Femme Fatale?

EVENTUALLY, THE CLANDESTINE NATURE of Anquetil’s affair with Jeanine became too much of a burden. Although the peripatetic life led by Anquetil and the apparent ease with which Jeanine could find time away from her husband meant the practicalities were not insurmountable – a skiing holiday in the Alps provided ample opportunity for them to be together, for example – the emotional pressures on the couple meant that things soon came to a head. It was Jeanine who precipitated the next stage of their relationship in early 1958 by revealing all to her husband, whose response was to cut all ties with his former friend and insist she stayed with him. With Anquetil ensconced in an early season training camp on the Côte d’Azur and her husband showing no inclination to give her a divorce, Jeanine found herself on the edge of the abyss.

According to Sophie, Jeanine was so traumatised by the dilemma of her situation – choosing between Jacques and her children – that she swallowed a whole packet of sleeping tablets and switched on the gas. Only the timely intervention of a servant prevented anything more serious than ten days’ recuperation in hospital and being whisked off to stay with family friends.

Down by the Mediterranean, Anquetil’s distraction was clear for all to see: his legendary appetite was diminished, his training performances were well below par, and his habitual ability to sleep like a log was compromised. Finally, his anxieties got the better of him, and he returned to Normandy in an attempt to discover Jeanine’s whereabouts and take her away with him. The scene when he found her address and knocked on the door adds even more potency to the Anquetil legend: it was Jeanine herself who answered, clad only in slippers and a nightie (or a dressing gown, depending on which source you believe), and the couple immediately fled into the night in the back of a van borrowed from the Paris-Normandie newspaper. Within a couple of hours, the lovers were shopping for new clothes for Jeanine in the chic boutiques of the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris.

The thrilling nature of their flight is still evident in her eyes when Jeanine recalls the events of that fateful night: ‘Oh yes, it was an adventure all right, because when I left I was a doctor’s wife, I had two children and a fine house, and I left in slippers and a dressing gown. I left without so much as a penny, and Jacques had only just won his first Tour when I left. I didn’t know if he was going to make a career out of cycling. We didn’t know. It really was jumping into the unknown.’

The picture of Jeanine swapping her well-heeled but conventional lifestyle for something infinitely and immediately more exciting inadvertently gives further credibility to the maxim that life imitates art. In particular, it reinforces the curious correlation between Anquetil’s life and the Normandy society so powerfully portrayed by his famous literary predecessors from Rouen. This time it was not Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, however, but Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s most famous creation, who was being invoked. Bored, frustrated and perhaps unappreciated, Jeanine had emulated her fictional double and jumped wholeheartedly at the opportunity for freedom and fulfilment that life with Anquetil seemed set to provide.

Yet while part of the allure for Jeanine was this sense of romantic adventure, she maintains Anquetil was the exact opposite. Although happy to enjoy the high life afforded by his successes as a cyclist, these luxuries accrued thanks to his calculating approach to making the most out of his chosen profession. Not for him the whimsical notion of fulfilling a dream. ‘Oh no, he wasn’t an adventurer at all,’ she remembers. ‘He knew exactly where he was going. When he was younger, he’d told me he would earn a living from the bike. As soon as he saw he could be a champion, he set about riding his bike in the same way as a director goes about running a company. This meant he pushed himself to the limits to get the best out of himself – even his teammates acknowledged that he would suffer more than they would [Jeanine repeats this several times, for emphasis]. That was Jacques – he knew nothing would be able to stop him from achieving success. And if he couldn’t have been a cyclist, he’d have done something else. He wasn’t the reckless type who’d just say let’s give it a go and see. He was much more considered.’

Perhaps for this reason he felt able to reassure Jeanine, even as they were driving to Paris, that though she was choosing him over her children she would end up with both in the end. On the other hand, perhaps his words were no more than the seductive platitudes voiced by a lover keen to reassure his quarry that she had made the right decision. Certainly, Jeanine’s explanation of Anquetil’s reasoning is itself unclear – or at least her memory of it is: ‘I knew I’d get them back. I knew they’d come back to me later. He loved kids so much. The proof is that when he knew he wanted to marry me, even though I knew I couldn’t have any more children and that that was his thing – he said, “Yes, but after my career I’ll have a child, because I want a child of my own. We’ll see about that later – not while I’m racing – because otherwise, by the time I’ve retired, it will be six or seven, and I won’t have seen it grow up.” That was his love for kids, and he loved mine as if they were his own.’

Rather confusingly, then, Jeanine appears to see this willingness to postpone his desire to perpetuate his lineage at best a delaying tactic for not facing up to the reality of their situation, at worst a declaration of guaranteed infidelity as proof of his love for her (even though he would have to use a surrogate mother to satisfy his needs) and confirmation that her children would return. Equally confusing is how such an obsession with becoming a blood father sits with her assertion that he loved her children as though they were his own.

