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RAYMOND POULIDOR died on Wednesday morning in his hometown of St. Léonard-de-Noblat. He was 83. He was perhaps the most popular French rider in history. This is the story of his finest Tour de France, a race he would never win, that established his reputation as the greatest racer never to wear the maillot jaune.
They called it the Tour of Tours. A race that had it all. An underdog attempting to depose the veteran champion, their intense rivalry dividing a nation. Wild swings in fortune. Disastrous lapses of judgment. Daring attacks and counterattacks. Race-changing mechanicals. A mystic predicting the defending champion’s death. And a result that remained in doubt until the dying seconds of the final stage. The year was 1964, the rivals were Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, and their duel came to a dramatic climax on the lava-hot slopes of the Puy de Dôme mountain. You had to be there to believe it really happened….
* * *
Sunday, July 12, 1964 was one of those days that sticks in your mind—even if it was a half-century ago. In following that Tour de France by bike since its second day, I’d already seen the race a dozen times, including several highlights: Federico Bahamontès attacking up the Galibier in the Alps, Jacques Anquetil winning a time trial on the Côte d’Azur in a heat wave, and Bahamontès (again) making a solo breakaway over the Tourmalet in the Pyrénées. Now I was riding across the incessant ups and downs of the vast Massif Central plateau, heading toward the Puy de Dôme. It was a perfect day of sunshine and blue sky, and for what seemed like hours I could see the blue-green, whale-like outline of the Puy, a dormant volcano, shimmering in the distance. As I came closer, riding past parked cars and knots of fans walking to the mountain, the expectation in the air was palpable—the French gendarmerie would later estimate the day’s crowd at 500,000.
Most of them were working-class fans, the so-called Poulidoristes, whose hero’s home near Limoges was only two hours away. They loved Poulidor because he was a man of the earth who left school at 14, worked long hours on the family farm, and served his country in the Algerian War before becoming a professional cyclist. In contrast, the Anquetiliens were more educated supporters from the cities. Even though Anquetil was the son of a strawberry grower, he soon earned a small fortune by winning pro races in his teens, and acquired sophisticated friends who liked to drink good wine and play cards at the old manor house he bought overlooking the Seine River in his native Normandy.
Over their cups of café-au-lait in the morning and glasses of rouge at night, the fans debated the merits of their two champions. That’s all anyone wanted to talk about during that final week of the Tour—except on the day before the Puy de Dôme stage when a tanker truck transporting fuel for Tour helicopters crashed through a mass of spectators into the Dordogne River at Port-de-Couze, killing 10 people. That worst tragedy in Tour de France history pulled a metaphoric cloud over the race, and as I rode through the empty stone villages and towns of the Auvergne, and along the crowded roads before the Puy, I sensed a solemnness on the faces of the French public, who were more like congregants walking to church than fans heading to the most climactic stage finish in Tour history.
Hours before the race would arrive, I managed to get through the last police blockade, to ride the steeply uphill kilometer to the gates that normally blocked the dead-end Puy de Dôme toll road. The climbing actually starts in the streets of Clermont-Ferrand about 8 kilometers away, first ascending to rolling pastures on the plateau before heading to the tollgate at the foot of the mountain. That’s where I padlocked my bike and began walking up the narrow road that wraps itself around and up the volcanic peak for 5 kilometers at a steady 12-percent grade to the 4,642-foot summit. I slung a musette bag over my shoulder to carry my trusty Zeiss camera, a full water bottle, some fresh apricots, a half-baguette, some local Cantal cheese, my taped-up red plastic transistor radio, and a couple of weekend newspapers, the national L’Équipe and regional La Montagne.
With a steep hillside to the right and a grassy drop-off to the left, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for spectators on the Puy. Even so, the fans stood three- and four-deep as far as the eye could see. Eventually, about halfway up the mountain, I found a small space on the left, where I could sit down, my head level with the road surface. It was going to be a long, hot afternoon….
