Blazin' Saddles: Raymond Poulidor – first, eternally, in the hearts of the French
France's most popular cyclist of all time, Raymond Poulidor eclipsed in "poupoularité" even those five-time Tour-winning titans Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault. Synonymous with finishing second, Poulidor nevertheless notched hundreds of wins during his career although never donned the famous yellow jersey. Felix Lowe reacts to the sad passing of a French legend, who died this week aged 83.
For someone who became forever known as The Eternal Second, Raymond Poulidor's 189 career wins is not exactly a bad record.
Twice a victor of both Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné Libéré, Poulidor was a national champion who tasted success in Milano-San Remo and the Flèche Wallonne. A seven-time stage winner on the Tour de France and four-time stage winner on the Vuelta, he won the Spanish Grand Tour in 1964 – the same year he came within a minute of beating compatriot Jacques Anquetil in the world's biggest bike race.
Poulidor was one half – many people's preferred half – of arguably the greatest rivalry in the sport, three times being denied a Tour victory by the clinical Anquetil. His career spanned the eras of domination of both Maître Jacques and Eddy Merckx – all the more reason to celebrate what Poulidor achieved despite his apparent inability to win the race which mattered most.
Indeed, the irony is that the more Poulidor failed to deliver to the French public the win he and they so craved, the more popular Poupou became – opening more doors, growing his legend, swelling the coffers and, perhaps, helping to maintain what appeared to be a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.
For even in the years before Merckx's pomp, when Anquetil skipped the Tour, crashed out, or was no longer on the scene, Poulidor couldn't seem to summon that little bit extra required to stand atop the final podium in Paris decked out in yellow. It was as if he were destined never to win.
French Bicycle racer Raymond Poulidor wins the Individual time trial course of the 22th stage of the 1967 Tour de France, on July 23, 1967 in Paris.Getty Images
But his failure to triumph in the Tour took no gloss off an 18-year career that brought a smile – and a tear – to so many people's faces. In fact, it probably added to his appeal. Flawed but battling, Poulidor won hearts for his shy smile, his tenacity, his humanity and humility, for his constant misfortunes and the courage and positive attitude he showed in attacking, against all odds, two of the sport's best ever riders.
As William Fotheringham says in his Cyclopedia:
" At the peak of Poulidor's celebrity it was estimated that he would be first choice as a dinner guest for almost half the French population."
Poupou's ongoing and thwarted quest for yellow
Another myth: it is not strictly true to say Poulidor never donned the yellow jersey. At least four times he tried it for size.
During the 1974 Tour, after he won at Saint-Lary-Soulan, cracking eventual winner Merckx in the process, the Belgian offered him his yellow jersey that night out of respect for the 38-year-old Poulidor.
There was also the occasion at a party at Anquetil's house when the five-time champion asked his guests who were former riders to wear the jersey they always dreamed of wearing. Yellow, of course, was a natural choice. A second instance in retirement saw Anquetil offering his old foe a yellow jersey, which he donned for the TV cameras.
Then there was the advertisement he did for La Samaritaine, in which Poulidor, decked out entirely in red, cycles to the department store and collects a package. Donning the yellow jersey, he says the company's tagline: "You can find everything in La Samaritaine."
Actual days in the maillot jaune as a pro, however, never came.
In his 14 Tours, Poulidor finished 12, had 11 top ten overall placings and eight podium finishes – coming second three times and third five times. Quite astonishingly, his 15-year Tour career is bookended by third place finishes – aged 26 and 40. But if he never managed to stand on the treasured top step of the podium in Paris, he never even led the Tour at any stage in his career.
He certainly came close. In 1967, Poulidor had all but won the opening prologue in Angers and was on his way to the podium when the Spanish TT champion, José Errandonea, crossed the line six seconds faster than the Frenchman, abandoning the race three days later.
Then there was 1973 when, in Merckx's absence, Poulidor missed out on winning the prologue by a cruel 0.08 seconds, with victory instead going to the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. Speaking to Eurosport earlier this year, Poulidor was stoic about the missing garment in his wardrobe.
" Thinking today, obviously I would have been happy (to wear yellow) but it's not bad. On the contrary, sometimes I say, 'Look how close I came to winning the yellow jersey'. They call me Poulidor the unlucky. But it's not true. I had a lot of luck."
