It’s one of the Le Tour’s most iconic images. Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor fighting it out shoulder to shoulder on the slopes of the Puy de Dôme during the 1964 Tour de France. Mâitre Jacques and Pou-Pou, the petit-bourgeois son of a landowner and the peasant son of smallholders, one of the legendary rivalries of Le Tour.
In 1964 Anquetil was going for his fifth victory in the Tour. Poulidor was riding his third, having finished third in 1962 and eighth in 1963. They had come to Le Tour as respectively winners of Il Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España that year and were the clear favourites to claim yellow in Paris. With three individual time trials that year Anquetil, the undisputed master of the discipline in his generation (he won the Grand Prix des Nations on a record 9 occasions between 1953 and 1966) perhaps held the advantage. If Poulidor was to win he would have to win in the mountains, terrain where he could best Anquetil.
By the start of stage 14 both were in a good position from which to launch their bid for victory, Poulidor in second with Anquetil in third, 31 seconds behind. The 186 kilometre stage from Andorra to Toulouse included an early climb of the Port d’Envalira. The previous day had been a rest day and Anquetil had chosen to attend a mechoui organized by Radio Andorra rather than go for a recovery ride. A reknowned gourmand and trencherman, perhaps he’d also over indulged a little too much. Whatever the reason he found himself going backwards on the Port, his legs unable to respond. Realising his plight his rivals applied the pressure, dropping him on the climb. By the time he reached the summit, aided by the moral support and an occasional shove by his domestique Louis Rostollan, Anquetil was 5 minutes and 40 seconds behind Poulidor.
Close to abandoning he was urged on by his directeur sportif, Raphael Géminiani: “Jacques, if you are going to die, get to the front and die there. A man like Jacques Anquetil does not die in front of the broom wagon.” Legend has it that Anquetil was inspired by this to not only carry on but to ride hard enough to bridge the gap to Poulidor. That he did is a fact, but he was helped by foggy conditions which slowed down the bunch ahead of him while he descended recklessly helped by the headlights of the cars of the journalists who had stayed with him in anticipation of writing the story of his demise. With 150 kilometres to go Anquetil made contact with the group of the yellow jersey, Georges Grossard, who were riding some 2 minutes behind the group containing Poulidor. Groussard knew he wasn’t going to reach Paris in yellow but he and his team wanted to keep it for as long as possible and were prepared to chase Poulidor down to ensure that he did. Anquetil, now without team mates, was the beneficiary when the Groussard group finally made contact with Poulidor with 45 kilometres to go.
Anquetil had saved his Tour but the drama of the day wasn’t over. With 25 kilometres left to ride a spoke in Poulidor’s wheel snapped causing it to buckle slightly. His directeur sportif, Antonin Magne, told him to stop and change wheels. It was a disastrous move. The wheel was quickly replaced but as the team mechanic gave him a mighty shove to get him under way again Poulidor lost his balance and fell, the crash causing the chain to come off his bike. With tired team mates Poulidor was unable to bridge back to the Anquetil group, losing 2 minutes and 36 seconds by the time he reached the finish line.
The following day Poulidor won the stage, clawing back 1 minute and 43 seconds from Anquetil. With the time bonus this left him 9 seconds behind his rival on the eve of the second individual time trial. As expected Anquetil won and now in the yellow jersey for the first time that year led Poulidor by 56 seconds. It would have been less had Poulidor not punctured and his team mechanic not ended up in the roadside ditch with the replacement bike.
Two flat stages followed before stage 20, the final mountain stage. With the final individual time trial in Paris yet to come realistically it was Poulidor’s last chance to win Le Tour. Would he attack? Could Anquetil follow if he did? The stage began with an attack by Groussard which Poulidor’s team worked hard to bring back by the foot of the Puy de Dôme. First and second on the stage would earn a time bonus of 1 minute and 30 seconds respectively and Poulidor wanted to be in a position where he could benefit from this if he was able to win the stage.
From the foot of the climb to the summit of the Dôme the road runs for 14 kilometres at an average gradient of 9 per cent that gets steeper as it approaches the summit. The final five kilometres are the worst at an average of 13 per cent. It is a hard climb without respite. After a kilometre of climbing only Anquetil, Poulidor, Bahamontes, Jimenez and Adorni were left at the front, everyone else dropping back, content to let the final selection fight it out among themselves. Bahamontes and Jimenez attacked, dropping Adorni, and leaving Anquetil and Poulidor together to fight their way up the mountain. Poulidor couldn’t follow and instead was forced to ride with Anquetil at his shoulder, hoping that the yellow jersey would crack.
Much has been made of Anquetil’s decision to ride alongside Poulidor rather than in his slipstream. Was it a bluff, an attempt to out-psyche Poulidor by showing him that Anquetil was riding strongly and to avoid having to respond to Poulidor’s inevitable accelarations? Was Poulidor really intimidated into not daring to accelerate away by the presence of his rival? Perhaps, but what seems more likely is that both men were riding at their limit after a long day of riding. Both men dug deep, the strain showing on their faces. With three kilometres to go Poulidor attacked, only to be reined in by Anquetil. Another attack, another answer from the yellow jersey. And then, with 800 metres to go to the summit the elastic snapped. Anquetil cracked and Poulidor accelerated away crossing the line 42 seconds ahead of Anquetil who finished the day still in yellow by 14 seconds.
It was too little too late. He’d broken his rival but Poulidor had run out of road in which to make it count. After the stage Anquetil, exhausted by three weeks of racing, confessed that had he ended the day no longer in yellow he would have abandoned the Tour. Despite a brief flurry of excitement when for a while it looked like Poulidor just might turn the odds around he won the final time in trial Paris, extending his winning margin over Poulidor to 55 seconds and becoming the first five times winner of Le Tour. He was generous in victory when he acknowledged the challenge that Poulidor had mounted:
“I had to give it my all. Rarely have I suffered so much. I had to surpass myself today to beat Poulidor, and I must give him great credit. My pride comes from having beaten a great champion in the hardest Tour I’ve known.”
Many years later Géminiani was interviewed by L’Equipe, commenting that “If the photo had not been taken then the legend would never have existed.” He may be right. Poulidor never won Le Tour, placing second on three occasions and third on five more, the last in his final appearance at Le Tour in 1976 at the age of 40, a remarkable achievement in itself. If not for the photo the race up the Puy de Dôme would perhaps have been just another of Poulidor’s defeats. But this would be to belittle the place that Poulidor has in the history of Le Tour and to ignore just how close he came in 1964 to winning it. In hindsight Poulidor lost Le Tour that year on at least four occasions. At Puy de Dôme; on stage 14 when Magne told him to change wheels instead of riding on to the finish; on the final stage when he lost 18 seconds to Anquetil in the final 5 kilometres of the time trial; and on stage 1 when he lost 47 seconds after crashing 1.1 kilometres from the finish line. Had the crash occurred 100 metres later he would have been given the same time as stage winner Edward Sels.
One other factor contributed to the stage to Puy de Dôme entering Tour mythology. In 1964 the race was broadcast live for the first time on French television, allowing millions to watch events unfold as they happened.
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