* * *
Jacques Anquetil, at 30, had already won the Tour de France four times, and he’d just come off his second victory at the Giro d’Italia—having to fight hard to keep the leader’s pink jersey by a slender margin for the last two weeks. His ambition was to become the second man, after Fausto Coppi, to pull off a Giro-Tour double. Fellow Frenchman Raymond Poulidor, two years younger, came to pro cycling much later and had raced only two Tours, finishing third and eighth. But two months before his third Tour, Poulidor won the Vuelta a España, thus setting up a duel between that year’s first grand tour champions.
The Tour didn’t start well for Poulidor, who was caught in the wrong half of the field when a crash split the peloton in the closing kilometers of the opening stage. Anquetil finished in the front group of 37 to gain 20 seconds on his rival. Two days later, Poulidor led his Mercier-BP team to sixth place in the 21-kilometer team time trial, and took back 14 seconds on Anquetil and his St. Raphaël-Gitane squad. Then, on stage 5 to Freiburg in West Germany, an early five-man breakaway changed the whole complexion of the race….
Leading the break was Anquetil’s German teammate Rudi Altig—who was eager to win the stage or take over the yellow jersey in his home country. Working hard with Altig were two members of the opportunistic Pelforth-Sauvage-Lejeune team, the French brothers Joseph and Georges Groussard, along with Spanish climber Joaquim Galera (whose Kas team won the team time trial), while Belgian Willy Derboven just followed the wheels, defending for his Solo-Superia teammate Bernard Vandekerkhove, the overnight race leader.
With four of that Tour’s 12 teams wanting to see the break succeed, and with Anquetil content that teammate Altig was shining on a stage into his homeland, the five men arrived at the finish more than four minutes ahead of the pack. After the stage, Poulidor’s directeur sportif Antonin Magne admitted that his team made a mistake in not chasing the break. He told his team leader: “That Rudi Altig is in the yellow jersey is not a big deal because he’ll lose it in the Alps. It is much more upsetting that Georges Groussard and Galera are five minutes ahead of you. They’re both good climbers and it won’t be easy to get rid of them.”
Magne was most concerned that Groussard’s Pelforth teammates would now align themselves tactically with Anquetil’s St. Raphaël riders and make it tough for Poulidor’s men in the days ahead. But then, two stages later in this topsy-turvy Tour, Anquetil said he failed to see Poulidor jump into a late 15-man move, which resulted in a 34-second loss for the defending champion. And then came the first two mountain stages, both in the Alps, both more than seven hours’ long, and both crossing giant climbs: the 8,384-foot Col du Galibier on stage 8 and the 9,088-foot Col de Restefond (a.k.a. the Iseran) on stage 9.
Bahamontès, perhaps the best pure climber of the 20th century, who won the Tour five years earlier, was in terrific form. He accelerated away from the other race favorites on the penultimate climb, with 60 kilometers still to race in stage 8. By the time he reached the spot where I was watching, at a hairpin turn on the steepest part of the Galibier, he’d passed all the earlier attackers and was already a couple of minutes ahead of the small chase group led by Poulidor and Anquetil, with little Georges Groussard tucked in their wake. By the finish, after the long downhill run into Briançon, Bahamontès was still a minute-and-a-half clear of the chasers, to take the stage and the one-minute time bonus awarded to stage winners at that Tour. In the uphill sprint for second place, Anquetil was unlucky to get a flat tire, and Poulidor easily took the half-minute bonus (plus the 17 seconds he gained on Anquetil). This first mountain stage gave a more permanent look to the overall classifications, with Groussard taking over the yellow jersey, 3:35 ahead of Bahamontès in second, 4:07 on Poulidor in third, with Anquetil a further 1:15 back in eighth.
