looking, we snip the cable. The commissaire turns up, sees the trouble, and voilà, you get your replacement bike and no one’s any the wiser. When you’re ready for the descent, you’ll get your old bike back, which we’ll have fixed, so you can put on the burners into Chamonix. Got that?”

On the Col du Grand-St-Bernard, at the behest of Antonin Magne, his directeur sportif, Poulidor goes hell-for-leather. But it’s windy, and he can’t establish a gap of more than 200 metres.

By the time the race reaches La Forclaz, Poulidor is spent and famished; no one had been there to give him his musette at the final feed station. Suffering from hunger knock and confronted with a wall of gravel, he cedes eight and a half minutes to Anquetil.

Anquetil, however, enacts the plan and is enjoying his lightweight bike with its easy gears. He still can’t stick with Bahamontes—no one can—but is able to hover a manageable 40 seconds behind. Back on his regular fast bike at the summit, he has no trouble catching up with the Spaniard on the rainy descent into Chamonix.

With a final kick, he crosses the finish line first, winning not only the stage, but a time bonus of a minute, and, with that, the yellow jersey.

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