Raymond 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.