1961-1967 From Triumph to Tragedy

1961 RETURN OF THE MASTER

It was over before it began, really. Jacques Anquetil had been saying since the winter “I’m going to win the Tour de France” and he did, wearing the Maillot Jaune from the first day to the last – though Andre Darrigade wore it in the morning of the 25 June, winning stage 1A.

Anquetil promised to win the Tour d’une maniere brillante. Whilst the French team – united for once behind Anquetil – were utterly, absolutely dominant, Jacques Goddet was en colere. His editorial described the Tour as ‘abstract’ and went on to lambast the peloton for being ‘resigned to defeat’ and ‘mediocre’:

“Anquetil’s only misfortune – and that of the 61 Tour – is that he’s never been put in a position where he had to show his true worth. The fault lies with his intrinsic quality and the form of his adversaries.

Why did Gaul feel he wasn’t capable of repeatedly attacking in the two beautiful Pyreneean stages? Why did Massignan, a distinguished climber, never really get involved in the action, nor the rest of the Italian team, a new team, who wouldn’t have been diminished by failure? It seems that everyone progressively fell under the influence of the ineffable force that is Anquetil.”

There are equally, perhaps even more dominant, riders ahead of us in the future of the Tour. But in 1961, the race had never seen a more dominant rider – or a more submissive peloton happy to roll over and play dead.

1962 THE ETERNAL SECOND AND A FIRST

He hated being called PouPou though it stuck with him like dogshit on your shoe throughout his career. He much referred Pouli but he was the public’s, the media’s creation. He was PouPou, the ‘Eternal Second’ – though he was more realistically the Eternal Third: he came 2nd three times and 3rd five times. But it’s nit picking – his record was exceptional, especially outside the Tour, with palmares many riders would die for: he was French Champion, won Milan-San Remo (1961), Fleche-Wallonne, Grand Prix des Nations (1963), Vuelta a Espana, Criterium International (1964), Criterium International, Dauphine-Libere (1966), Criterium International (1968), Setimana Catalana (1971), Paris-Nice, Criterium International (1972), Paris-Nice, Midi-Libre (1973) and a host of stage wins. In all, the ‘Eternal Second’ racked up 189 professional victories. Not too shabby, not too shabby at all. Yet, though he stood on the podium of the Tour de France 8 times (once at the age of 40), he never once pulled on the Yellow Jersey. That’s right – not one single solitary Maillot Jaune graced his solid paysan shoulders.

There are many storiess about Pouli – he bought races, he sold races – he seems to have sold more than he bought, thus further enhancing the legend of the ‘Eternal Second’ – he was a card sharp and a canny investor with a secret property empire. He certainly wasn’t the ‘ignorant peasant’ though he seems to have been happy enough – clever enough? – to embrace that role and the popularity it bought him with the French public. He remains vastly popular today, still fronting ad campaigns in July, still creating an uproar as he tours the roads of France in an official car.

Poulidor and Anquetil is a study in contrasts – blond v dark, peasant v bourgeois, stocky v lean, North v South, science v nature, 4th Republic underdogedness v 5th Republic triumphalism ‘la France qui gagne’. Their supposed rivalty was built on these foundations, about what supporting each man said about you and your relationship to nationality, tradition, expectation – much as the Coppi/Bartali rivalry had become symbolic of the divergent strands in modernising Italy. The real Poulidor was reputed to be unpopular in the peloton for his bad temper and selfish tactics whilst Anquetil was thought of as a paragon of courteousness and fair play. The story goes that, when a popular French magazine published an article exposing the ‘myth’ of Poulidor, they received such a bad reaction they were forced to go back to the stereotypes of the ‘bad’ Anquetil and the ‘good’ Poulidor. PouPou was the perfect champion for a France profonde left behind by the uncertainty and pace of change.But you wonder if Poulidor would trade all the goodwill and popularity and every victory, bought or sold, for just one day in that fabled yellow fleece.

The question will always remain: did Poulidor lack that killer instinct that makes the difference between a great rider and a grand chamoion? Or did he fall so in love with his own myth as the plucky underdog that he no longer needed or wanted to win that biggest prize – was he happy to trade the Maillot Jaune for the prolonged and absolute adoration of the French public?

