Tour de France Greatest Battles: Anquetil v Poulidor

Jacques Anquetil v Raymond Poulidor (1964)

In the run up to the Grand Départ in Corsica on the 29th of June, what better time to focus on some of the great battles and fierce rivalries of the previous 99 editions of the Tour de France.

This week,  a battle between two of the greatest French riders of all time, that would reach an enthralling denouement on the humid slopes of a volcano in the Massif Central.

Of all the thousands of photographs charting the 110 year history of the Tour de France, perhaps the most memorable captures two of the greatest French cyclists of the post-war period slugging it out on the Puy de Dôme during Stage 20 of the 1964 edition of the race. If Italy gave us Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, then the French equivalent was the battle for supremacy waged between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor – a rivalry that culminated in an enthralling and suffocating duel on the slopes of a volcano in central France.  

Raymond Poulidor remains a hugely popular figure in France. Affectionately known as ‘Poupou’ by the French public, it is his other nickname, ‘The Eternal Second’, which is a more accurate reflection of his cycling career. It was to  Poulidor’s incredible misfortune that his career was bookended by two of the greatest cyclists who ever turned a crank in anger; Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. 

Despite competing in Tour de France 14 times, during which he claimed 7 stage victories, and boasting a palmarès that included a Vuelta victory and several of the Classics, Poulidor never won the Tour de France and never wore the yellow jersey. One of the finest grimpeurs of his generation, Poulidor finished in second place in the Tour three times and in third place a total of five.

Jacques Anquetil never enjoyed the same adoration as Poupou, but what he lacked in popularity he made up for in his clinical dominance of the peloton. ‘Maître Jacques’ , as Anquetil came to be known, was a gifted time trialist,  but his unpopularity owed as much to his aloof nature as to his lack of panache on a bike. He was never one to set a race alight, but was admired for his ability to delve deep into his resources to ensure that his nearest rivals were always kept in sight, inevitably delivering a knockout punch in the time trials.   


Raymond Poulidor (right) on the charge and a Jacques Anquetil wearing the maillot jaune

Anquetil was not averse to a post-stage cigarette and success and celebrity, and the financial rewards that they brought, allowed him to indulge in his love for the finer things in life. He once famously claimed, “To prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne and a woman.”  More of the women in his life a little later!

Anquetil secured his first Tour de France victory in 1957, the first time he rode the race. He followed this up with victories in 1961, 1962 and 1963, surpassing his compatriot Louison Bobet and the Belgian rider, Philippe Thys, who had both secured three Tour victories. When the riders gathered in Rennes for the start of the 1964 edition, the French master was hoping to record his fifth victory in the race – a figure that many felt could never,  and would never, be eclipsed.

Poulidor had arrived at the Tour in good form – he had won the Vuelta a few weeks earlier and the Tour de France parcours was one that suited a rider of his climbing ability. Anquetil, likewise, was fresh from his victory in the Giro d’Italia, but he was a troubled man. A popular Parisian mystic, Jacques Belline, had predicted in the newspaper, France-Soir, that Anquetil would die in a crash during the 14th stage in the Pyrennes.

Anquetil was a superstitious man and Belline’s words consumed him – a fragile state of mind that was given no reassurance when fans of Poulidor began sending him newspaper cuttings of the prophecy!  

The two rivals smile for the press prior to a stage during the 1964 Tour.

On 22 June the riders rolled out of Rennes for the first stage and a nation, many cheering for Maitre Jacques, but the majority for Poupou, watched transfixed to see which of these two great riders would triumph in Paris. In the early stages, Anquetil, still tired from his Giro efforts, was attacked relentlessly by his rivals, with Poulidor taking a lead of  1’15” over his nemesis after the penultimate day in the Alps.

It was then that Poulidor’s luck began to change. The final day in the Alps,  a 239km (149 mile) route starting in Briançon and ending in Monaco, Poulidor forgot that the riders would cross the ‘finishing line’ but then do an extra lap  of the streets of the Principality. He sprinted for the line only to watch as the peloton sped onwards and do add to his horror, Anquetil went on to win the bunch sprint ahead of Britain’s Tom Simpson. Poulidor finished in the same time,  but Anquetil (as stage winner) was awarded a one minute bonus which all but negated Poulidor’s efforts in the Alps.  The following day included a time trial during which Poulidor suffered a puncture.  Anquetil, inevitably, won the stage and in doing so overtook his rival in the GC standings.

Yet all the time, the prediction that he would die in the Pyrenees played on Anquetil’s mind. The day before the 14th Stage was a rest day and to distract his haunted rider, the directeur sportif of the Saint-Raphaël team, Raphaël Géminiani, took Anquetil and his wife, Janine, out to dinner where they were photographed drinking and smoking. Anquetil, it appeared, had banished his demons for the day and was intent on enjoying his final day on this earth.

