Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Anquetil The Great

Having so thoroughly immersed myself in The Tour de France the past eight summers, riding the route just ahead of or after the peloton, and soaking in all the media attention and the fervor of the tens of thousands of fans who line the course, has fully infected me with a craving to learn all I can about its lore and history, not only to relive my own Tour experiences but to better understand how it has become such a cultural and sporting phenomenon.

From its very beginning in 1903 the spectacle of men racing bikes beyond what was assumed to be possible has touched a chord with the masses, not only in France but all over the world. Countless books have been written on it, including a recent glut in English during the reign of Lance. I've read as many as I've been able to get my hands on, not objecting at all to being reminded of its many legendary episodes that I know so well, as I'm happy for another interpretation and the usual revelation of a few new obscure incidents that heighten my understanding of its magnitude and extent of its appeal.

The recent biography of the great French cyclist Jacques Anquetil, "Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape," by the English journalist Paul Howard, though not exclusively about The Tour de France, did offer up quite a bit of material that further helped me fathom the meaning of the Tour de France and the hold it has on the French. It included some near incredulous anecdotes that only a well-researched biography could provide.

Anquetil was the first rider to win The Tour five times, his first victory in 1957 at the age of 23, and then four more from 1960 to 1964. He was one of the greatest racers ever, right up there with Coppi and Merckx. He was the first to win all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain). He broke the record for the hour at the age of 22, held at the time by Coppi, and then broke it again ten years later, though it wasn't recognized, as he declined to take a drug test afterwards. He won the Grand Prix des Nations, the unofficial world time trial championship, an unequalled nine times, the first at the incredible age of 19.

In 2000 when every sports publication around the world was compiling a list of the greatest sporting achievements of the century, "L'Equipe," the peerless French daily national sports newspaper, named his victory in the week-long Dauphine Libere race followed by winning the one-day 557-kilometer Bordeaux to Paris race the day after, not only the greatest exploit in the history of cycling but also the foremost athletic accomplishment of the century.

It was unthinkable to even attempt such a feat. It was barely twelve hours between the end of one race and the start of the next and a distance of several hundred miles. A special plane, reputedly arranged with the assistance of DeGaulle, flew Anquetil from Nimes the Saturday evening after he won the Dauphine to Bordeaux for its pre-daylight start.

Even on limited sleep after an eight-stage hard-fought race he triumphed in this most demanding test, the sport's longest one-day race, a race that had been established in 1891, twelve years before the first Tour de France, and discontinued in 1988 as being just too much, nearly two-and-a-half times the distance of even the longest Tour stages. Anquetil was known as a great tactician who meticulously plotted out his many wins. He won with calculation rather than panache. This was a dare beyond his reckoning. He was so overwhelmed by his win that he admitted it was the only time in his career that he cried afterwards, though not until he was out of the public eye, safely ensconced in a car with his wife.

He undertook this previously unattempted double in 1965, a year he had decided not to contest The Tour de France. He had grown weary of winning it and not receiving all the accolades he thought he deserved. His great rival Raymond Poulidor was the more popular of the two with the French, something Anquetil could not understand or accept. In an article he wrote for a French newspaper entitled "Why I Don't Like Poulidor," he complained that he had ridden in 80 races with Poulidor and won 77, yet the public thinks they have a duel going. "The result was decided long ago," he wrote.

Another year when he elected not to ride The Tour, he rode the route a day ahead of the peloton and reported on it for a television station. It actually paid him more than he would have earned if he had won The Race. He upstaged The Tour again in a year he didn't participate with a series of articles written during The Race admitting to doping and paying off riders to let him win. "You have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who races 235 days a year in all weathers can keep going without stimulants," he wrote.

The 1964 Tour, the last that he won, was one of the most exciting ever. That was the year he and Poulidor battled shoulder-to-shoulder up the Puy de Dome, an unheard manner of racing. Anquetil was in the yellow jersey. All he needed to do was cling to Poulidor's wheel. Poulidor was the superior climber, but Anquetil wanted to psyche him by riding right along side him and not minding if he occasionally brushed into him. The photo of their battle is the most iconic in the history of The Tour, summing up all it represents, competitors giving it their all.

Poulidor did spurt ahead in the final kilometer to win the stage but not by enough to strip Anquetil of the coveted yellow jersey. The Race came down to the final time trial soon after on the last day in Paris. Poulidor rode the time trial of his life encouraged by an estimated half a million fans cheering him on. It looked as if he would finally win The Race, but in the last few kilometers Anquetil had an explosion of his own energy and regained the lead, winning the overall by 55 seconds, the closest finish in the history of The Tour up to that point.

The nation had thought 1964 would finally be the year that their favored underdog Pou-Pou would prevail. A well known psychic made an outrageous prediction that Anquetil would crash on stage 14 and die. It was a stage in the Pyrenees. It was so widely reported that the journalists allowed on the course in cars and motorcycles trailed as closely to Anquetil as they could. It was a rainy, foggy day with visibility on one descent of just a couple bike lengths. It couldn't have been much more perilous. Anquetil was very unsettled by the prediction, but he rode fearlessly.

After Anquetil retired he and Poulidor became good friends. The thawing was facilitated by Anquetil's young daughter, who had a fascination for Poulidor, preferring to exclaim Pou-Pou rather than Pa-Pa. Anquetil was one of those riders who regarded the bicycle as an instrument of torture and only rode his bicycle a handful of times after he retired. One of those occasions was to re-enact his ride up the Puy de Dome with Poulidor. Another time was on his young daughter's birthday when he delighted her and her friends by riding into their swimming pool on his estate.

Putting "Sex" into the title of the book was not inappropriate. Anquetil led a most notorious sex life, marrying the wife of his physician when he was 24. She was 31 and had two children. She had to abandon them, though they eventually opted to live with her and Anquetil. Anquetil was eager to have a child of his own after he retired. His wife Jeanine was incapable of having another child. As they discussed possible surrogates, Jeanine suggested her daughter. She was only 18 at the time, but was agreeable. Anquetil fell in love with her, so carried on relations with both wife and step-daughter for twelve years with the agreement of both, all living in the same chateau.

His daughter Sophie thought it was wonderful to have two mothers. In 2004, seventeen years after the death of Anquetil, she wrote her biography with contributions from her mother and grand-mother. The story was widely known, but it still caused a media circus, especially with the three of them on the talk-show circuit promoting the book. The final twist to Anquetil's sex life was divorcing Jeanine and marrying the wife of his step-son, who had come to live with the Anquetils to oversee his farm. She too wrote a biography in 1989, two years after the death of Anquetil at 53 from stomach cancer.

The title of the book isn't the only play on a movie title. Many of the chapter titles pick up on the movie theme--The Apprentice, A Star Is Born, Mission: Impossible, Italian Job and The Cyclist, the Wife, Her Daughter and His Lover and then The Cyclist, the Stepson, His Wife and Her Lover.

What a life and what a book.

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