If the arrival of Poulidor signalled the start of a national romance, then the incident at Luchon saw Dr Dumas falling out of love with the Tour. He sent the race organisers the following communique:

“The medical team at the Tour has been touched by the number of riders who were sick at the stage depart in Luchon, all presenting with the same symptoms…it can only draw attention to certain ways of looking after and preparing riders. We’re not prepared to blame  diet or variations in temperature…the medical team notes that, as far as we know, the athletes search for an edge is not subject to any medical or psychological control.

Consequently, in the surroundings of the Tour, the race’s medical team wishes to reestablish close and fruitful relationships, as existed in the past, between ourselves and the teams.

To this end, the medical team propose to reinstitute daily visits to the riders, in their hotels, each evenings after the stage.”

What happened in Luchon? The riders, all 12 of them, blamed the fish – it wasn’t fresh they said. But not all riders were at the same hotel, and not all riders ate the fish, replied the hoteliers. It was the first in a long – and growing – list of doping excuses. Dumas, disgusted that riders were blaming others for their doping, threatened to walk off the race. He was leaving the professional sport, he said, going back to the Tour de l’Avenir.

He was talked out of it and stayed on the race. In 1965 he would help to draft the loi Herzog the first real attempt at anti doping legislation in France (though its enforcement was negligible at best). Dumas continued to do his best to keep riders safe on the race. Perhaps on his nightly visits he met a lanky young English rider who pulled off a first in the race by taking the Maillot Jaune at Saint-Gaudens. Their paths were destined to cross again, 5 years later. The circumstances would be very different.

1963 A 50TH BIRTHDAY & 4 FOR ANQUETIL

By winning 3 Tours in a row, Anquetil equalled the feat of Bobet – and then surpassed him, or any other rider, by becoming the first man to win the race 4 times.

And he did it in style. Anquetil was open to criticism for his cold, clinical, scientific approach to the sport – he would have loved the world of modern racing with its power meters and wind tunnels – but in 1963 he threw caution to the winds and proved his greatness not just against the watch but in the mountains as well.

And he very nearly didn’t start the race. Diagnosed with a tapeworm, he was advised not to start. But this was the 50th Tour de France and Anquetil was going to give the public a show they wouldn’t forget.

This is the tale of a prediction and the way it came true. ‘”The race will be decided on the Forclaz” declared Anquetil. And so it was.

Anquetil used a lighter bike for the ascent but wanted to change it for the descent. A bike change? Strictly against the rules – unless…Geminiani, his directeur sportif was canny. If Anquetil were to have a mechanical…Gem told one of the mechanics to cut the derailleur cable. “My derailleur!” called Jacques. A quick bike change and he was away. By the time the commissaire checked the bike, the repair was made. Anquetil changed bikes again, flying to the finish in Chamonix in torrential rain. Quelle exploit Maitre Jacques!

Poulidor had a nightmare on the Forclaz “I set off in the morning full of hope. I knew this was my last chance to win the Tour. I’d already decided to go all out…on the Grand-Saint-Bernard, Antonin Magne gave me the order to ride, I did so without hesitation, making the maximum effort into a headwind. I thought that the race would explode behind me. It was going to be them or me. But now I know it was just stupid. I really rode like an idiot! That’s not what’s expected of me. But believe me the most disappointed person here is the one you’re talking to.”

Bahamontes was, by turns, accusatory and congratulatory “Tell me why everyone rides for Jacques at the moment, including Poulidor? I’ve seen them talking together for the last two days. Anquetil? He’s a grand champion, the favourite. He’s very strong, very well organised. He doesn’t need Poulidor to help him win…”

In a rare role reversal, the French public met Anquetil in Paris with cheers, Poulidor (who could only manage 8th) with whistles and boos. How they greeted Shay Elliot isn’t recorded but he deserved plaudits – after 150km in an escape group on the road to Roubaix, the Irishman attacked with 5 kms to go to take a memorable stage win and the Yellow Jersey for the next 4 days. As he entered the velodrome alone, the band played ‘God Save the Queen’. As the son of a member of Sinn Fein, how his ears must have bled.

1964 COUDE A COUDE

“Shoulder to shoulder

Together standing tall”

There’s a sense of comradeship in the idea of standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’. Presenting a united front. Together against the world. We borrow the Spanish mano a mano to suggest enmity, man against man, a straight fight. But the most memorable image of the 1963 Tour – one of the most memorable images of these 100 years – is that of Anquetil and Poulidor, those great rivals, shoulder to shoulder on the Puy de Dome.

