The Eternal Myth of Raymond Poulidor

Raymond PoulidorRaymond Poulidor is 80 today. The perpetual underdog, he was a rider who finished second so often that he won fame and fortune for losing, earning him two nicknames: the “Eternal Second” and the affectionate “Poupou”.

But the more I read about him, the more he seems to be a misunderstood rider whose myths and simple labels mask the truth of an efficient and calculating rider with a vain streak too.

Eternal Palmarès
Often portrayed as a loser, his list of wins is impressive with the Vuelta, Milan-Sanremo, double wins in Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné, the now defunct Grand Prix du Midi Libre stage race, 11 stage wins in the Tour de France and more. He stood on the Tour de France podium in Paris eight times. But the distribution of his results is remarkable, a series of podium places in Paris without a win. He holds the record for the most podium finishes in the Tour de France yet he never wore the yellow jersey, not for one day. He even fell 0.08 seconds short in the 1973 prologue and in 1968 he was run over by a motorbike during the Tour de France and abandoned when many had been predicting his eventual triumph that year. Similarly he stood on the podium of the world championships four times but never on the top step. Such consistent proximity to the top suggests supreme talent but poor luck and judgement. In “The Sweat of the Gods” Benjo Maso suggests Poulidor brought bad luck on himself:

“Cyclists ride many thousands of kilometres annually, and if one falls more frequently or has more flat tyres than another, this cannot be coincidence. It is a well-known phenomenon that a good cyclist rarely has mechanical breakdowns.”

Poulidor vs Anquetil in 1964

Sometimes Poulidor was robbed, but other times the bad luck was Poulidor’s making suggests Maso. Poulidor himself admitted mistakes during his career. Take the 1964 Tour de France where the rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor hit a new intensity. With two stages to go Anquetil lead by 56 seconds but he is tired, he’s done the Giro and the third week of the Tour is getting to him. The upcoming summit finish on the Puy de Dôme should be the moment for Poulidor to strike back. But the slope would get the better of the eternal second.

I lied to Antonin Magne. He’d asked me to go and check out the Puy de Dôme. I had 42×24, too big. At the stage start in Brive, when he saw Bahamontes had fitted a 25 tooth sprocket, he asked if I’d been to see the climb, yes or no. I didn’t dare tell him the truth. But in those days we had such small salaries and three days before the Tour we rode criteriums.”
– Raymond Poulidor, L’Equipe 8 July 2013

So instead of a recce for the climb, Poulidor rode a criterium to earn some cash, although the context is that in those days riders put food on the table thanks to popular criteriums rather than team salaries today. Did the gearing cost Poulidor the race? That’s one of history’s impossible questions. Poulidor managed to put 42 seconds into Anquetil on the climb that day, but days later lost time in the final stage of the race, a time trial from Versailles to Paris. Had Poulidor taken twice as much time on the Puy de Dôme he still would have lost the race to Anquetil given the TT result.

Such losses were the making of him as a popular icon. He became the “moral victor” of many races, wildly popular with the crowds who found Jacques Anquetil’s winning ways too clinical, too cold, too economical. Writer Antoine Blondin once likened Anquetil to a diner who hurries out of a restaurant without leaving a tip, a colder man than Poulidor and what Blondin described as his poupoulisme.

Raymond Poule aux Oeufs d’Or
Poulidor came from rural France, a mythical place in the French psyche. He often played on a bumpkin image but it seems he had a sharper side. Yes he grew up on a farm and says that “without a bicycle my horizon wouldn’t have been much further than the hedge at the end of the field“. But cycling transformed him and once wealthy Poulidor swapped the soil for a angular concrete townhouse with bourgeois comforts. Often portrayed as a paysan, a peasant, Poulidor deployed his winning to buy a lot of real estate. In his autobiography “Dans Les Secrets du Tour de France” Cyrille Guimard writes Poulidor was a shrewd investor, accumulating wealth outside the sport while his contemporaries didn’t know where to put their money.