It's perhaps no surprise that Poulidor's autobiography was entitled, La Gloire sans le Maillot Jaune – Glory without the Yellow Jersey.
Poulidor's rivalry with Anquetil
Born in 1936 into a farming family in central France, Poulidor was often portrayed as a paysan – a bumpkin peasant with, in the words of Fotheringham, "apple cheeks that [made] it look as if he was permanently smiling". He certainly rode rather agriculturally – in stark contrast to the metronomic precision, sophistication and civility of his big rival, the urbane Jacques Anquetil.
When Anquetil won the 1962 Tour – his third victory – he did so after blitzing a final time trial during which Poulidor's manager told him: "Pull over, Raymond, there's a plane coming by…"
Poulidor ended up on the third step in his debut Tour over 10 minutes down on Anquetil, vowing to come back stronger. In that sense, finishing eighth a year later, 16 minutes down on Anquetil, made what happened the following year all the more astonishing.
Dubbed "the Tour that split France," the 1964 race saw Poulidor the plucky challenger push the four-time champion Anquetil right to the very end – most notably on the Puy-de-Dôme climb in the Massif Central where, in the words of French historian Michel Winock, "the two adversaries appear to be linked to one another like two thistles".
Tour director Jacques Goddet – following on one of the numerous motorbikes clogging up the narrow ascent – was even more flowery, describing how "their breath, their sweat and the wool from their jerseys intermingles" during the duo's shoulder-to-shoulder tussle on the extinct volcano.
On the rivet, Anquetil held on until finally cracking, losing 42 seconds in the final 600m as his compatriot cut his lead to a slender 14 seconds. Anquetil later remarked: "If I had lost the jersey I would have given up."
Two days later, Anquetil dug deep to take 21 seconds on his rival on the final time trial to Paris, the final gap rising to 55 seconds after time bonuses. The five-time winner was generous in his praise of the man who pushed him all the way and who, some argue, was but a pot-hole puncture in the Pyrenees shy of winning the Tour.
" I gave 100 percent. I have rarely used such force. I had to go beyond my own limits in order to beat Raymond Poulidor, so I must pay tribute to him. I am proud to have beaten such a very great champion, in the hardest Tour I have ever known."
For his part, despite the disappointment, Poulidor was gracious in defeat, joining Anquetil for the lap of honour in the Parc de Princes velodrome and vowing: "I know that I can win the Tour."
It was the kind of steely optimism that would spur Poupou on for a further 11 attempts.
A year on, Poulidor – true to the nickname he did not yet have – finished second behind Felice Gimondi in Anquetil's absence. When the rivalry resumed in 1966, Anquetil famously described Poulidor as a "cry-baby" after his reaction to being attacked following a crash.
" He wants to learn how to stay upright on his bike. I don't see why I should wait for him when he can't. When I really do attack, he won't see me."
This was mere bluster from Anquetil, who lost the stage 14 time trial to Poulidor and would quit the race just days from Paris after realising he couldn't win a sixth Tour. But not before doing his best to ensure victory went to his Ford teammate Lucien Aimar and not his old foe from Mercier.
Indeed, Anquetil seemed to take almost as much pleasure in winning the Tour as ensuring his younger rival didn't – as captured by his comment in 1966 that, "If by some chance I don't win the Tour he won't win it either."
It was this side of Anquetil (deliciously likened by the writer Antoine Blondin as a diner who hurries out of a restaurant without leaving a tip) and his clinical, cold, calculated way of riding that pushed many French fans towards Poulidor, who they so often saw as the "moral victor".
Fodder for the Cannibal
It is part of the Poulidor tragedy that he was unable to capitalise in the small gap between the eras of Anquetil and Merckx to stamp his own authority on the Tour. But it is also a sign of his character that Poulidor put his ambitions aside in 1967 to help guide his compatriot Roger Pingeon to glory when the Tour was raced by national teams. A year later, he retired injured as Jan Janssens won.
Neither Poulidor nor Pingeon could do anything when the fresh-faced Merckx pulverised the field in his debut Tour in 1969, both Frenchmen settling for distant places on the podium.
