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The French nation will miss him and cycling fans will certainly miss him even more during this Tour de France, the race that made him so immensely popular. With Raymond Poulidor, glory and his failure to win the Tour went hand in hand. He was on the Paris podium eight times in 14 appearances, the last in 1976, at the age of 40, a final testimony to unparalleled longevity. He subsequently became part of the publicity caravan, missing only one edition, in 1987. “The manager of a radio station had hired me,” he explained. “As the Tour got closer, no news, so I went up to Paris to find out what was going on. I was told, ‘Sorry, Monsieur Poulidor, your contact has disappeared with all of the money.’ He was a crook, and also came from [my home region of] the Limousin! He had fled with the cash, including my share. I had to stay at home and was very unhappy about it. That was my worst holiday.”
Words: Jean-Luc Gatellier Images: L’Équipe.
During the Tour, he wore a yellow polo shirt embroidered with the logo of the bank and yellow jersey sponsor, LCL. He was the bank’s yellow jersey ambassador, signing autographs at every turn, posing for photos, always with a kind word for everyone.
Poulidor’s road ended far from the summer months. He died on November 13 last year at age 83. On a cold and foggy autumn morning at the door of the Collegiate Church of Saint Léonard de Noblat, where he had joined so many others to say goodbye to his friend, former world champion André Darrigade, now 90, said with a sense of dignity, “An era is disappearing.” An era was indeed passing, and yet “Poupou” was a part of every era, including the one he’d just left—a little too brutally, a little too suddenly. He chose to be cremated, to occupy a very small plot in the municipal cemetery that offers a distant view of the mountains of Ambazac in his native Limousin, where he had built his house in 1962 and to which he had remained faithful to the end despite his regular travels.
After hanging up his bike wheels in 1977, the year after his final Tour, Poulidor never stopped traveling, apparently wanting to extend a sporting career that had finished very late on when he was 41-and-a-half years old, right at the midpoint of his earthly existence. His life was spent on the road, riding a Mercier and then driving a Mercedes—he clocked up no less than 748,000 kilometers (460,000 miles) on one model! He wasn’t afraid of loneliness, but didn’t have to be, simply because people think that the champions belong to them. In photos, the black-and-white hues of the early 1960s gradually giving way to color images where the brilliant purple of his jersey stands out, he always seems to be just behind his peers, a little apart from the crowd, absent, pensive, elsewhere. But in old age he was the opposite, seeking people out, relishing human contact, nothing pleasing him more than chatting with his supporters in the four corners of France. Indeed, he even made this terrible confession: “The day when I’m no longer recognized, I’ll be dead!” Popularity never betrayed him, to the point where “Poupou” was a widely known and used nickname, an intergenerational rallying cry.
He had to contend with a heart that had been worn out having crisscrossed and surveyed France like no one else, fully committed every year to his task in the style of a master craftsman, drawing on his innate resources as a man of the land that enabled him to escape from a modest farm in the Creuse and fulfil an exceptional destiny, but never deserting his roots in a few hectares of plowed fields. “Even in his pomp, he remained the little peasant from the Grange Rouge farm, a place that entirely typified these regions that have often been abandoned,” explained his friend Claude Louis, a former technical director within the Limousin cycling committee. “For the underprivileged, the forgotten, he represented the embodiment of an impossible dream for a better tomorrow.”
When talking about Raymond Poulidor, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps on April 25, 1954, at the Grand Prix de la Quasimodo in Saint Léonard de Noblat, which was his very first victory…or perhaps in 1959 at the race in Peyrat-le-Château, when he was 23 and still an amateur nicknamed “La Pouliche” rather than “Poupou” and made the professionals suffer on the Côte du Lavoir, which led to Bernard Gauthier suggesting to Mercier team manager Antonin Magne that he should sign him…or perhaps in 1961 at Milan-San Remo, which he won despite going off course, a success that showed he wasn’t always unlucky…or even in 1964, when he won the Vuelta a España, one of the most prestigious of his 189 victories—because “Poulidor did win things” recalls Belgian race driver Thierry Neuville, five-time runner-up in the world rallying championship and consequently another sporting star who was used to finishing second.
However, as we all know, the history of the Tour de France is intimately linked into Poulidor’s story. His name will not only be associated with it forever, but also with the history of France. When François Mitterrand failed in his presidential bid in 1974, a newspaper dubbed him “the Poulidor of politics.”
On his Tour debut in 1962, Poulidor finished in third place in Paris, despite racing the whole three weeks with a cast on his left hand due to a broken finger. It was the first sign of the misfortune that would dog him. In truth, his principal opponent wasn’t Jacques Anquetil or Eddy Merckx. It was a rival without a race number called “Fate.” It hit Poulidor with a below-thebelt blow at the 1968 Tour when, after the student revolution on the streets of France in May, it seemed certain we were going to witness another upheaval on the country’s roads that July. However, with Poulidor, there was always a “but,” sometimes down to him and sometimes not. On July 14, France’s national holiday, he was knocked down by a motorcyclist on the stage to Albi. When he narrated the tale of this accident, in which he could have died, his biggest regret, quite naïvely, was the fact that “this motorcyclist never apologized.”
