The Greatest Bike Race – Ever
by charles howe, July 2004
If ever there was a year when the Tour de France may be said to have truly come of age as a sporting event, it has to be 1964. Live television made all of France the audience to a pulsating duel between the cool, aloof, calculating Jacques Anquetil, just a fortnight removed from winning his second Giro d’Italia, and upstart Raymond Poulidor, a charismatic Monsieur-tout-le-mond (“Mister Everybody”) in the hard-luck tradition of Eugene Christophe and René Vietto, who five weeks prior had notched his first Grand Tour win by a mere 33 seconds in the Vuelta a España. All of France was as polarized between the two riders as Italy had been in the days of Bartali and Coppi.
Anquetil rode conservatively for the first two weeks as he recovered from the Giro, yet still managed to win the mountainous ninth stage and its one-minute bonus after Poulidor mistakenly sprinted a lap early on the vélodrome at Monte Carlo. He won a 20.8 km time trial the next day to move into second place, 0:31 up on Poulidor, as the pair approached the Tour’s sole day of repose, just before the 14th stage from Andorra to Toulouse.
It is sometimes claimed that Anquetil visited a clairvoyant before the Tour, who predicted he would die during this stage, but this appears to be an exaggeration of Marcel Belline’s prediction that he would abandon “near Andorra;” what is unclear is whether the prediction was that he would simply withdraw from the race, or actually die, as seems commonly accepted now (Belline was a supposed psychic used by France-Soir from time to time to add a dash of intrigue to race coverage). In any case, there was a haunted and superstitious side to Anquetil, who had a long-running fear that he would die younger than his father, and the prediction obsessed him. Each day, he would call his wife Janine and tell her ‘Another day gone’ as he counted down to his personal Calvary. Such was the antipathy between fans of the two riders, that the more fanatical among Poulidor’s legions sent Anquetil numerous clippings of Belline’s prediction, with the notation “good riddance” written at the top.
To relax his mind, he scorned the usual rest-day conventions of repose and an easy ride, turning up instead at a VIP barbeque sponsored by a local radio station. A photograph in the local paper would say it all: there was Jacques the bon viveur, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, sandwich in one hand, sangria at the ready nearby, and Janine at his side. The next day was “like taking a condemned man to the firing squad,” according to his manager, Raphaël Gèminiani, and it was the one stage for which Anquetil did not warm up.
Stung by such brazen insolence and disdain of proper regimen, the best climbers – Poulidor, Bahamontes, and Jimenez – all retaliated by attacking from the flag the next morning, while a surprised Anquetil, looking pale and haggard, was unable to react, and lost over four minutes to on the long (27.5 km) grade up the Port d’Envalira from the stage start, making Poulidor the race leader on the road. Seemingly in a trance, Anquetil would later admit that only the shouts – as well as taunts – of Gèminiani and his teammate Louis Rostollon (plus timely pushes from the latter) kept him from abandoning then and there. “I just wanted to climb off, lie in the grass, and sleep. I could hear Louis shouting at me, as if in a dream.” Finally he reached the summit, the last man on the road, where legend has it that ‘Gèm’ applied the appropriate palliative – a bidon of champagne, naturally, being saved for celebration – while screaming a challenge to his pride: “Jacques, if you’re going to die, please wait till the broom wagon gets here.” It was not unknown for riders to be handed champagne by spectators, and Anquetil seemed to thrive on it in the 1957 Tour, but Janine disputes it was involved in this case, and offers a more likely explanation: he looked at Gèminiani, smiled, and said to himself, ‘It’s either him [Belline] or me.’ He had resigned himself to whatever fate had to offer.
He had to, for he then set off on a near-suicidal descent, plunging into a dense fog with only the taillights of support vehicles to guide him; Rostollon, who only moments earlier was shepherding his leader up the mountain and so desperately trying to revive him, now feared for his life going down. “He left them standing. I could see him and I thought to myself, ‘My God . . . he is risking everything,’” Gèminiani recalled. Meanwhile, Janine could only listen helplessly as Radio Tour announcer Felix Eritani reported from the road “There’s thick fog and – oh my God – Anquetil is overtaking! He is crazy! He is crazy!” (“Il est fou! Il est fou!”) “It’s frightening,” she would recall over 35 years later. “For the wives, it’s terrible.”
