Cycling is not supposed to be a contact sport. Wrestling, yes. Rugby, yes. Cycling, no. But on a July afternoon in 1964, two Frenchmen rode up a mountain in a way unseen before or since. They literally went shoulder to shoulder, riding side by side, leaning into each other, neither yielding, in a tumultuous battle for supremacy that would decide the outcome of the 51st Tour de France.
Which one of them would prevail? Would it be the aloof, impassive Jacques Anquetil, the record-breaking holder of four Tour titles, now in pursuit of a fifth? Or would he be outmuscled by the whole-hearted son-of-the-soil, Raymond Poulidor, whose approach stood in complete contrast to that of his calm, calculating opponent?
Greg LeMond's eight-second victory over Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Tour is usually held up as the race's ultimate drama, and statistically speaking there is nothing to touch it. But that contest all came down to an individual time trial – two men competing separately, with the stopwatch as the real enemy. What unfolded between Anquetil and Poulidor on the merciless slopes of an extinct volcano in the Auvergne was more like hand-to-hand combat.
When people talk about the Tour de France's golden age, it is moments like this – the Duel on the Puy de Dôme – that they have in mind. France's post-war recovery was as much about an idea of itself as about anything more tangible, and in nothing was that idea so vividly and joyfully expressed as in La Grande Boucle, the incredible three-week bike race that from the most opulent boulevard to the humblest village café brought the nation together. Nostalgia for this uniquely French sense of shared belonging invariably centres on the Fifties and Sixties.
Not that French cyclists were having it all their own way during this period. Jean Robic won for France when the Tour resumed in 1947, but the race soon acquired a distinctly Italian flavour courtesy of the charismatic Fausto Coppi (the winner in 1949 and 1952) and his compatriot Gino Bartali (the winner in 1948). There were Swiss winners in Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet. Come the mid-Fifties, however, home-grown talent was to the fore again. Louison Bobet scored a hat-trick of Tour victories from 1953 to 1955. Roger Walkowiak won in 1956 before Anquetil announced himself with his first victory in 1957, at the age of only 23.
A three-year hiatus saw the Tour won by Charly Gaul of Luxembourg, the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes and an Italian, Gastone Nencini, but then Anquetil took over, winning in 1961, 1962 and 1963. Nobody had ever won four Tours before – but then nobody had ever ridden like Anquetil. "Master Jacques" was his nickname, acquired when he led the 1961 Tour from start to finish.
Yet in spite of his astonishing record, French cycling fans never really warmed to this builder's son from Rouen. Anquetil appeared to expend little effort in a sport where suffering is what it is meant to be all about. His triumphs were generally founded on his mastery of the lonely discipline of time-trialling – solo efforts against the clock that draw admiration but rarely stir spectators' souls.
Anquetil was the supreme tactician. He understood better than anyone the internal dynamics of a race, watching every move, using his team-mates to protect him, judging precisely what he had to do and when. The smoothness of his pedal strokes was rarely disturbed. He wasn't an attacker. He did not go in for heroics. He did what was necessary, and the undoubted style with which he did it almost counted against him in the public's hearts. His film-star looks accentuated the distance between him and others.
Of course, Anquetil didn't see himself that way. In later life, he would explain that what people took to be arrogance was shyness. He had to dig as deep as anyone else, and endured as much pain as they did, but he was adept at not showing it. Indeed, the creation of an aura of imperturbability was a key element in his success.
Anquetil, it seems, felt misunderstood. He was deserving of much greater credit and popularity, and it's this knowledge that adds a kind of poignancy to his great duel with Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme. Public affection was what Poulidor enjoyed in copious quantities, and there was no doubting which rider had more supporters on that seismic day.
Like Anquetil, Poulidor too had a rural upbringing. But whereas Anquetil's family were members of the artisan classes, Poulidor's worked the Limousin land at the bottom rung of the social ladder. The humble embodiment of the spirit of La France profonde, Poulidor still somehow spoke of cycling's simple pleasures even when competing at the highest level. Not for him the scientific approach of Anquetil. Physically much more imposing than his tall, slender rival, Poulidor was tremendously aggressive, the better climber, and he gave it his all for all to see. But he couldn't time-trial like Anquetil.
At 28 going into the 1964 Tour, Poulidor was only two years younger than Anquetil but much less experienced in big races. Anquetil, in his sophisticated, citizen-of-the-world kind of way, was competing abroad when Poulidor had barely been outside his département. He acquired skills and understanding which were essential to his dominance of cycling, whereas Poulidor tended to rely more on instinct. Poulidor allowed his emotions to come into play, and of course the fans loved him for it.
Did Anquetil envy Poulidor's status as the darling of the French public? Did Poulidor resent Anquetil's superior ways? Both men could be forgiven if they did, but the extent to which there was mutual antipathy may well have been exaggerated by a French press which was intent on setting up Poulidor vs Anquetil as the great rivalry of the day.
