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  Posted July 4th, 2010 by Zdenko  in Cycling | One comment

Tour heroes: “Poupou”, The Ethernal Second

By David Cohen

RAYMOND POULIDOR. the famous cyclist best known for coming second instead of winning – but, only at Tour de France!

Even these days, Raymond Poulidor remains very popular

Jacques Anquetil (left) and Raymond Poulidor (right).

In the history of French cycling, four riders occupy a place above and beyond the others: Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor and Bernard Hinault. These four are the true heroes of the sport in France but, in a paradoxical way, one stands out.

Jacques Anquetil (left) and Raymond Poulidor (right).

This is Raymond Poulidor. Unlike the others who all were multiple winners, Poulidor never won the Tour de France; nor did he ever pull on the yellow leaders jersey.

Tour 1968: Raymond Poulidor and Raymond Delisle. 

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Poulidor had a long career.  He raced from the early 60’s until 1976. He was a Tour regular and managed to place second three times and third four times. He also finished in lesser top-10 positions on several occasions.

It was Poulidor’s bad luck to have been born at such a time that his tour career coincided with that of Jacques Anquetil on the front end and with that of Eddy Merckx on the back end.

Raymond Poulidor – a true legend. 

In fact, Poulidor was known as l’eternel second– but more often, and more fondly, as Poupou. Commentators in the 60’s often referred to a phenomenon known as “poupoularite”. Poulidor’s ability to be the most popular French bike racer of his time in spite of never managing to win the Tour. In this respect, Poulidor’s competition with Jacques Anquetil, winner of the Tour five times, was most intriguing. Poulidor and Anquetil were opposites in almost every respect.

Raymond Poulidor – a true legend. 

Anquetil came from the north of France, having been born in Normandy. His hair was blonde and he was on the slight side.  His approach to cycling was scientific and innovative. He was up on the latest advances in training, nutrition and technology. His philosophy of racing was above all strategic; he did only what was necessary to win, nothing more. Winning by a second was just as good as winning by an hour. 

On the bike and in motion, Anquetil was elegance and technique personified.

Raymond Poulidor – a true legend.  

Raymond Poulidor – a true legend.

Poulidor was a man of the Midi, the agricultural midlands of France.  He sprang from the peasantry. He was dark-haired and complexioned. In build, he was huskier and taller than Anquetil. Whereas Anquetil specialized in the technical aspects of racing time-trialling, the tactics of the final sprint. Poulidor was known for his climbing and endurance.

Raymond Poulidor: Paris – Nice was his race.

Poulidor’s peasant origins were first underlined in 1961 after he won the Milan-San Remo race. He was the subject of a TV interview that took place at his parents home in rural Limousin. It showed Poulidor working in the fields and in the family kitchen. Poulidor confirmed that he was up on sheep breeding.

In 1972, French TV polled roadside fans at the Tour about why Poulidor was so popular. An elderly French woman replied, “He’s a provincial. He [speaks with] a Midi accent.

Some analysts of French cycling see Anquetil and Poulidor as representing different aspects of French society during the period roughly from the early 60’s to the mid-70’s. Anquetil tended to represent the modernizing, technologically-oriented changes that transformed France during that period, whereas Poulidor stood for “la France profonde” of rural Limousin.

As such, Poulidor played the role of the underdog, Anquetil the favourite.

In the late 60’s a couple of French journalists sought to puncture “poupoularite” by divulging that Poulidor was less liked in the peloton than Anquetil; that in fact he was regarded as a selfish rider while Anquetil was seen as a fair-minded sportsman by his peers. The program was greeted with strong protests.

Poulidor’s “Poupou” image remained intact and has done so to this day.

Anquetil-Poulidor: the social significance

Anquetil unfailingly beat Raymond Poulidor

 The extent of those divisions is shown in a story, perhaps apocryphal, told by Pierre Chany. He was one of the world’s leading cycling journalists. He covered the Tour de France 49 times and was for a long time the main cycling writer for the daily newspaper, L’Equipe, who was close to Anquetil!!