It was his destiny to miss out on the yellow jersey, an irrationality that became both his trademark and his living. His badge of misfortune provided his path to fortune as his legendary “poupoularité”—only French novelist Antoine Blondin could have come up with such an expression —steadily grew as the setbacks piled up. In 1973, at the Tour prologue in Scheveningen, Joop Zoetemelk took the yellow jersey by just eight-tenths of a second from Poulidor. What awful luck! Or was a benevolent fairy watching over him? “Of course, I didn’t do it on purpose, but if I’d worn the yellow jersey, and even if I’d won the Tour once or twice, nobody would be talking about me today,” he noted.
His epic pursuits of unfulfilled happiness led to emotional outbursts. These were his specialty and led to the kind of epic and painful tales that we all love to hear. But with him the feeling of dismay passed quickly and he reconciled himself thanks to his extraordinary capacity to cope with setbacks, like a farmer accepting a drought because you can’t fight against nature, shrugging his shoulders due to this impotence while at the same time praying for rain. What’s more, in between the moments of bad luck were those where he didn’t know how to take advantage of an opportunity. Poulidor was a bravura performer above all praise, but was open to criticism for the way he rode against rivals who were as cunning as jackals. He was essentially a docile puppet whose strings were pulled by a sorcerer.
On the day of his funeral, a giant photo lay on the facade of a solid building near the church. It embodied the duel, in all its splendor and ferocity. Their touching shoulders symbolized the paroxysm of his rivalry with Jacques Anquetil. Poulidor was very fond of telling stories about bike racing. He had a phenomenal memory, loved to joke. But he didn’t relish returning to the famous ascent of the Puy de Dôme during the 1964 Tour de France, because he felt he’d said absolutely everything about it that he could.
In May 2018, he invited me to his home one morning for an interview, or rather a very friendly conversation, telling me: “I’m up at 5, as peasants get up early. Come when you want….” His gate opened to reveal a majestic Lebanon cedar. His view was toward a water tower, quite aptly for someone who had drunk several hundred liters of liquid as he climbed mountain passes. He lived near the local high school and responded to the curious glances of the teens eyeing this celebrity with a paternalistic smile. The need to work on the farm prevented him from continuing with his studies after he had earned his school certificate. As a child, he cried about this….
“The Puy de Dôme…,” he said, somewhat blasé. “I’ve told the story a thousand times.” His graciousness immediately returned and he picked up the thread of the story for the thousand-and-first time, without hesitating to crush the myth that suggested the protagonists were at the height of their powers. “Jacques and I were dead. I was in bad shape, I know I was in bad shape,” he insisted. Nevertheless, I said: Raymond, the drama, the physical intensity, your eyes smoky, Anquetil’s white and rolling, and the smoldering contact of the two enemies’ shoulders, like two boxers looking for a knockout punch! “It wasn’t like that at all. Let me explain. There was a war going on between the photographers, they all wanted to have the image of whoever cracked first. It was because of the motorcycles that we nudged each other. They were sticking close to us, you can clearly see,” he said, pointing to the series of images that led to the photo.
“Jacques was obstructed by a motorbike; I was hampered by another that was so close that its exhaust pipe burned my calf. I swerved and we could both have fallen. The road was narrow, the crowd was screaming. I moved toward Jacques, I pulled my leg back a bit, we’re both cooked, and that’s how we ended up touching one another. And when I dropped him, I didn’t even notice. I was like him, in a fog, in a dreamlike state.” Dreamlike, that’s the word, I thought at the time. At the top of the dormant Auvergne volcano, Anquetil hung on to the yellow jersey by 13 seconds – ah, the unlucky figure! – and won his fifth and final Tour de France.
On the internet, the archives of the National Audiovisual Institute (INA) suggest that Anquetil said to his rival: “I congratulate you, you’re a good loser.” He loved him like a winner loves the foe he’s vanquished. Later on, they did have real affection for each other. “Jacques and I missed out on 10 years of friendship,” he often used to say. Another loss….
Poulidor’s earnings flourished. His peers were jealous of him because his market value in criteriums reflected his huge popularity. He was the face of many brands, which saw an obvious interest in associating their image with that of the champion of France’s heartlands, where the people saw themselves in this man who was the “eternal runner-up.” The mailman was a regular visitor. There was even mail from abroad.
“Write to me at: Raymond Poulidor, Saint Léonard de Noblat, 87400, it will get here. And don’t forget to enclose a stamped envelope for my reply,” he explained. This watchful saver didn’t hear or perhaps no longer responded to those who mocked his greed. He said that he wasn’t bothered when people made fun of him, criticized him. It amused him and prompted his selfdeprecation: “On the contrary, I’m maintaining the legend,” he’d say. Speaking to the buyer of one of his many books, he quipped: “I can’t accept money, my coffers are full.” To Clément Pernot, president of the Jura departmental council, who invited him into his mountains: “It’ll depend how much the gas costs…” Or to a woman gently reproaching him for refusing her an autograph 50 years earlier: “Do you have a pencil at least? I don’t have one because I wouldn’t want to wear it out.”
Becoming serious again, adopting a solemn tone and even raising his voice—which he almost never did—he said to me: “They say about me: ‘Ah! He likes to keep his hands on his money.’ What does that even mean? You’ve got to remember I’m a guy who never had a penny in his pocket until he was 20…”
For Philippe Bouvet, the former head of the cycling department at L’Équipe, “his generosity lay elsewhere, in his attitude toward fans, who were touched by his natural simplicity, who were drawn to him all the more because he seemed to understand the trials and tribulations of the average French person.”
In the face of the immense difficulties provoked by this year’s pandemic, Raymond Poulidor would have been as cautious as usual, but his down-to-earth common sense would certainly have reassured us.