Anquetil was clearly tired from his efforts at the Giro. In winning his fourth Tour in 1963 he’d matched Bahamontès on the toughest mountain stages, but that wasn’t the case on the Galibier. He now had to worry about both Baha’ and Poupou taking his crown. To restore his confidence, he needed to make a statement on the second alpine stage. The Restefond was too far from the finish to have much of an impact—in fact, Groussard lost six minutes to the three favorites on that giant climb, and he and his teammates comfortably made up the lost ground before the stage ended in Monaco. Even so, only 22 riders were left to contest the finish, which took place on the running track of the crowd-packed Louis II stadium. Such finishes were fairly common in grand tours of the 1960s, so both Anquetil and Poulidor knew that it was difficult to overtake anyone on the flat turns of the 400-meter cinder track; you had to be right at the front if you wanted any hope of winning the sprint.
Paced by his French teammates Louis Rostollan and Jean-Claude Lebaube, Anquetil entered the stadium in front, confident that he could hold the pole position over the lap-and-a-half of the track. So he was shocked when a fired-up Poulidor suddenly shot past him, and dashed across the line with his hands in the air; but Poulidor, just back from the Vuelta where track finishes didn’t end with an extra lap, hadn’t realized that there was still 400 meters to go. Anquetil accelerated back into the lead, time-trialed that last lap to win the stage from a desperately sprinting Tom Simpson, with Poulidor in fifth. The stage winner’s one-minute bonus put Anquetil up into fifth overall, now only 15 seconds behind Poulidor—and the next afternoon would see the Tour’s first individual time trial, Anquetil’s specialty.
It wasn’t a particularly long time trial, less than 21 kilometers, but the riders had already been in the saddle for more than five hours in a hilly morning stage through Provence. And the heat wave was suffocating. So the flat course along the coast from Hyères to Toulon was far enough for Anquetil to demonstrate his solo skills. After his teammate Altig, also a time-trial specialist, set the mark to beat with a 28:46, the GC riders were ready to do battle. Anquetil was the first of them to start and he averaged almost 45 kilometers per hour (on a regular road bike, of course) to beat Altig’s time by almost a minute. Poulidor was next up, and he also went faster than Altig, but lost 36 seconds to Anquetil. Behind them, Bahamontès conceded more than two minutes and Groussard almost three, to produce a new GC that read: 1. Groussard, 2. Poulidor, at 1:11; 3. Anquetil, at 1:42, 4. Bahamontès, at 3:04.
* * *
Following three long stages across the South of France into Andorra, the tiny principality in the Spanish Pyrénées where that Tour’s only rest day was held, those positions were the same. But things weren’t quite the same for Anquetil. Unbeknown to even his confidants, the French champion had been concerned for many days about a prediction made by the notorious Paris astrologer and clairvoyant Marcel Belline that Anquetil would be forced to abandon the Tour, or perhaps even die, on stage 14 between Andorra and Toulouse. That was on the defending champion’s mind on the rest day when, instead of taking a short training ride like the rest of his team, he decided to go to a barbecue with wife Janine and his flamboyant team director Raphaël Geminiani. They munched on spit-roasted mutton and sipped sangria—not exactly the menu you’d expect on a Tour de France rider’s rest day! Indeed, Anquetil would pay for his lack of professionalism the very next morning….
Stage 14 opened with a 21-kilometer-long climb up the highest mountain pass in the Pyrénées, the Port d’Envalira, 7,897 feet above sea level. Anquetil’s rivals knew about his attending the barbecue because it’d been organized by a local radio station and there were photos in the morning’s paper. So, hoping that Anquetil would be feeling under the weather, the team directors of both Poulidor (Antonin Magne of Mercier) and Bahamontès (Raoul Rémy of Margnat-Paloma) told their leaders to go on the attack up the Envalira.
Their first acceleration came on a 10-percent pitch just 3 kilometers into the climb; but Anquetil’s team aided by the Pelforth squad of race leader Groussard brought them back. Poulidor’s and Bahamontès’ teammates kept the tempo high on the next, flatter section of the climb, and when it steepened for the final 10 kilometers, a joint attack by Baha’ and Poupou saw Anquetil fall off the pace. Hunched over his bike, his eyes glazed, the defending champion was barely able to turn the pedals. It looked as though the mystic’s prediction was coming true.