The Tour de France has the major fault of dividing the country, right down to the smallest hamlet, even families, into two rival camps. I know a man who grabbed his wife and held her on the grill of a heated stove, seated and with her skirts held up, for favouring Jacques Anquetil when he preferred Raymond Poulidor. The following year, the woman became a Poulidor-iste. But it was too late. The husband had switched his allegiance to Gimondi. The last I heard they were digging in their heels and the neighbours were complaining.

Jean-Luc Boeuf and Yves Léonard, in their study, wrote:

Those who recognized themselves in Jacques Anquetil liked his priority of style and elegance in the way he rode. Behind this fluidity and the appearance of ease was the image of France winning and those who took risks identified with him.

Humble people saw themselves in Raymond Poulidor, whose face – lined with effort – represented the life they led on land they worked without rest or respite. His declarations, full of good sense, delighted the crowds: a race, even a difficult one, lasts less time than a day bringing in the harvest. A big part of the public therefore finished by identifying with the one who symbolized bad luck and the eternal position of runner-up, an image that was far from true for Poulidor, whose record was particularly rich.

Even today, the expression of the eternal second and of a Poulidor Complex is associated with a hard life, as an article by Jacques Marseille showed in Le Figaro when it was headlined “This country is suffering from a Poulidor Complex”.

Alllez! Poulidor and the ETAPE 2004

22.5km east of Limoges, start for this year’s Etape du Tour, lies the village of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, birthplace of a Tour legend: Raymond Poulidor. He still lives there. His parents were métayeurs (share-croppers); the family moved from tied house to tied house and lived in extreme poverty. As soon as he was strong enough, Raymond pitched in to help them work on the land.

The route of the Etape, through Corrèze into Cantal, is the land which formed Poulidor, the winding valleys and the Plateau de Millevaches over which he trained and hardened himself for life as a pro bike racer. The Cantal, as ever ill-served by roads, remains one of the poorest, most remote regions in France, hewn out of crystalline schists, granite and recent volcanic rock, it occupies a sparsely populated upland in the north-west corner of the Massif Central. The climate tends to be cold and damp; agriculture is thin; the local inhabitants inclined to be scrawny. The local dialect, one of the purest forms of the ancient Languedoc, turns Saint-Flour, your destination, into ‘Shan Floor’.

Like many peasant boys, Poulidor grew up with the unique romance of the Tour de France, the Grande Boucle that brings the riders of distant fame into the remotest corners of France, through the tiny villages of the rural outback as well as into the grand towns. That romance planted a dream in the Limousin farmboy: to ride in the great race that touched all France. Poulidor was 15 when the Tour first came to Limoges but he was already riding a bike – his only mode of transport – down cart tracks, as well as racing, for a ham, a large cheese…

He started serious training, but, like the recently deceased great Belgian rider Briek Schotte, at night: the only time he could spare after the dawn to dusk hours of work. He later said, as a pro, that no suffering he endured in the saddle ever got close to the bone-deep, gruelling fatigue of that protracted labour in the fields. Think yourselves lucky. But, his training by the light of the moon with only wild boar, deer and rabbits for company, gave him hope of escape from drudgery in the Cantal; he was soon riding criteriums as an amateur and…in 1962, he rode his first Tour and came third to the first man to take five victories: Jacques Anquetil. The dream had come real.

The Tour has visited Limoges many times and Saint-Flour just once, but the race has never covered the ground you will be riding on the Etape. So this stage is reconnecting deeply with the roots of the Tour, global as it has become: one of the world’s biggest sporting phenomena delivering its panache and flourish, the spectacle of its epic endeavour into the rustic backwater of the Cantal.

Every rider who rides the stage will be making Tour history, and making it in the fashion of Desgrange’s vision for the race: to break ground, to push the limits ever wider, to criss-cross the whole country. Whole communities will gather, in force, at the side of the road to cheer you on. Among the knobbly-kneed kids shouting ‘Vas-y Poupou, allez allez allez’ may well be another French hope for the future, another kid with a passionate dream of le Tour.

None of the Etape climbs has ever featured in the Tour. The landscape may lack the assault of grandeur delivered by Alps and Pyrenees – it is more amenable, on a more human scale. But it is just as much part of la belle France…like the man Poulidor himself.

Graeme Fife is author of: Tour de France: the history, the legend, the riders

and: Inside the Peloton, riding, winning and losing the Tour de France




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