Poulidor had competed in only two Tours before 1964, compared with Anquetil's seven. But in finishing third on his debut in '62 and eighth the year after, he had shown what a dangerous rider he could be. In spite of the small age difference, there was a sense in '64 that Poulidor was the coming man and that Anquetil, after all he had achieved, was approaching the end of his Tour career.
Not that Poulidor was the only challenger Anquetil had to worry about. Bahamontes – the "Eagle of Toledo" – remained a serious threat five years on from his one Tour win, still a brilliant climber at 36, with five King of the Mountains jerseys to his name. There was the Italian Vittorio Adorni, whom Anquetil had just beaten to win the 1964 Giro d'Italia, the Dutchman Jan Janssen (destined to win the Tour in 1968) and Britain's Tom Simpson, then and to this day the best cyclist to have emerged from these islands. As the winner of the prestigious Milan-San Remo one-day race earlier in '64, Simpson was firmly in cycling's top echelon.
So the stage was set – all the more so than previous years because 1964 was the first Tour to be shown live on French television. Huddled round the radio, or poring over newspaper reports, was how people had up till now experienced the excitement of the Tour if they had not been able to get roadside, and millions tuned in to watch the black-and-white pictures being beamed across the country as the riders set off on what would prove to be the decisive Stage 22 from Brive, with the race only four days away from its finale in Paris.
Anquetil had not had things all his own way in the preceding two and a half weeks. Bahamontes had been outstanding in the Alps. But Anquetil scored an inevitable victory in a time trial to put himself back in charge of proceedings. Then came a rest day in Andorra and an incident that still has Tour followers baffled. Anquetil, instead of keeping loose by going for a short training ride, chose to attend a barbecue laid on by a local radio station. He and his wife, Janine, were reported to have been knocking back the champagne, and when battle recommenced the following day, Anquetil just couldn't get going properly.
Still, with another time trial in which he reasserted himself, Anquetil arrived in Brive in yellow, with a 56-second advantage over the only man who could realistically catch him – Raymond Poulidor. Would it be enough?
In a 2003 book, Golden Stages of the Tour de France, the cycling writer Chris Sidwells describes the route profile from Brive to the top of the Puy de Dôme as "looking like an upturned saw ... a perfect day to gain time, or lose it". In the end, it all came down to the final climb. Anquetil vs Poulidor.
"Now they were alone, the two contenders, George and the Dragon, head to head," Sidwells writes. "It was time for each to show what he'd got. Poulidor had it all to do; he kept piling on the pressure, but Anquetil refused to ride behind him. No, that would give his rival confidence; Anquetil rode directly alongside Poulidor, imposing his presence on him ..."
No other cyclist would have done what Anquetil did. Riding directly behind the man in front might give him confidence, but it's proven to be the more efficient way of going about things. The following rider saves energy, can track the moves of the man in front, can time the moment to burst past. But then Anquetil always did things his own way. He knew he couldn't let Poulidor go, and this was how he chose to stop him.
Half a million spectators lined the road leading to the top of the Puy. None had seen anything like it. The showdown continued like this – two men locked in mortal combat – for an astonishing 10km, on gradients that hit 13 per cent. The suffering was intense, the courage awesome. "I never felt that bad on a bike," Poulidor said. More than 20 years later, dying from cancer, Anquetil told Poulidor the pain he was in was "like racing up the Puy de Dôme, all day, every day".
Only with the finish almost in sight did Poulidor finally escape, and in that time he managed to cut 42 seconds from Anquetil's lead. It wasn't enough. Anquetil still had 14 seconds in hand, and there are those who say that his computer-like brain worked out exactly where he could afford to drop off and still not lose the overall lead.
After the Puy, there were only two flat stages and a time trial left before Paris, which meant that, barring disaster, Anquetil had his fifth Tour victory in the bag. In the end, he won from Poulidor by 55 seconds – up till that point the narrowest Tour victory there had been. It would prove to be Anquetil's last. He missed the Tour in '65, abandoned it in '66, and that was it. The era of the Master was over. Four other men have since clocked up five or more Tour wins – Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Lance Armstrong – but, as the first man to do so, Anquetil will always be special.
Poulidor, meanwhile, kept going in the Tour until 1974 – a staggering feat of sustained effort, which if he had ever won the race might not have happened. But, alas, he never did win it. He finished third five times – including in his last Tour, when he was 40 – and he was runner-up three times. In 14 Tours – 12 completed – he never once even wore the yellow jersey. "The eternal second" was how Poulidor came to be known, and that it so endeared him to his countrymen was probably scant consolation.
Now 73, Poulidor is still an occasional figure on the French cycling scene, much loved without ever becoming what you could call a celebrity. He lives in the area he grew up in, not far from Limoges; and on the shores of the nearby Lac de Vassivière, tucked away among some trees, there is a delightful museum in his honour where bikes he rode and kit he wore are on display, along with photographs from his long, illustrious career. And no moment was more illustrious than when he and Jacques Anquetil faced each other down, and neither man gave a centimetre.
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