Obituary: Raymond Poulidor
Cyclist known as 'the Eternal Second' who stole French hearts despite never winning the Tour de France
Raymond Poulidor, who died last Wednesday aged 83, was a cyclist who, had his career not coincided with those of Jacques Anquetil and Eddie Merckx, would surely have won a clutch of Tours de France; as it was, "the Eternal Second" became even better loved than his two rivals.
His duels with Anquetil particularly caught the imagination of the French people. Anquetil, with his air of aloof superiority, was the supreme tactician, a master of the time trial who always seemed to ride within himself and suffer less than other riders (that was an illusion, he insisted).
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Poulidor was born on April 15, 1936 on the farm owned by his parents, Martial and Maria, near the hamlet of Masbaraud-Merignat in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of central France.
With his services required on the farm, he left school at 14; his only recreation was the inter-village cycle races in which he was soon tearing up the road despite having to train at the end of a 15-hour stint in the fields. He spent three years as an amateur before being called up for National Service. By that time Anquetil, though only two years older, was already an Olympic medallist.
Back in France, Poulidor won his first race by six minutes. When he won 80,000 francs for finishing second in his next outing, it was, he calculated, more than he would have earned in six years on the family farm.
Turning professional in 1960, he was leading in the World Championship road race that year, but punctured; he did, however, take a well-earned victory, after another flat tyre, in the prestigious Milan-San Remo race. In 1962 he made his Tour de France debut, starting with an injured hand in plaster and losing a massive eight minutes on the first day. But he finished the Tour in third place behind Anquetil.
The following year saw another win for Anquetil, with Poulidor down the field in eighth place.
The 1964 Tour represented his best chance to snatch victory from the master: on stage 20, from Brive to Puy de Dome, it was almost hand-to-hand combat as they duelled their way up the unforgiving slopes: for 10km, on punishing gradients, they rode side by side through an estimated half a million fans. They both recalled being able to feel the other's hot breath on their arms as they drained their reserves. "I never felt that bad on a bike," Poulidor would recall.
He pulled away from his bitter rival, gaining 42 seconds in only 800m to take the stage, but Poulidor had not shaved enough off Anquetil's lead to prevent his victory in Paris - his fifth and final Tour title.
There was a measure of consolation, however, when Poulidor took victory in the Vuelta a Espana, the third of professional cycling's blue riband events.
The following year Anquetil was absent but his rival failed to capitalise, and the race was won by a young Italian in his first Tour, Felice Gimondi.
Anquetil was back in 1966, and although in terms of winning the Tour he was a spent force, he was desperate to keep Poulidor from the top of the podium so put all his efforts into assisting his team-mate, Lucien Aimar, who duly beat Poulidor into third place.
With Anquetil in the late autumn of his career, the road ahead seemed clear for Poulidor to win the Tour de France. But in 1967 his efforts were hampered by a bad fall in the Vosges, and he could only finish ninth behind the winner, Roger Pingeon.
In 1968 he had another bad crash and was forced to withdraw.
Maybe 1969 could be his year - except that there was a new rival to keep him off the top of the podium: Eddy Merckx, the greatest rider who ever lived. The Belgian dynamo won on his Tour debut, beating Poulidor into third place.
The following year the Belgian's domination was complete: having just won the Giro d'Italia, one of the other two great races, he took eight Tour de France stage wins to retain his title, while Poulidor faded badly to finish in seventh.
His poor physical condition kept Poulidor out of the 1971 Tour, which saw a third win for Merckx. There was, though, a heroic victory in the week-long Paris-Nice: 22 seconds behind Merckx on the final day, he attacked from the start, setting a speed record on the Col de La Turbie that stood for more than 10 years, winning the race by two seconds.
By 1972, time seemed to be running out for Poulidor's Tour ambitions, and with Merckx rampant, he finished only in third place.
The following year Merckx won the Giro and the Vuelta a Espana, but sat out the Tour. A serious crash in the Pyrenees derailed Poulidor's hopes, however.
Merckx proved to be Poulidor's nemesis yet again in 1974, taking his fifth and last victory.
Suffering badly from bronchitis, he had a miserable 1975 Tour, finishing only 19th.
The following year, at the age of 40, he rode a fine race to finish third in his final Tour de France. He had raced 14 Tours, finishing second three times and third five times; he had won seven Tour stages, and apart from his 1964 Vuelta win, there were five victories in the Criterium International, two wins in the highly regarded Criterium du Dauphine Libere, one win in the Paris-Nice plus several victories in the "classics", the long-distance one-day races that garland the professional season.
In retirement Poulidor worked in PR for a Tour sponsor and endorsed a model of bicycle. He wrote an autobiography, whose title was telling: Gloire sans le Maillot Jaune ("Glory without the yellow jersey"), reflecting the fact that he never even wore the race leader's yellow jersey for a day.
Raymond Poulidor was appointed a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in 1973, and was promoted to Officier in 2003. He was married to Gisele, who survives him along with their two daughters. One of his grandsons is the Dutch cycling prodigy, Mathieu van der Poel, the reigning world cyclo-cross champion.
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