Whatever the motivation, in the end, of course, he would prove to be right, no doubt judging correctly that the appeal of the glamour associated with cycling (not to mention a much-missed mother) would prove more alluring than the best a remote, intellectual father figure could offer, however well intentioned. Initially, the children were conferred exclusively to the care of Dr Boëda, who also had Jeanine’s parents staying with him. ‘They were with my ex-husband and my parents,’ she remembers. ‘My parents had stayed at the house to start with, so he used that as a reason that I shouldn’t see my children. Then he showed my parents the door, so the children were left with my ex-husband and his new wife, who didn’t care for them that much, and eventually the children couldn’t put up with this stepmother who kept them away from their father any more.’

First of all, the children visited Anquetil and their mother as a result of the limited access Jeanine had subsequently been allowed: ‘The children were already quite big – they were seven or eight years old – so even though they stayed with their father, they had but one dream, which was to come to the house and go to races with Jacques. They had an admiration for Jacques that was overwhelming. As soon as I had them, I took them everywhere. We took them to Italy once when Jacques was racing there, and I had to go to court because we took them one day early. I was acquitted, of course, because taking them only one day early . . .’ The result, according to Sophie, was that within two years of Jeanine’s departure the children started to ignore the strictures placed on them and made their own way to see their mother and Anquetil.

Back in 1958, however, there were no children to be cared for, and the two lovers concentrated their attention on each other, as Jeanine recalls: ‘The happiness I felt to be by his side night and day, the freedom to belong to each other as we wanted, was so powerful that I even managed to forget, for an instant, the enormous loss of my children.’ Anquetil endeavoured to repay the compliment by saying his motivation was to be ‘worthy’ of Jeanine. This romantic aspiration went so far as to drive him to make his first serious attempt to win Paris–Roubaix, then as now the most prestigious of the one-day classic races.

Jeanine even suggested there was a precedent for such devotion in his pursuit of victory from their youth: ‘Do you know he won his first race for me when he was eight? He was still scared of monsters at night but could already turn the pedals of his bike like a madman. For me, he beat the son of the butcher by the width of his tyre.’ For the romantic at heart, it may come as a disappointment to discover that this story is unlikely to be true, or at best to be apocryphal. Although Jeanine and Anquetil were both born in Mont-Saint-Aignan, by the age of eight Jacques had already been living in Quincampoix for a year. Even if he had taken his bike with him on a return visit to friends or family (although these were in Bois-Guillaume rather than Mont-Saint-Aignan), it’s still difficult to see what the then fifteen-year-old daughter of a respectable family would have been doing watching an eight-year-old strawberry grower’s son beating the butcher’s boy on his bike. Perhaps the answer is provided by the fact that the paper that carried this story was sufficiently interested in the romantic to overlook such tedious factual discrepancies; after all, it also said that Jeanine was 26, while Jacques by this time was 24. In reality, Jeanine was nearly seven years his senior.

Unfortunately, the romance of the story came to an end with a bump – several thousand bumps, more like – on the notorious cobbles en route to Roubaix on 13 April (unlucky for some). Having decided to counter the acknowledged expertise in this kind of event of several of his rivals – notably Van Looy, Léon Van Daele, even Bobet – by employing the unlikely tactic of a long break, Anquetil and three companions (he’d dropped the rest) were still ahead of the main bunch with only fifteen kilometres remaining. Disaster struck, however, when Anquetil punctured, obliging him to make a solo burst to regain the lead group. Even though he succeeded in this objective in only five kilometres, the effort proved futile, as the main bunch also caught the leaders with only four kilometres remaining, leading to a mass sprint, won by Van Daele. Anquetil ended up 14th.

This admittedly unfortunate series of events, depriving Anquetil of his only real chance of success – breaking away on his own before the velodrome – immediately led to assertions that the puncture had robbed him of certain victory. For anybody other than Anquetil, this would be impossible to claim. For a start, his breakaway companions remained to be beaten – even if he was the strongest, this was far from guaranteed (although he maintained he was certain to have beaten them in the sprint). Then there was the fact that the lead held by the front four with fifteen kilometres to go had already been cut to one minute fifteen seconds. Given that Anquetil and his companions had been away for the best part of 200 kilometres and that the bunch behind was still made up of 70 riders, such a margin looks uncomfortably small.

Yet Anquetil built a reputation on achieving that which others maintained was impossible, and he certainly believed it was simply bad luck that had deprived him of victory. Bad luck, of course, was not an excuse Anquetil was accustomed to having to make. Demonstrating once again his desire for mastery of his surroundings, he declared, with a distinct hint of bitterness, ‘One-day races are a lottery. I’m not interested in them any more.’