The following day a sluggish Anquetil was quickly dropped by Poulidor and the great Spanish climber, Federico Bahamontes. Sensing that Anquetil’s hopes of winning his fifth Tour could be lost on this decisive stage, Géminiani pulled alongside him in the team car and beseeched him to ‘die fighting’, before allegedly proffering Anquetil with a bidon full of champagne – Dutch courage for the nervous Frenchman. Anquetil duly responded and descended the Port d’Envarila like a stone, catching Poulidor, who had suffered a broken spoke, before the finish in Toulouse. He had retained his second position on the podium and, more importantly, put the prediction of his early demise  to bed. Anquetil was very much alive and ready to live and fight another day!

Knowing that his best hopes of gaining time on Anquetil lay in the mountain stages, Poulidor won the following day’s Stage 15 in the Pyrenees,  crossing the line 1’43” ahead of Anquetil and picking up a minute bonus for the victory. He now trailed Anquetil by only 9 seconds. 

Stage 17 was 42 km individual time trial ( ITT ) and Anquetil, somewhat inevitably again, won the stage by 37 seconds ahead of Poulidor. Had it not been for a puncture, however, Poulidor may even have taken the stage, but that night it was Maitre Jacques who donned the maillot jaune for the first time in the 1964 race. His lead over Poulidor was now up to 56 seconds.

The French public were spellbound as the race neared its climax, but had to endure two days of racing before the final stage in the mountains – a stage that would include the ascent of the fearsome volcano, the Puy de Dôme, in the Massif Central region of central France  This, Poulidor knew, was his final chance to wrestle the yellow jersey from Anquetil,  but no one, certainly not Jacques Belline, could have predicted the fascinating duel that was to unfold.

Soon after the start of the stage, two Spanish climbers, Julio Jimenez and Bahamontes broke clear of the peloton, but all eyes were focused on only two men. The images of Poulidor and Anquetil riding shoulder to shoulder up the Puy de Dôme  are iconic. Often  coming so close that their arms touched (though Poulidor later claimed that this was not the case) Anquetil refused to give and inch to his rival.

Rather than follow Poulidor’s wheel,  Anquetil later claimed he wanted to ride beside Poulidor to demonstrate his strength and in doing so, deliver a psychological blow to his compatriot. The message Anquetil was determined to convey was clear: However strong you are and however hard you try, I am your equal. Only towards the end of this torrid battle, fought in sweltering July heat, did Poulidor manage to unshackle his rival and break clear. But it was not enough  – Poulidor had finished only 42 seconds ahead and Anquetil retained the yellow jersey – but only by a mere 14 seconds.

The final stage of the 1964 edition of the Tour, held on Bastille Day, was an 27km (17 mile) individual time trial between Versailles and Paris and crowds estimated to be in the region of 1 million packed the roads near the finish in the Parc des Princes Velodrome. The crowd roared to their feet  as Poulidor entered the stadium to finish in a time of 37 minutes and 31 seconds. Poulidor had been ahead of Anquetil by 11 seconds at the 20km mark and as the stage winner received a 20-second time bonus, all he needed to do was win by one second!  Surely Anquetil could not be beaten

When Anquetil entered the stadium to a deafening wall of noise, he crossed the finish line in a time of 37 minutes and 10 seconds.  ‘Maitre Jacques’, the master of the time trial,  had delivered a ruthless coup de grace. He had won the 1964 Tour by only 55 seconds and in doing so, became the first rider to ever win the race five times.

Raymond Poulidor, history records, was . . . second.

Jacques Anquetil retired in 1969, pursuing a career in farming, though he became a respected cycling commentator and briefly coached the French cycling team. He claimed he only rode his bike three times in retirement. His private life was a colourful one and though he married his wife, Janine, in 1958 he enjoyed a ménage à trois with Janine and her daughter from her first marriage, Annie. Anquetil died of stomach cancer at the age of 1987, but in 2004 it was revealed that ‘Maître Jacques’ was the father of Annie’s daughter, Sophie. His record of 5 wins was later equalled by his compatriot, Bernard Hinault, and the Spanish cyclist, Miguel Indurain.

Raymond Poulidor rode his final Tour de France in 1969, finishing in 9th position in a race won by a young Belgian rider who would come to dominate the sport. Poulidor is still a ubiquitous figure during the Tour de France, where he can be seen wearing a yellow polo shirt, provided by the sponsors of the maillot jaune, Credit Lyonnais. Extremely popular with fans and riders alike, he movingly comforted an emotional Johnny Hoogerland after the Dutch rider’s horrific crash during the 2011 Tour. In retirement the two adversaries became firm friends and Poulidor enjoyed recounting the visit he made to his former foe shortly before his death.  Saying their final goodbyes to one another,  Anquetil beckoned Poulidor to lean closer and whispered: “My friend, you will come second to me once again” .

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