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Aérogramme Day 10: Poulidor

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Meet Mr. Second Place

At the Tour de France, the same scene unfolds every morning. From his table inside the VIP start village, he signs autographed postcards for admiring fans and poses for selfies with visiting politicians. By all standards of recognition, Raymond Poulidor is a high-ranking member in the pantheon of the Tour de France. But he is not a winner. Instead Poulidor is “The Eternal Second,” a nickname given to him for his long string of podium, finishes in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

It comes with a certain sense of irony, then, that Poulidor has represented LCL Bank, the sponsor of the yellow jersey for the past 15 years. After all, despite all of his near misses, Poulidor never once actually wore the Tour’s coveted golden fleece.

Words & images: James Startt
From: Pau, France

“Ah but now, thanks to LCL, I wear the yellow jersey every day,” he jokes, referring to the yellow LCL polo shirt he wears at the Tour. Obviously well trained in responding to such remarks, he even adds. “Now, I’ve even worn the yellow more days than Eddy Merckx!”

Poulidor, who turns 80 next year, is covering his 53rd Tour de France, 14 as a rider, the rest as Raymond Poulidor. “I’ve only missed one, and boy was I sad!” As the Tour enters the Pyrenees for three days of grueling racing, Poulidor is reflective. “I’ve had some good memories here but also some terrible ones too,” he says.

In 1964, Poulidor probably saw his best chance at Tour victory slip through his hands on the now infamous stage from the principality of Andorra to the city of Toulouse. His arch-rival, Jacques Anquetil—who generously participated in a barbeque the day before—struggled on the first climb of the stage, losing over five minutes. For much of the day it appeared that Poulidor was poised for victory until a late-race crash dashed his chances. Seemingly cursed, he eventually finished several minutes behind Anquetil.

The worst incident for Poulidor, however, came during the 1973 Tour when he crashed on the descent of the dreaded Portet d’Aspet, a descent that years later took the life of Italian Olympic Champion Fabio Casartelli. “People often say that I was a very unlucky cyclist, but I always considered myself quite lucky. I nearly lost my life that day. But I’m still here to talk about it.”

But while Poulidor is the symbol of the runner up in French sports, he is revered as a resilient rival who pushed the great champions of his generation—from Jacques Anquetil to Eddy Merckx—to their limits. Today he holds no regrets, and when he looks back on his rivals, he seems happy to simply have been one of the sport’s great supporting actors. “You know Merckx really was a cannibal, just like they called him. There was never a little race for him, never a victory that was too small. Eddy just wanted to win everything!”

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“What I love about Raymond is his memory,” says Sophie Moressée-Pichot, head of LCL operations at the Tour and herself an Olympic gold medalist in fencing at the 1996 games in Atlanta. “His generation, it seems, has a real memory for the emotions of their period, for the pain, for the riders, everything. And even today, he has a real expert eye. He sees things in the race that many of us miss.”

Poulidor does not hesitate when speaking of his enthusiasm for the Tour. “It’s still a pleasure. I just love the ambiance. At my age, I don’t know how many more Tours I have, but I still love it!” He admits that he holds a sweet spot for the French riders in the race. “I really liked Laurent Jalabert and Thomas Voeckler today,” says Poulidor. “I like riders that attack with everything they have, that make the most out of what they have got.” Poulidor, it seems admires riders that race like a certain, well, Raymond Poulidor.

Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.