This was a race won by the distance you might have measured between those interlocked joints – by 0.00013 of the total distance travelled. By a mere 55″ Anquetil claimed his 4th Tour in a row, his 5th in total – a record equalled but still unsurpassed. But oh how he suffered to take that final Maillot Jaune – as Poulidor said of him “What astonishes me about him” opined his adversary “is not just his class but the way he knows how to suffer on the road”.

The race was one of the most thrilling in years, arguably one of the greatest of all time – Anquetil arrived at the Tour as winner of a tough Giro that had left him unusually fatigued and the two riders were nip and tuck every step of the way. At Briancon Anquetil punctured and Poulidor snaffled a 30″ time bonus. On the cinder track in Monaco the boot was on the other foot and it was Anquetil who grabbed the precious bonus seconds. Both men met with misfortune in the Pyrenees – Anquetil forced to ride alone in the cold and mist, measuring his descents by the brake lights of the cars ahead, Poulidor puncturing and losing 2 minutes. Anquetil feared a recurrence of his old lung trouble. He was troubled by a prediction by a TV psychic that he would die on stage 14. The situation coming out of the Pyrenees left Poulidor only 56″ behind his nemesis. At one he had come back to within 10″ of Anquetil. The Tour had never seen anything like it.

France held its breath – would this be the year the ‘eternal second’ would finally take the biggest prize of his career? The country had been glued to the progress of the race – this was the first time the Tour had been televised properly, from end to end. Jacques was the maitre of the time trial and the race would finish with a split stage on 14 July, Bastille day – a road race in the morning and a short clm in the afternoon. This clearly favoured the slender, blond Norman who was rarely bested against the clock. But between the two men and the race of truth lay the Puy de Dome

14 kms long with an average gradient of 7.5%, the Puy is one of the youngest volcanoes in the Auvergnat chain. A lava dome that rises out of the plain outside Clermont Ferrand, it has been visited 13 times by the Tour de France and seen great champions win and its fair share of drama – it was here that a spectator punched Eddy Merckx in the stomach during the 1975 Tour. But there was never a more epic, titanic struggle than that of the 64 race when Poulidor and Anquetil rode up shoulder to shoulder, coude a coude, mano a mano.

Jimenez won the stage with Bahamontes in hot pursuit – they were fighting their own private battle for the Grand Prix de la Montagne which Bahamontes would win for a record 6th time. But behind them the real race for the bigger prize was being fought out.

Speaking afterwards, Anquetil said “I know the Puy de Dome, knew it wasn’t really my kind of thing, it’s a severe climb that, unlike other cols, doesn’t have false flats where you can hope to recover. Very different to the Forclaz last year as there were several climbs beforehand. On the Baraque I felt easier, and my condition meant that I was able to stay with Poulidor. For most of the time I was at his level. I was worried he’d go on the attack with Jimenez when Bahamontes followed. I thought of the time bonus if he won the stage. If we’d arrived together and Poulidor had won and Bahamontes come second that would have been a lot worse. It that sense it went well for me. I was in big difficulties at the flamme rouge and the 13% section wasn’t at all easy. On a climb,  I always lose a lot in the last kilometre. During the time trial here I lost most time in the last kilometre. And with a summit finish there’s no chance of taking back time on the descent. I fought. I was scared, but I never gave up hope. Poulidor never really attacked me, it was me that lost ground.”

Bottom line? Anquetil bluffed Poulidor – made him believe he was stronger than he really was when the fatigue of a hard fought race hit. Knowing the climb, knowing where he was likely to lose time, Anquetil stuck to Poulidor like a limpet, shoulder to shoulder, coude a coude until that last kilometre. He lost 42″ from the flamme rouge to the finish line but he saved the Yellow Jersey.

1965 SECOND AGAIN

In typical fashion, Anquetil – who completed one of the great exploits in all cycling winning the Dauphine-Libere/Bordeaux-Paris double with only a few hours sleep in between – declared himself forfeot for the 65 Tour: “My contracts won’t get any bigger if I win a 6th Tour but I’ll lose everything if I lose”. Besides, he was en colere with race organisers who he accused of designing a route tailor made for a Poulidor win.