Anquetil’s French teammate Rostollan stayed at his side, encouraging him to continue, and giving him the occasional push. Soon, the two St. Raphaël men were left on their own, with only the modest Italian rider, Mario Minieri, for company. Later, Anquetil confided to French journalists: “I was on the point of stopping. That was about 6 kilometers from the summit. I was thinking, there’s no way I can get to the finish…. I was living a nightmare. Maybe the astrologer was right.” Chipping in, Rostollan added, “I’d never seen Jacques like that. At one moment, he said to me, ‘I’m completely knackered. I must stop.’ So I said to him, ‘Merde, remember that your name is Anquetil.’”
Rostollan managed to get his team leader to the top of the mountain, but they were more than four minutes behind Poulidor, Bahamontès and a couple of Spanish climbers—who’d all dropped race leader Groussard and his strongest teammates. To make matters worse for Anquetil, fog shrouded the descent, with visibility cut to less than 20 meters. Could he still save his Tour? Rostollan wasn’t so sure when he watched his leader dash into the clouds. “When I saw him disappear, I said to myself, ‘That’s perhaps the last time I’ll see him alive.’ He descended like a madman, the Jacques.”
Anquetil was a superb time trialist, perhaps the best the sport has ever seen. He had a perfect position on a bike, low and aerodynamic, with a deep chest that held a slow-beating heart and large lungs. But to catch his top rivals for four minutes seemed like an impossible task. He took every risk on that fog-filled downhill. “I descended by instinct,” he said later. “It’d work out or I’d crack, I had no choice. I was like an escaped prisoner heading for the frontier with the police chasing me.”
His immediate target was to catch race leader Groussard’s chase group. “If I couldn’t catch them I knew it was finished,” Anquetil said. The fog gave way to sunshine in the valley, and the French ace could see the riders ahead. On catching them, the Pelforth riders asked him if he would work with them to chase the Poulidor-Bahamontès group. “Yes,” Anquetil replied, “but give me 10 kilometers to catch my breath.” Good to his word, Anquetil began pulling 10 kilometers later and upped the pace to 50 kilometers per hour. And, at Tarascon-sur-Ariège, after chasing for 62 kilometers, the two front groups came together. The astrologer was not far off in his prediction, but Anquetil was “back from the dead.”
With 72 kilometers remaining in the stage, it seemed that all the drama was done for the day. Then, 25 kilometers from the finish in Toulouse, Poulidor broke a couple of spokes in his rear wheel and had to change bikes. This should have been a routine bike-change and a quick catch-up for Poulidor through the line of following cars. But when the Mercier team mechanic pushed Poulidor back into action, his rider had one hand on the bars and the other tightening his toe strap. The off-balance Poulidor fell to the tarmac, and as he remounted his bike, he saw that the chain had fallen off.
By the time Poulidor was back up and riding, there was a yawning gap ahead of him. Race director Jacques Goddet pulled his red Peugeot sedan to the right side of the road behind Poulidor, and the wily Geminiani drove alongside and decided not to go past the solo rider. So Poulidor was left alone in the wind, chasing a 20-strong group that was racing to the finish. Worse, the Pelforth team director Maurice De Muer did motor past and went up to his riders and told them to step on the gas—no waiting for riders in trouble back in those days! Poulidor did his best to chase, but he was now the one in the impossible situation. He was caught by the next big group before the finish and crossed the line 2:36 down. It looked like his chances of winning the Tour had disappeared.
But this was the Tour of ’64. You had to be there to believe it really happened.