In doing so, he immediately exacerbated his increasingly strained relationship with the public. Although a degree of sympathy for his plight was felt, his reaction had in effect cast aspersions on a significant part of cycling’s reputation. Although Anquetil didn’t seem to want to admit it, there was more to the sport than stage races and time trials. One-day races were an integral part of its appeal, so for Anquetil to imply that 60 years of cycling heritage and legend – including everybody who’d been anybody as a cyclist, from Maurice Garin to Coppi, and from Magne to Bobet – was based solely on good fortune did not go down well. What had started as a fairy tale, with a homage befitting his stature in L’Équipe on the day of the race – ‘For the first time in his career, Anquetil is starting a classic race with the declared intention of winning. Until now, Jacques has always achieved his goals. It’s one of the most remarkable aspects of his career.’ – had turned into a public-relations disaster. Worse was to come.

Before the 1958 Tour de France had even started, Anquetil had been obliged to mount another political campaign to determine the make-up of the team. This time, as defending champion, his presence was not in question. Instead, it was a question of who would join him – and whom he would accept as teammates. The debate centred on Bobet, of course, and Raphaël Géminiani, Bobet’s right-hand man, previously a Tour runner-up in 1951. Anquetil could countenance one or the other but not both: ‘They know each other too well. I don’t want them to truss me up like a turkey.’

Eventually, Bobet agreed to the sacrifice of his former lieutenant, and what had seemed likely to be a two-way battle for overall victory between Anquetil, aided by Bobet, and Charly Gaul became a three-way tussle, with an enraged Géminiani banished to the Centre-Midi regional team. (He was so contemptuous of French national team directeur sportif Marcel Bidot that he paraded a donkey around at the start of the Tour and said he’d named the beast Marcel, as it too was stubborn and stupid.)

Keeping his promise to attack, Géminiani stole a ten-minute advantage over Anquetil on the stage to Saint-Brieuc before Anquetil suffered another setback in the first time-trial stage, losing his speciality by seven seconds to Gaul. In practice, such a small deficit was little more than a blow to his pride, although the extent to which Anquetil’s pride was wounded should not be underestimated. Before the race had begun, Anquetil had complained to journalists that the time-trial stage up Mont Ventoux should not have been called a time trial: ‘It’s not the time I’ll lose to Gaul that worries me – three or four [minutes] at the most. It’s the fact that people will say he’s beaten me at my own game, and I don’t like that.’

The Pyrenees passed without great incident, the next significant event coming on the 17th stage, the day of the time trial up the fearsome Mont Ventoux (1,610 metres of altitude gained over 22 kilometres of climbing at an average of 7.1 per cent, with a steepest section of 11 per cent). Here, Gaul beat Anquetil by just over the predicted four minutes, while Géminiani put on the yellow jersey, a position he was to cement on the next stage to Gap thanks to Gaul suffering a mechanical problem, reputedly the victim of sabotage.

All of this, however, was merely the appetiser for one of the most remarkable days in the history of the Tour. The situation at the beginning of stage 20, from Briançon to Aix-les-Bains, was the following: Géminiani was the race leader; Anquetil was in third place, seven minutes fifty-seven seconds behind; and Gaul was more than fifteen minutes adrift. With only the final time trial remaining as an alternative option for effecting any significant changes to this position, this last serious mountainous stage – two hundred and nineteen kilometres over five mountain passes through the Chartreuse – would prove crucial. Both Anquetil and Gaul had no option but to attack to reduce their deficit. Gaul initiated the fight at the start of the second climb of the day, the Col de Luitel (exactly as he had predicted, down to the very hairpin). In spite of the freezing rain that was Anquetil’s greatest dislike – and an ill-advised decision to wear a light silk jersey rather than a heavier woollen one – he was still within two minutes of Gaul, and ahead of Géminiani, at the foot of the next climb, the Col de Porte. Here, however, the wheels began to fall off. Anquetil’s own recollection is stark: ‘From the first hairpins of the Col de Porte, I thought I’d gone mad. I was diminished by 60 per cent. Why? I wish I knew. It was as if my lungs were stuffed with cotton wool. I was suffocating. Standing on the pedals, I must have looked like a fish out of water. The last thrashing about before . . . Before what?’

Before the chest infection from which he was suffering would eventually knock him out of the race. But not before he’d lost an incredible 22 minutes to Gaul in the space of a mere 60 kilometres. (Although he was the only one with such a legitimate medical excuse, Anquetil was not the only one to suffer at the hands of Gaul and the weather that day: Géminiani lost 15 minutes and with it the yellow jersey and any hope of overall victory.) And not before he’d once again demonstrated his exceptional courage by completing the following day’s stage, even though he knew any chance of winning had disappeared, even though he was motivated only by the contribution he could make to the team prize (worth around £3,000) and even though he was coughing up blood.