Both of them reckoned without a 22 year old Italian, winner of the Tour de l’Avenir in 1964 and 3rd in the Giro earlier in the year. Felice Gimondi would have a stellar career by any standards – when you consider that he was riding in the era of the Cannibal, Eddy Merckx, his achievements are that little bit more remarkable, and the what ifs more poignant. He remains the only Italian rider ever to win all 3 of the Grand Tours – the Vuelta, Giro and Tour – and he’s one of an elite group who’ve won the 5 greatest races in the sport: the 3 Grand Tours, Paris-Roubaix and the World Championships (only Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault have equalled it). Though, funnily enough, he never did a Double but he won his biggest victories over an eleven year period and won 3 out of 5 of cyclings’s ‘Monuments’ while he was at it.

Gimondi was a complete champion and he showed every ounce of his skills in this Tour – he took the initiative on a flat stage to Roubaix, limited his losses on the Ventoux, bested Poulidor by 33″ in the uphill time trial on Mont Revard (despite a mechanical!) and sealed a memorable win with victory in the final stage, a flat TT from Versailles – Paris. The Tour had flirted with a final stage time trial for a few years and it would come back to provide the most dramatic race finish ever in a few years time…

It was a proper fairytale too – Gimondi hadn’t wanted to race the Tour (he thought it was too hard) and was only a last minute replacement for Fantinato. He had only found out on the Thursday evening before the race started – just enough time to get from Furli (where he’d finished second in a race to Anquetil) to his home in Sadrina, pack a bag and head for the start in Cologne.

His directeur sportif, Luciano Pezzi, his eyes full of tears said “On the road from Versailles to Paris, I believed I was watching Coppi”. It doesn’t get much better than that.

1966 A FRENCH WIN – BUT NOT THE ONE YOU EXPECTED

OK, here’s the quick version – Anquetil and Poulidor marked each other out of the race and Lucien Aimar took advantage and won it. Each of the big guns seemed content never even to have led the race – “just as long as he didn’t win it” was the rationale. Anquetil gave Aimar his blessing by putting his team at the young Frenchman’s disposal and that was it. Maitre Jacques last Tour was over.

The Norman led a fascinating life post cycling that would be all over the gossip mags today – the sex and the drugs and the handlebar tape. But  he was passionate about astronomy, CB radio, spending all night in the woods under the stars hunting wild boar. I want to know his CB handle (and his twitter name, he would have loved the internet age), his favourite galaxy, the best recipe for cooking sanglier. Like the greatest champions he was an innovator, a rider who pushed the limits of the sport and what he – and it – might achieve. Picture him in training, motor paced, in all weathers, his hair flattened against his skull, his cheekbones busting through his taut cheeks. Even on his deathbed he was a fighter “You see, I’ve decided to try and beat it again, for my kids, for those I love and for myself, but I have no more weapons and the miracle cure doesn’t exist”. He died of stomach cancer at 35, still largely unknown and unloved by the French public but respected, by those who knew him, as one of the most intelligent riders ever to turn a pedal in the Tour de France.

Back to 1966. In 1965 Aimar had abandoned the race on the Aubisque, collapsing on the asphalt, his breathing irregular, his arms thrown wide as if he’d been crucified. Vittorio Adorni, suffering with stomach cramps, was lying in the grass by the side of the road, crying. Van der Kerkhove and Den Harthog also abandoned. The verdict – doping was back.

Herzog’s law was in force by 1966 and the first doping controls at the Tour de France took place on stage 9 in Bordeaux. It was doomed to failure – it was impossible to tell, for example, whether an injection had been of an authorised or banned product (this was long before the days of the UCI’s ‘no needle policy’ and WADAs extensive prohibited substance list).

Inevitably the riders went on strike – they’d had their hotel rooms raided the night before by doctors and police, it was about civil liberties, man! Poulidor was the first rider to ever submit to a control in the Tour and Anquetil, his old rival, rallied the peloton to his defence. It wasn’t the law they objected to, but it’s application. The peloton put pied a terre – not for the last time -to complain not against the law but its application.

Anquetil: “If the doctors decide to ask me to submit to an anti doping control, I’ll submit because one can’t refuse to submit to the law”

Poulidor: “I saw the men enter my room and I had nothing to say because they were enforcing the law. I hope that the analyses will be done in the terms of the law”.

Van Looy: ‘ll refuse to submit to a doping control if I’m asked”

The first ever doping controls in the Tour were undergone by three teams:

MANN-GRUNDIG: Their directeur sportif designated their two youngest riders for anti doping controls on the grounds that his was a young team. Van Springel was subjected to a battery of physical tests as well as a urine test and an examination for injection sites. His room mate, Messelis, was exempted from testing because of his age (he was 35).

