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Jacques Anquetil: The clinical cyclist who never charmed the crowds

Jacques Anquetil, centre, and rival Raymond Poulidor during one of their Tour de France battles - Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

For all his brilliance on the bike, Jacques Anquetil remained a remote rider. CHARLIE CONNELLY reports.

The 1964 Tour de France was the first broadcast live on television. Until then, watching the Tour had involved standing at the roadside waiting for the riders to flash past in a whirring, panting blur of colour. Now, viewers were able to see the straining sinews, gritted teeth and rivulets of sweat of the protagonists as they fought for one of the most gruelling and glorious laurels in world sport.

That year also happened to provide one the greatest head-to-head battles in the history of the race. Jacques Anquetil was chasing an unprecedented fourth successive victory and his fifth Tour win overall. Thin-faced, wiry and blond, 30-year-old Anquetil was an ice-cool schemer and renowned time trialist who planned his races to know exactly how much he had to do to win at every stage. Raymond Poulidor, two years his junior, was the antithesis of Anquetil. Dark-haired and of sturdy farming stock he was a heart-on-sleeve rider who gave everything at all times. Poulidor’s underdog status and visible suffering in the saddle appealed to the French cycling public more than the distant, coldly efficient Anquetil.

By the 20th stage, in the Auvergne, the race was finely balanced. Anquetil held the yellow jersey with a lead of 56 seconds over Poulidor ahead of a hill climb that represented an opportunity for the second-placed rider to overhaul the leader. If Anquetil had any kind of weakness it was in the mountain stages so Poulidor’s plan was to attack on the 10km climb to the crater at Puy de Dôme, a slope that in some places had a gradient as steep as 13%.

Despite the television coverage, such was the excitement ahead of the stage that an estimated half million spectators lined the route. It was an extraordinary battle. Poulidor attacked hard, hauling his machine up the hill with everything he possessed, but Anquetil stayed with him, thinking tactically, stealing the slightly less gruelling inside line closest to the mountain. Occasionally he would drop back, making Poulidor think he was pulling away, only to then reappear next to him, shoulder to shoulder. It was a stage as brutal to ride as it was gripping to watch. Two men, of vastly differing styles, both at the peak of their powers, in a battle that was almost as psychologically draining as it was physically gruelling.

“I slowed down, he slowed down,” said Poulidor afterwards. “I attacked, he answered, every time. It was unbelievable. I have never felt that awful on a bicycle.”

Years later, riddled with the cancer that would kill him, Anquetil told Poulidor he was in pain so severe it was “like racing up the Puy de Dôme, all day, every day”.

Around 500 metres from the top of the climb Poulidor finally managed to pull away and won the stage convincingly. Anquetil followed, crossing the line almost at the limit of his endurance, nearly collapsing when he reached his team car. He’d given everything but had it been enough to keep Poulidor behind him overall?

“How many?” he gasped, finally able to speak.

“You’re still 14 seconds ahead,” his coach replied. Anquetil’s face broke into an exhausted grin.

“More than I needed,” he said.

The next part of the stage was the time trial, where Anquetil was strongest. Again, Poulidor gave everything and when Anquetil arrived at the start line his rival was well ahead. At the first split the yellow jersey-holder was five seconds down but when he crossed the finish line had restored his overall lead to 56 seconds, exactly as it had been before the Puy de Dôme. Having fought off Poulidor’s spirited challenge Anquetil went on to clinch his record and unprecedented fifth – and fourth consecutive – Tour de France title.

A Frenchman taking the most French of sporting events to unprecedented highs should have had the nation in raptures but the response was relatively muted. For many there was disappointment that the people’s favourite Poulidor had been thwarted again. The French like their sporting heroes to be big-hearted and emotional, using every part of their being in the all-out pursuit of glory for glory’s sake.

Jacques Anquetil preferred to stalk victory rather than rush headlong towards it. That’s not to say other riders didn’t race tactically, playing to their individual strengths, but Anquetil mapped out his races with the precision of an accountant. He was a professional sportsman for whom the professional was more important than the sportsman. It didn’t matter whether he won by half a second or half a day, he earned the same money regardless. Why expend more effort than was absolutely necessary?

While he had plenty of supporters it wasn’t an approach ever destined to win him fans in droves. In 1962 the New York Times had even greeted his Tour victory – in a time that wouldn’t be bettered until 1981 – with the front page headline, “Anquetil Wins Tour de France and Europe Yawns: World’s Best Bike Rider Also Most Boring”.

“Fans may accept a thinking champion if he sprints all the time, if he plunges down mountains faster than is sane, if he bullies his way across the finish line each day with teammates and opponents spilling off him into ditches in a welter of bent bikes,” it read. “But fans won’t accept Anquetil because he pedals like an insurance agent.”

His Tour of Spain win in 1963 was a perfect example. Having established a big lead on the first day he spent the rest of the race simply preserving it, not winning another stage.

“He merely kept up,” read one report. “He never joined the sprint at the end of each day, for men crash when sprinting. Every night after that first stage he crossed the line on the outside of the road where the danger of collision was small, finishing 7th, 11th or 20th.”

The bottom line was always as important to Anquetil as the finish line. He turned down the chance to go for a fifth consecutive Tour de France win in 1965 saying, “If I win my contract fees won’t go up but if Poulidor wins they’ll go down”. Even when he’d negotiated lucrative sponsorship contracts he didn’t necessarily appreciate the responsibilities that came with them. In 1959 a sponsor insisted he compete in a race in which he had no interest. He pedalled gently to the foot of the first hill where his wife was waiting with the car, put his bike in the boot and went home.

While he was generally popular among the other riders he cared little for courting public affection. For one thing, with doping merely frowned upon at the time rather than banned outright, and not remotely as sophisticated a science as it is today, he openly admitted to using stimulants.

“Yes, I dope myself,” he told France Dimanche in 1964. “You would have to be a fool to think that a professional cyclist in the saddle 235 days every year in all temperatures and in all conditions could hold up without a stimulant.”

He maintained that as a professional cyclist he had as much right to lessen his discomfort as “a geography teacher has to take tablets for a headache”.

Such disregard for positive publicity extended to his personal life: he married his wife Janine in 1958 having courted her while she was married to his team doctor with whom she had two children. With Jeanine unable to have more children the couple arranged with her daughter Annie that Anquetil would father a child with his 18-year-old stepdaughter instead. When that arrangement came to an end shortly before the end of his life, Anquetil embarked on a relationship with his stepson’s ex-wife.

Yet his unconventional personal life and unusual career philosophy shouldn’t detract from what an extraordinary rider he was. In 1965, for example, not long after his epic Tour victory over Poulidor, he won the eight-day Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in the French Alps, finishing in mid-afternoon. After enduring post-race interviews and receptions he flew to Bordeaux in the early evening where at 2am the next morning he lined up at the start of the gruelling, single-day, 350-mile Bordeaux-Paris race – which he also won. In 1956 he broke Fausto Coppi’s one hour speed record which had stood since the 1920s and won the Grand Prix des Nations on all nine occasions in which he entered. By anyone’s standards his was a phenomenal career.

Yet despite his success, Anquetil’s calculating method that disregarded spiritual glory ensured he was never taken fully into the affections of the public. It’s as if he was known more for the way he won than actually winning. Even 20 years after his death, when Nicolas Sarkozy won the 2007 French presidential election with a campaign renowned for its ruthless efficiency, one headline read “Sarkozy gagne à l’Anquetil” – ‘Sarkozy wins like Anquetil’.

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