Sunday 8 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Forever a Tour bridesmaid, Poulidor was first when it came to winning hearts of cycling fans'

French cyclist Raymond Poulidor looks exhausted, on July 16, 1976, as he arrives third at the 20th stage of the Tour de France, Tulle - Puy de Dôme, flanked by sports reporter Jean-Marie Leblanc. Photo: AFP/Getty
French cyclist Raymond Poulidor looks exhausted, on July 16, 1976, as he arrives third at the 20th stage of the Tour de France, Tulle - Puy de Dôme, flanked by sports reporter Jean-Marie Leblanc. Photo: AFP/Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

'Nobody remembers the runners-up,' must be one of the most common sporting clichés. It's also one of the most inaccurate. Think of the 1974 World Cup and Holland come to mind before West Germany, the 1973 Grand National is remembered because of the herculean effort by runner-up Crisp, the most hymned team in baseball history, the Brooklyn Dodgers side of the 1940s and '50s, finished second much more often than first and the Mayo team of this decade will probably be remembered long after many teams which actually won the Sam Maguire.

The greatest runner-up of all-time died 11 days ago at the age of 83. His name was Raymond Poulidor, he finished second three times and third five times in the Tour de France and the French loved him as much as any sportsman has ever been loved in that country.

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Poulidor's first podium finish was a third place in 1962 at the age of 26, his last a third place 14 years later after he'd turned 40. Winners in the intervening period include names like Lucien Aimar, Jan Janssen and Luis Ocana, who only the most fervent cycling anoraks remember today.

But things were different when it came to Poulidor. "No other rider," wrote L'Equipe, "has ever incited so many sociological investigations, so many university theses, seeking to find the cause of his prodigious popularity.

"The more unlucky I was, the more money I earned and the more the public liked me," the rider himself recalled.

His great nemesis was Jacques Anquetil, who won a record four in-a-row between 1961 and 1964. Their battle in the last of those years may be the most famous of all Tour contests. On the final mountain stage the duo fought shoulder to shoulder on the climb to the top of Puy de Dôme, bumping against each other from time to time in front of an estimated half a million spectators.

Poulidor eventually dropped Anquetil and cut the gap to the leader to 14 seconds. But Anquetil went on to win the final time trial and triumph by 55 seconds, the smallest margin in Tour history at that time.

Yet for all Anquetil's greatness he never won hearts like Poulidor. That was partly because Poulidor was an aggressive climbing specialist who tried to win races from the front while his famously clinical rival relied on the help of a powerful team, including Dublin's Shay Elliott, and victories in time trials.

Poulidor's background appealed greatly to the rural audiences who came out to watch the Tour. He was the son of poor tenant farmers who had to give half of their produce to the landlord. Forced to leave school at 14 to help out at home, Poulidor was fond of saying that no matter how long a stage was, it was still shorter than a day working at the harvest. He calculated that his first cash prize as a professional cyclist was as much as he'd have earned in six years working on the farm.

When Anquetil retired, Poulidor was prevented from immediately capitalising on his absence from the Tour by injury. Fit again, he was faced with the arrival of an even more fearsome rival, Eddie Merckx, who won five of the six Tours between 1969 and 1974. Poulidor's chance had gone, but he finished his Tour career in 1976 with a fine third place behind the Belgian Lucien Van Impe.

It's worth noting that Poulidor was the first cyclist in Tour de France history to be dope tested. Most riders objected to, and avoided, the test in 1966, but Poulidor did not, much to the chagrin of his rivals. Merckx went on to test positive for doping three times in his career while Anquetil declared, "Leave me in peace, everybody takes dope," and insisted Tour competitors had the right to take whatever they liked.

Poulidor didn't always miss out. He won 189 races, including the Tour of Spain and the Milan-San Remo and Fleche Wallonne classics. But to the French the man they called 'Pou Pou' will always be the 'Eternal Second'. They even have a word for repeatedly just missing out on the top prize, 'Le Poulidorisme'. In his home country, everybody remembers this runner-up.

In 1987, Jacques Anquetil died of stomach cancer at the age of just 53. Poulidor visited him on his deathbed. "It looks like you'll be second again Raymond," said his old rival.


In Brief

Levy deserves hassle Mourinho will give him

Tottenham's decision to sack Mauricio Pochettino is an utterly egregious example of disloyalty and ingratitude. Not only did the manager bring them repeated top-four placings and a Champions League final appearance despite being starved of funds, but he also turned down an offer to manage Real Madrid in 2018.

“I had just signed a renewal with Tottenham,” Pochettino told the Spanish newspaper El Pais last May. “And I felt that I could not do anything. Daniel Levy did not accept the offers to free me and if they ask me to break the contract I cannot accept it because I cannot behave like that. If my chairman thinks I’m going to continue I’m not going to run off. Those are not my values.”

Unfortunately for the manager, Daniel Levy’s values seem to be very different. The Premier League’s scuzziest top dog deserves all the hassle he’s going to get from Jose Mourinho.

* * * * *

It’s sad to hear that the survival of When Saturday Comes is in jeopardy. In its 33-year existence WSC, which bills itself as the “half decent football magazine,” has been much more than that.

My first reading of the magazine, which I bought in the late lamented Sportspages bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, had the force of a revelation. Back then the mainstream media didn’t write about football, or any other sport, in that anarchic, literate, left-field fashion. When Saturday Comes managed the difficult feat of being both extremely funny and deadly serious at the same time.

Like the first Velvet Underground album, its influence has greatly exceeded its actual sales figures. A lot of good sports writers were either readers of the magazine or have benefited greatly from the new freedom created by its insistence that football could be written about in a way which didn’t insult your intelligence.

Its current financial troubles stem from its decision to turn down the gambling ads which had provided the majority of its revenue. In its principled nature, that’s a very When Saturday Comes gesture. The magazine doesn’t deserve to die for doing the right thing.

* * * * *

With the current surge of interest in ground-breaking female sports figures, don’t forget Shirley Muldowney who, as long ago as the mid-1970s, was beating the men at their own game. Not content with being the first woman to compete in Top Fuel, the fastest class in drag racing, the New Yorker went on to become the first driver to win three world titles, in 1977, 1980 and 1982.

Muldowney’s career was the subject of one of the finest of all sports movies (though she didn’t like it much herself) Heart Like A Wheel, made in 1983 and starring Bonnie Bedelia. It’s up on

YouTube at the moment. So, for that matter, is Last American Hero which stars a young Jeff Bridges and tells the tale of another great American motorsport star, stock car racing champ Junior Johnson. They’re both well worth two hours of your time.

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