MERCIER-BP: Antonin Magne is told to present Poulidor for a control as the testers don’t care how old or how famous a rider is. Poulidor gave a urine sample but no trace of injections was found. Guimard and Bellonne also submitted to a physical exam.

PELFORTH-SAUVAGE: Maurice de Muer designated his 2 youngest riders for anti doping controls. Along with the physical examinations, Delocht and Milliot were asked to open their suitcases, though no search was undertaken. Milliot mentioned that he’d had a tooth extracted that morning. The laboratory was alerted and was able to discount the traces of anaesthetic found in his sample.

And so it began – and has never yet reached a satisfactory conclusion. But a tip of the hat for Dr Dumas for being the first anti doping campaigner to try to make a difference in the sport of professional cycling.

1967 PINGEON A L’OMBRE

“I was here yesterday and I saw a little girl draw a heart on a stone and leave it at the memorial. Another man cycled up in smart clothes, wearing a tie and said, ‘I’m dressed as a gentleman because I’m here to meet a gentleman’. But another cyclist spat at the monument as he passed, and shouted ‘Sans dopage!’ That’s the way it is. I just think, when I’m up here, how much dad must have suffered.” Joanne Simpson

“Tommy was the happiest rider on the road – and he was also a champion but he wanted victory too much…he was a chic garcon who perhaps was afraid of defeat” Jacques Goddet

“I saw him but I didn’t recognise him because he was disfigured by the effort. Someone told me who it was. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was deathly pale. His face was the colours of a flag, a thick drool came out of his mouth. It was horrifying. I told myself “it’s just not possible”. If I saw my husband in a state like that I’d run out and stop him.” Dany Pingeon

It could all have been so different. If Felix Levitan hadn’t decided to stamp his authority on the race by bringing back national teams. If Roger Pingeon had stayed retired. If Tom Simpson hadn’t been forced to ride for a scratch GB team….

But Pingeon did ride – on the French A team. Unchained from domestique duties for Simpson he pulled off a legendary exploit on the road to Jambes and dominated the race. And Simpson rode too, with the support of a team of largely untested British pros. He knew he was on his own, his agent breathing down his neck to get the big win. He’d been hit hard by the ‘Curse of the Rainbow Jersey’ that he’d won in 1965 – 66 was virtually an annee sans with only a handful of criterium wins to add to his palmares. 

Now put yourself in his place. Try to imagine the pressure he was under. Imagine what you would do in his place. The choices you might make. Imagine the temptation to use something that would give you an edge. Would you do it? Would you do what Simpson did and get caught in a perfect storm of amphetamines and alcohol and heat?

Imagine.

You take the pills, you stash some in your jersey pocket in case you need another boost. You start the climb. It’s 45 degrees outside the cafe in Bedoin where you take a handful of pills and wash them down with brandy – whisky – pastis – something strong and wet. You can feel your stomach cramping, hoping you don’t shit yourself again, you’re sick of the mechanics making jokes about how long it takes them to hose your bike down. You’re thinking “if it takes 10 to kill me I’ll take nine to win” but you’re beginning to lose count. You told that Belgian reporter that you weren’t tired “it’s not the heat, it’s the Tour”. The Tour. You need a result, a decent contract. You’re 29, you need the money. You push yourself on, on, on out of the tree line, into the desert, the lunar landscape. You can see the observatory so far ahead and above you. You can feel your heart begin to race, your breath shortens, you start to pant. You tell yourself it’s the heat, the altitude, the effort but you’re slipping backwards, losing touch and all the time you’re heart’s hammering and you remember a story you heard about Anquetil dropping pills in a fishtank, how the fish were thrashing around like crazy and you want to laugh but your chest hurts, your eyes are blurring, you push on, on, on, on, you’re too hot and you can’t get water – stupid bloody rules – you’re drooling, thick white spume, heart pounding, you can’t breathe but you push on, on, on and you can’t seem to make your body do what you want it to do and you’re losing control of the bike and it’s zigging and zagging across the road and you fall

They couldn’t prise your hands off the handlebars you gripped so tightly. They gave you mouth to mouth and oxygen but you were gone. Dr Dumas knew it, knew he might have a death on his hands, knew it when he watched the temperature climb despite the cool of the morning. He wouldn’t sign the burial certificate. He wanted an autopsy. They found what you’d taken. Your soigneurs locked themselves in their room and got drunk and refused to come out. You meant to take 9 to win. You lost count.

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