Such was Merckx's domination that a new joke started to do the rounds: Raymond Poulidor was fined fifty francs for taking a tow from a lorry up the Tourmalet. But what about Eddy Merckx? He was towing the lorry…
It's true, the early Merckx years were cruel to the ageing Poulidor. He finished seventh in 1970, missed the Tour a year later, then came a solid but unspectacular third in 1972. The year when Merckx concentrated instead on a Giro-Vuelta double, Poulidor came painfully close to that prologue yellow before almost losing his life on the descent from the Col de Portet d'Aspet when he plunged into a ravine.
Poulidor's rebirth came in 1974 with his first Tour stage win in eight years, the 38-year-old dropping Merckx and everyone else on the climb to Saint-Lary. A decade after his epic duel with Anquetil, Poulidor was enjoying a second youth, securing this third runner-up spot in Paris as Merckx made it five.
End of the road
Poulidor's second wind was knocked out of his sails during a rotten 1975 in which his only victory came in the Tour of Limousin. But there was still time to bounce back before being put out to graze.
The Frenchman's unlucky thirteenth Tour was his worst, Poulidor slipping to 19th as compatriot Bernard Thévenet drew the curtain on Merckx's reign of terror. There remained, however, a final chapter to write in his Tour story.
While he never threatened Lucien van Impe for the yellow jersey, Poulidor won a fierce battle for the final place on the podium behind teammate Zoetemelk, ensuring that, now in his fifth decade, his final Tour would end with the same result as his first, 14 years previously.
He wound up his career in 1977. His final major race was the world championships in San Cristobal, Colombia. Aged 41 and feeling the pinch, Poulidor finished second-last of the finishers. Last place that day? Eddy Merckx. So, Poupou finally got the better of the Cannibal after all. Three weeks later, both riders called time on their careers after Paris-Tours.
It's perhaps no surprise that a rider who rode so many Tours couldn't keep away from the world's biggest bike race each July – and for the best part of four decades, Poulidor, right up till this July just passed, was part of the furniture in the Tour's publicity caravane, where he smiled at fans and dished out trinkets, always dressed in the yellow that always eluded him.
With Poulidor passing, that will now change. The journalist Daniel Friebe, a veteran of a dozen Tours, said this week it was "a big, unpleasant surprise" to those mainstays in the press for whom the cheery Poulidor always had time for a chinwag. ITV and the Cycling Podcast's Friebe, who described the departed Frenchman this week as "a stoic old oak built of tougher fibre than the rest of us", added:
" Poulidor was one of those guys who, when you met him, comforted whatever preconceptions you had about cyclists (especially in his era) being a different, physically superior breed. Huge hands. Immaculate hairline. Skin so glossy and shiny you could comb your own quiff in it."
And although his last stage win on the Tour came 45 years ago, Poulidor was always respected and revered by the current stars of today, including Julian Alaphilippe, whose thrilling almost-but-not-quite bid to win the Tour this July saw him take a place in French hearts once reserved for Poupou.
Today, Poulidor's legacy stretches beyond the realm of cycling. Finishing second in other sports in France is often referred to as "doing a Poulidor" while thwarted French politicians have been described as parliamentary Poulidors. In fact, as the blogger Inner Ring states, the nation's perceived tendency to accept being worthy losers rather than clinical winners is known as "Poulidor syndrome". In all fairness, it could just as well be coined Pinot syndrome.
Talking of politicians, the French President led the tributes that flooded Twitter on Thursday, claiming "his exploits, panache and courage will remain engraved in history". Poupou may never have won the Tour, but, said Emmanuel Macron, he will be "forever the yellow jersey in the hearts of the French".
Raymond Poulidor and Emmanuel Macron in 2017.Getty Images
After all, beyond the panache of Alaphilippe and the glory-infused agony of Pinot, a little bit of Poupou still lives on in the pro peloton. His daughter Corinne married a successful Dutch pro from the late 80s and 90s by the name of Adri van der Poel. They had two sons, both of whom took up cycling – first in cyclo-cross and then on the road.
You may have heard of one of them – a chap called Mathieu van der Poel. There's nothing remotely eternally second about him. He's yet to ride the Tour but it would take a brave man to bet against Poupou's grandson wearing one day the yellow jersey that eluded his grandfather.
Class clearly runs in the family. Rest in peace, Raymond Poulidor (1936-2019).
Raymond Poulidor at the 2014 Tour de FranceGetty Images