* * *
So what did Raymond Poulidor do? He planned an attack on the next day’s mountain stage. His solo move came on the last climb, the Col du Portillon, just before the finish in Luchon. Poulidor virtually sprinted up the zigzags of the first 3 kilometers of the 8.6-kilometer climb, and quickly overtook all the members of an earlier breakaway. He topped the Portillon with 90 seconds’ lead on Anquetil’s chase group and zoomed down to Luchon to win by 1:43 (plus the winner’s one-minute time bonus), to move into third place overall, only nine seconds behind Anquetil! What a comeback!
There were expectation that Poulidor might again attack on the next day’s giant four-climb stage through the Pyrénées, but he wasn’t feeling up to it when Bahamontès made a solo breakaway and gained eight minutes over the Tourmalet and Aubisque peaks. That put the Spaniard in the virtual race lead, and it took the combined forces of four Pelforth riders and Anquetil’s men in the 13-strong chase group over the final 35 kilometers to close the gap to two minutes and save Groussard’s yellow jersey by just 35 seconds.
Bahamontès’ massive effort left him in no shape for the next stage, a flat-to-rolling 42.6-kilometer time trial along the Adour valley from Peyrehorade to Bayonne. The stage proved to be a disaster for both the Spaniard and Groussard—who conceded respectively four and six minutes to the stage winner. Who was that winner? That was in doubt until the very end….
Midway through the time trial, Anquetil and Poulidor were virtually tied on time. Right then, Poulidor raised his right hand. His front tire was flat. The mechanic in the back of the team car was ready with a spare bike over his shoulder, but when his driver braked too sharply, the mechanic and bike crashed to the ground at Poulidor’s feet. Poupou picked up the bike and hopped on, but saw that the handlebars had twisted during the fall. Once they were straightened, Poulidor jumped on the bike again, but the mechanic was returning to the car with the other bike, and without a real push, Poulidor lost more precious seconds in finding his toe clips and getting back up to speed.
After the finish, where he had the fastest time until Anquetil came in a half-minute faster, Poulidor told the press: “I must be cursed. The slightest snag turns into a catastrophe when it happens to me.” He then talked about his latest catastrophe: “At Toulouse, the same mechanic made me fall. Here, it was something else. I’m not criticizing him. I’m certain he’s more upset than me because it was surely overexcitement that caused all that. But the fact is, Jacques gained 37 seconds. Take away the time I lost…you can work it out. Even so, I can still win the Tour. We still have the Puy de Dôme.”
The finish on the Puy de Dôme would come three days later….
* * *
To take the yellow jersey, Poulidor needed to make up a 56-second deficit on race leader Anquetil. The fans around me on the Puy de Dôme were hoping their man could wipe that out by winning the stage and taking the one-minute time bonus—a strong possibility on a climb that favored Poulidor’s pugnacious climbing style, although the Spanish climbers Bahamontès and Julio Jiménez were also expected to go for the stage win.
I spent most of the afternoon reading my newspapers, which were filled with articles discussing the relative chances of Anquetil and Poulidor. Excitement among the crowds slowly built as we listened to the regular radio updates from La Route du Tour: the near-seven-hour, hilly 237-kilometer slog across the Massif Central from Brive was proving to be a race of attrition. Only 30 or so men were still together when they reached the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand. Many of the riders, including Anquetil, knew the 12.5-kilometer climb (including the nasty final 5 kilometers up the mountain itself) from having raced a time trial up the Puy de Dôme at the 1959 Tour. This knowledge gave the race leader an advantage over Poulidor, who was still in the army that year; Poulidor did visit the climb right before this Tour, but he was stopped from riding up what was then a strategic military road closed to regular traffic, except for occasional events such as this Tour stage. (Today, a rack-and-pinion railway that opened in 2012 takes tourists to the summit, while the old route remains as a basic service road.)
The 1959 Tour time trial was won by Bahamontès, who averaged almost 21 kilometer an hour in beating runner-up Charly Gaul by a minute and a half, with Anquetil fifth that day, almost four minutes back. “I lost most of my time in that time trial in the final kilometer,” Anquetil remembered. “I’m not at my best on a slope of 13 percent, and on any climb I always lose some ground in the last kilometer.”
