Most days during the Tour de France, the French daily newspaper L’Équipe runs a full-page Q&A interview with a cycling personality. On Wednesday, the publication’s lead sportswriter, Philippe Brunel, chose to interview former French pro Lucien Aimar. Not because Aimar won the Tour de France in 1966, but because for five years in the late-’60s Aimar was the roommate of the Tour’s first five-time champion, Jacques Anquetil. The timing of the interview is appropriate because Anquetil lived and died in Rouen, where stage 4 of this year’s Tour finished on Wednesday.
Although born to a lower-class family that grew strawberries, Anquetil acquired fame, fortune and a sophisticated lifestyle during his 15 years as the most famous French sportsman. He made most of his money from the high starting fees he commanded on the extensive circuit of criterium races that existed back then. He bought a beautiful mansion overlooking the Seine River, flirted with social mores by courting an older woman, the wife of his personal doctor, and having a baby with her. Much more was revealed about that relationship in a book written by their daughter, but it’s sufficient to say that Anquetil had an alternative lifestyle. And he loved champagne and playing all-night card games with his friends. Not you typical ascetic athlete!
Anquetil’s life was cut short at age 53 when he died of stomach cancer in 1987, but he remains a controversial and mysterious personality in France. He was never afraid to say what he thought about his sport, and some of his views have come across strongly in the new interview with Aimar, a rider who owed his Tour victory to the tactical complicity of his Ford-France team leader Anquetil to thwart the challenge of archrival Raymond Poulidor.
One of the questions posed by Brunel referred to the Tour’s first-ever anti-doping controls, conducted at Bordeaux in 1966 by a branch of the French national police force. The sportswriter posited: “Poulidor opened his door to the controllers, Anquetil closed his. What side were you on?”
Aimar was candid, saying he was “with Jacques.” Adding detail to that summer evening when the gendarmes visited the hotel. Aimar said, “Poulidor was controlled by the police, who treated him like a gangster, a bum. Jacques didn’t agree to pissing while being watched by a controller. He said, ‘This is the only career where you’re obliged to show your genitals for 50 francs, the cost of a license.’ For him, that was intolerable.”
Another subject addressed by Brunel was Anquetil’s extraordinary 1965 feat of first winning the Critérium du Dauphiné (the mountainous weeklong stage race that was won this year by Tour favorite Brad Wiggins), and immediately getting on a plane to Bordeaux and eight hours later, just after midnight, starting the 557-kilometer Bordeaux-Paris classic, and winning that too!
Brunel quotes Anquetil telling the France-Soir newspaper after that unique athletic performance: “I dope because everyone dopes.” Commenting on this in Wednesday’s L’Équipe, Aimar said this about Anquetil: “He was logical and didn’t want to let you believe you could do the double of the Dauphiné and Bordeaux-Paris with just a sugar cube. Students took Maxiton (an amphetamine), so why not him? That was his logic.”
Given the French legend’s admitted use of doping products, it was ironic that on the day that Danish pro Alex Rasmussen was suspended 18 months for contravening the arcane whereabouts regulations of the World Ant-Doping Agency that Anquetil was celebrated when the 2012 Tour came to town. There was a museum exhibit devoted to his career and on Thursday, after stage 5 starts out from Rouen on Thursday, the author Paul Fournel will do a reading from his latest book, “Anquetil Tout Seul” (Anquetil All Alone), at the champion’s manor house at La Neuville-Chant d’Oisel, southeast of the city.
Then again, Rasmussen’s punishment for not communicating correctly with WADA (and also being sacked by his Garmin-Sharp team) shows just how far the modern fight against doping has come in the 47 years. Today, though, cycling has become far more specialized. A rider such as Wiggins would never even consider going straight from finishing the Dauphiné to riding a 350-mile one-day classic, let alone winning them both!
(image courtesy of Hutchinson)
# # #
John will be previewing stage 5 later in the day.