Poker Face
Guimard also says Poulidor was a handy card player. Each year Poupou booked a team training camp in the south of France and in those days riders paid for their board. In the evenings Poulidor would challenge team mates to a card game and invariably he won, accumulating enough cash to pay the hotel bill by the end of the week. This is a steely edge to the man, sharpened further by hints of greed with tales of him selling races for money, his “eternal second” status could be the result of some whispered transactions. The irony is that in finishing second he became yet more popular, pocketing the cash for the sale of the race and then more again from criteriums, product endorsements and more.

“If you think Poulidor uses his wife’s hair spray, well go and ask him”

Yet it’s said the same tight-fisted attitude cost Poulidor some races. He did not want to deploy his money to buy races, the old practice of hiring another team for the day to ride in surreptitious support was expensive. Poulidor kept his wallet closed when greater generosity might have changed things.

Today Poulidor’s name reaches well beyond cycling. To finish second in other sports in France is to “do a Poulidor” while French politicians who are frequent losers get labelled “the Poulidor of parliament” and so on. The man remains very popular in France albeit with an ageing demographic and Poulidor, far from being the modest underdog, seems to crave the attention. He shows up at races, he gets sackloads of fan mail and last summer told France-Info’s Jean-Paul Ollivier that he couldn’t bear the thought of the day when he walked down the street and people didn’t come up to him.

A birthday today but a lesson in mythology too. Poulidor’s list of wins is impressive but his list of losses is astonishing. Eight times on the podium in Paris but he never once wore the yellow jersey and is among the few living cyclists to have a statue.

He remains a popular figure and can be seen at the Tour de France and other races or on television chat shows where the crowds gently mock his valiant loser image. Yet behind the image of a peasant and the embodiment of La France profonde is a man seemingly at ease calculating the odds in a card game or investing hundreds of thousands of francs.

If he retired long ago his daughter married Adrie Van der Poel, a successful Dutch pro from the late 80s and his grandson Mathieu Van der Poel is no stranger to victory.

Van der Poel Poulidor

27 thoughts on “The Eternal Myth of Raymond Poulidor”

    • Very good idea, it’s never enough to keep celebrating old heroes who didn’t have carbon, discs, energy bars, isotonics, cold baths ( or maybe they only had cold baths ) and customized buses with coffee machines

    • Might be helpful to clarify that at the start – I read this post and spent most of it thinking “I’m sure I’ve read this somewhere before…”. Glad to hear you’re not a plagiarist but maybe save us loyal readers some time (or suspicion…) in advance?

  1. Birthday wishes for a well earned 80th.

    Life sometimes involves more than just victories on a bike, something Poulidor’s continuing presence should remind us of.

  2. Worth the re-read, thanks. Nice to see the octogenirian still sports a healthy head of hair.

    “Cyclists ride many thousands of kilometres annually, and if one falls more frequently or has more flat tyres than another, this cannot be coincidence.” Is it because Sep Vanmarcke and Geraint Thomas are high profile that their mishaps appear frequent or is it as Benjo Maso writes?

    • In recent times Thomas got taken out by high winds at Gent last year and Barguil takes responsibility for his shunt at the Tour. Vanmarcke seems more synonymous with mechanicals than crashes.

      But happy birthday to PouPou, he definitely has a razor sharp business brain behind that amiable farmboy image!

      • A cheapskate who rides on wornout tyres that everyone else would have thrown in the bin? (I know I am, but I make it a point of pride not to use them on group rides.)
        A lazy sod who doesn’t regularly inspect his tyres for pieces of glass, flints etc? (I do it more often than I clean and oil my chain.)
        An old school idiot who believes that road tyres require minimum pressures of 8 bar? (I used to be one until I was convinced that softer tyres actually repel small sharp objects.)
        An inexperienced rider who keeps his eyes focused on the potholes and pieces of debris in front of him and therefore invariably guides his wheel right into them? (It took my ages to learn to look at the clean line.)
        A nervous rider who is afraid of riding into the rear wheel of the rider in front of him or who absolutely cannot bring himself to trust that the riders in front of him avoid, point out or otherwise warn of dangers ahead and therefore positions himself so he can see ahead for himself and consequently hits objects that others avoid?