We heard from the live radio commentary that the dwindling front group was approaching the tollgate. All the spectators were on their feet and crowding onto the narrow road. The gendarmes were getting anxious, blowing their whistles and trying to keep people back as the early race vehicles and police motorcycles came through. I was kneeling on the edge of the road ready to take some photos. I’d set my camera at 1/500 at f4. The cheering from down the road gradually came closer. Cries of “Allez Poupou!” and “Allez Jacques!” filled the humid air.
Then I saw the first riders in my viewfinder. In front was the balding Jiménez, dancing on his pedals in an initial surge that had taken him clear of the chasing Bahamontès. I was about to click the camera when a burly gendarme deliberately stood in my way, objecting to my knee leaning on the road. I didn’t have time or the space to find another position, so I didn’t get a shot of the next two riders: Anquetil in yellow on the far side of the road and Poulidor in the purple Mercier colors on my side. They were both seated in their smallest gears—Poulidor later said he wished he’d ridden a 25-tooth rear sprocket rather than his 42×24 (Bahamontès was on a 42×26).
We watched the two national heroes disappear up the mountain, followed by a bevy of motorcycles—one carrying race director Goddet in his khaki shorts, shirt and knee-high stockings. In a later article about this epic confrontation, Goddet wrote: “As race director…I was right on the wheels of the two illustrious protagonists to keep order and to referee the match…. The two, totally focused on their own rivalry, ascended the terribly steep road that ribbons around the majestic cone in simultaneous, parallel movement. I’m convinced that in these moments, playing a sublime game of poker, the Norman [Anquetil], as wily as he can be, an implacable bluffer, won right there his fifth Tour. Because, for me, it was clear that Anquetil was at the extreme limit of his possibilities and that had Poulidor made some sharp attacks they would have unsettled him mechanically and psychically.”
Instead, Poulidor continued at a steady rhythm that Anquetil, riding at his physical limits, was able to match. “Even so,” Goddet continued, “fifteen hundred meters from the end, imperceptibly at first, the two rivals separated…. Anquetil was losing, but not giving up, centimeter after centimeter, obliged to accept the law of the Puy, but managing to protect his victory in the Tour! Poulidor, marvelous in the persistency of his effort…finished all the same by scratching out in such a short distance 42 seconds on Anquetil—and closing to within 14 miniscule seconds of the yellow jersey.”
There was still the final time trial, 27.5 kilometers from Versailles to the Parc des Princes in Paris, to come. On that burning hot afternoon of Bastille Day, July 14, the national holiday, all of France was watching and listening. The TV and radio stations covered the time trial in its entirety. A million people were on the roadside. I chose to stand on the Pont de Sèvres, the bridge over the Seine River, 5 kilometers from the finish—and there were no gendarmes in the way of my camera!
If Poulidor beat Anquetil by five seconds and taken the 20-second time bonus, as against the 10 seconds for the runner-up, he would have won the Tour. The radio commentators were in fanatical voice, describing this epic duel. With 10 kilometers to go, Anquetil was just five seconds faster. And at the foot of the last downhill, just before “my” bridge, Geminiani tooted his klaxon and showed Anquetil a blackboard where he’d scribbled + 3”—only three seconds ahead and 5 kilometers to go. As I clicked my camera, I couldn’t but help admire the amazingly smooth style of Maître Jacques, his maillot jaune like an extension of his combed-back blond hair.
We could hear the roar of the crowd in the stadium when he arrived, most of them Anquetilistes, hailing another title for their champion. Across the line in the venerable concrete velodrome he was 21 seconds faster than Poulidor. He’d won a fifth Tour by 55 seconds, the slimmest margin in the Tour’s first 51 editions. Anquetil never finished another Tour. In eight future editions of the Tour, Poulidor would finish second four more times, along with two third places, a seventh and a ninth. He never did wear the yellow jersey.
From issue 32. Buy it here.