Upon reaching the valley below, Anquetil had already made up two minutes on the leaders. He then caught an intervening group containing yellow jersey Georges Groussard and several of Groussard’s Pelforth teammates, formed an impromptu alliance, and after 10 km of recovery, the chase was on. The catch was made 111 km into the 186 km stage, and by the finish, Anquetil had actually gained 1:21 on Poulidor after the latter suffered an inopportune puncture and a bungled wheel change which deposited him on the pavement at 28 km to go. Poulidor was beside himself in tears: “In one day I have won and lost the Tour de France,” he sobbed, while a relieved Anquetil said that if Poulidor had been in yellow at the end of the day, he would have retired. The next day saw an angry Poulidor strike back with a rare vengeance, scoring a brilliant solo win at Luchon as he took back 1:43 and drew within nine seconds of Anquetil.
But bad luck visited Poulidor once again. Halfway through the 42.6 km, stage 17 time trial, he was within seven seconds of Anquetil on the road when he suffered yet another ill-timed puncture and sloppy bike change to end up conceding 0:37 to Anquetil, who collected a 10-second time bonus as the stage winner. Three days later, the two were still only 56 seconds apart upon reaching the base of the Puy de Dôme together for the stage-ending climb up the viciously steep slopes of this extinct volcano. It was the last climb of the Tour, and the last chance for Poulidor, the better climber, to play his strong suit. An estimated 500,000 lined the route, while the rest of France looked on via live television; all held their breath as the pair staged an unforgettable mano a mano for more than 8 km, literally riding elbow-to-elbow, even bumping shoulders once, as if to dash the other to the ground. Poulidor could hear Anquetil’s labored breathing and was ready to go for the kill when Anquetil expressed mock disgust that the two Spanish climbers ahead (Bahamontes and Jimenez) would collect the time bonuses: “Merde, les Espagnols obtiendra les bonifications.” The bluff worked, as Poulidor was tricked into thinking Anquetil was stronger than he really was. As a result, Poulidor waited until 1000 meters to go before he finally broke away, and his gain was limited to just 0:42 on the stage, reducing Anquetil’s lead to a bare 14 seconds. Years later, Gèminiani would insist correctly, “What duel? There never was duel! Why? Because Anquetil rode up alongside Poulidor, who felt intimidated, the Spaniards attacked, and Poulidor didn’t go with them.” Anquetil sprawled exhausted on the hood of a car after finishing, and asked Gèminiani how much time he still led by; when told 17 seconds, he replied it was 16 seconds more than necessary. The comment was typical of a man who was said to have a calculator in his head.
Incredibly, the drama had yet to reach its climax, which came 48 hours later, during the 27.5 km, final-stage time trial from Versailles to Paris. The crowds along the route this Bastille Day were estimated at 800,000, and they were in ecstasy when Poulidor led by 11 seconds after 20 km; since the stage winner received a 20-second time bonus, all he needed to do was win by one second, and surely Poulidor could hold on for that. Slowly, however, Anquetil began to pull back the deficit, second by second . . . even as Poulidor arrived at the Parc des Princes vèlodrome and was mobbed as the victor, Anquetil was adding new meaning to his moniker of ‘Maître Jacques’ with a remarkable late run that gave him the stage win by 21 seconds and the final GC by 0:55, the narrowest margin to that date, thus dealing the hapless but lovable ‘Poupou’ his bitterest defeat in a Tour career studded with disappointment and misfortune. “It’s funny – no, ugly,” Janine recalled, “when a rider believes he’s won, the journalists surround him, and then suddenly – it’s the wrong one! He’s left standing alone, like a fool.”
It was Anquetil’s fourth consecutive Tour win and fifth overall, both unprecedented at the time, while Poulidor, despite the promise he had shown in finishing second as a rookie in 1962, never wore the yellow jersey for a single day in a 15-year Tour career which included a record eight podium finishes, including third place in 1976 at the age of 40. Like Christophe and Vietto before him, however, Poulidor’s perseverance through seemingly endless bad luck (there would be more to come) only served to endear him to the French public all the more, while Anquetil’s shyness was mistaken for aloofness, leaving him jealous of Poulidor’s popularity, and baffled at what he had to do to ever gain the adulation his exploits deserved.
The Epic Battle
Still the definitive mano a mano in Tour history, the famous duel on the Puy de Dôme produced many unforgettable images.