  3. Happy birthday Raymond!

    My only experience of the great man was at the Tour and seeing a promotional van approaching amongst the caravan with a huge photo of Raymond Poulidor on the side. As the van passed, there in the passenger seat was Mr Poulidor himself, head lolling back, mouth wide open and presumably snoring loudly! Made me chuckle a bit!!

  4. Bon anniversaire PouPou! I had to smile when reading this – “…the old practice of hiring another team for the day to ride in surreptitious support…” as if this doesn’t happen anymore? It’s been said a Giro win was saved in this way not-that-long-ago and I’m still trying to figure out WTH those Giant-Alpecin guys were doing with Sagan last week. Not a single teammate up front, but they show zero interest in working to catch the leaders, JRA no matter what Sagan did or said. What incentives did they have to refuse to work with the World Champion?

    • I don’t see the Giant Alpecin riders’ tactics as unmerited. Why give Sagan a pull when he will likely do all the hard work. Chances are they didn’t have a lot in their locker, and we know Sagan does. If they pull for him, chances are that he would leave them for dust. The other way round and Sagan spends himself and they capitalise, or at least do no worse than finish behind him.

      • Sorry, I thought it was a bike RACE. These guys seemed to be just riding along. Why not just climb off if that’s all you’re gonna do? Their actions would have made perfect sense had they a guy up-the-road but instead of working with the Sagan group to get back up there, they continued to just ride along. When I heard that Sagan had refused comment when he finally finished, I thought he’s probably madder’n hell at these parasites but doesn’t want to go public with complaints.

        • I think that lacks understanding of how shattered they were. In Sagan’s wheel they work 30% less than him and are carried to the finish. Work with him they work 30% more and maybe lose his wheel and even more places. Sometimes racing is just hanging on. I could understand your point of view if these were big hitters in a big squad e.g. Etixx, but on form you would not expect them to be at Sagan’s level and their finishing position is as likely to be their highest to date. Besides, following the wheels on the cobbles isn’t like it is on the road. Maybe they thought the time gap was too big to be closed.
          I respectfully disagree with your view. It was a shame that both Cancellara and Sagan were nowhere in the mix though.

    • I thought the two Giant guys weren’t refusing to work, but just were too tired and slow to help much. Sinkledam and De Backer right? Not world class there. You lose some motivation when your leader isn’t there also.

      Nice piece IR. I probably read it the first time, but I’m old and probably forgot it, so it’s new to me! Thanks

      • Exactly right. Only TLarry doesn’t undrstand, he rants about this in several comments since last weekend. Guess he just put ttoo much money on Sagan and seeks someone to blame.

  5. Lovely piece, thanks for that!
    I’m crazy about stories from before the 80s in cycling.
    Poulidor is a special rider, with a lot of heart, and a very charismatic man, even at his old age today.

    Poor guy went from Anquetil domination (in the Tour) right into Merckx domination (everywhere). He never stood a chance to win the Tour 😉

    • That’s great, and actually adds to Inner Ring’s piece.
      Not being French, I’m sort of getting how a certain generation of Frenchmen (and the ladies too, judging by the photos) hold Poulidor in such affection.
      He looked a handsome, stylish guy and that has obviously added considerably to his popularity.
      A cool, talented cyclist of Swinging 60’s France.
      Easy to see why he’s such an idol.

  6. Nice piece. Slightly off topic but it’d be great to see Mathieu Van der Poel on the road. He looks a monster in cyclo-cross and has a lovely, fluid style that I think would suit the road. Seem to remember reading he was tied into a big money deal though?

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