By the end of this next stage, the situation had deteriorated further. Although still entertaining thoughts of starting the next day, the reality of his imminent abandon became apparent when he was taken to hospital in Besançon with a temperature of 40.6 °C and X-rays revealed the extent of his infection. He later wrote:

Never had I felt so lonely. My morale was at rock bottom. I imagined it was the end of my career as a cyclist. I congratulated myself for having taken out insurance for just such an eventuality. I pictured myself an invalid at 24, shuffling around the village trying to be useful, doing the easy jobs normally given to old folk.

That night, he had a nightmare about a phantom cyclist made up of raindrops. Every time Anquetil approached him, he would melt away, only to reappear several hundred yards further down the road. ‘He had, of course, the sad face and modest smile of Charly Gaul.’

While Anquetil was lying in his hospital bed contemplating the possible end of his career, Gaul won the final time trial to secure overall victory. As if losing his Tour de France crown and fearing for his health and his future as a professional cyclist weren’t enough, Anquetil had to face up to two more slights. On the one hand, he was almost entirely ignored when it came to invitations to the lucrative round of post-Tour criteriums (although it seems unlikely that he would have been able to participate); on the other, the public criticism of his lifestyle and his subsequent failings as a cyclist reached a crescendo.

‘We told you so,’ his critics cried. ‘A champion can’t live such a lifestyle with impunity.’ His response was immediate and dismissive: ‘Do people still hold that against me? It started when I was 19, when I won the Grand Prix des Nations. No sooner had I bought a car than people were telling me I was getting too big for my boots. I went to receptions hosted by friends and people said I was out partying all the time.’

Not that Anquetil helped himself; he couldn’t resist provoking his assailants: ‘Here’s the routine I’d advise for the evening before a race: a pheasant with chestnuts, a bottle of champagne and a woman.’ Even though he was quite capable of such excesses, the reality of Anquetil’s preparation was somewhat different. Just because he had a singular approach to training didn’t mean he didn’t train hard, which just added to the sense of injustice he felt at the way he was portrayed. Training hard usually meant long, sustained sessions at high speed – two or two and a half hours at fifty-five or sixty kilometres per hour, depending on the route – behind either Boucher on his Derny or Jeanine at the wheel of their car. The routes were planned carefully so that this speed had to be maintained even on the hills – Anquetil’s task was simply not to be dropped, regardless of the terrain. Sometimes, for variety, he’d ride in front of the car but at a similar sustained rate, checking his time for each milestone passed.

The intensity of these rides should not be underestimated. Anquetil’s friend and teammate Jean Stablinski recalled in a special edition of Cycle Sport magazine published in 2004 how he once accompanied Anquetil on one of these outings and wanted to stop after only 20 miles. Anquetil himself said he lost three kilos in weight during each serious session on the bike. All of which appears to have been sufficient to compensate for the relative lack of distance covered: he reckoned 3,000 kilometres would be enough to get to peak condition, though the season normally started with him having covered around half that. Then there’s the meticulous way he’d prepare for time trials or important stages, memorising the route so carefully as to be able to know in advance which gears he’d use in any given corner. Géminiani was later moved to describe his preparation for time trials as an art form.

Of course, all of this should also be seen in the context of the difference in approach to training between then and now. Anquetil, for example, wrote about his distrust of the newfangled idea of interval training: ‘It makes me laugh. In fact, if I’ve understood it correctly, the idea is to emulate in training those conditions found during a race. But, by definition, each race is different from the one before and the one after, so it seems to be a red herring.’

Brian Robinson, Anquetil’s English contemporary, confirms that the approach was not widely adopted: ‘I came out of one Tour – Bobet was still there, so it was maybe 1958 – and I did the post-Tour race nearest to Bobet’s home. I’d had a week off after the Tour, and I stayed at the St Raphaël training camp. The trainer there was an old six-day man. He said, “You’ve got loads of miles in your legs. You don’t need any more miles. Go 30 kilometres out, and when you come back sprint for every kilometre sign.” Which I did, and I was absolutely flying the following Sunday at this Bobet race, and I took every bloody prime there was. But he tapped me on the shoulder on the next-to-last lap and said, ‘It’s me who wins today.”’

Robinson also points out that the racing calendar was so heavy in his and Anquetil’s day – as much as 235 days every year – that training was often secondary to racing. ‘[Rik] Van Steenbergen never trained,’ he recalls. ‘He just raced. There’s a race every day in Belgium, so he’d do his 100-kilometres training in a race. He’d have his car at the side of the road, then he’d wheel himself off, put on his tracksuit and head off back home. That was his training. He never actually trained as such. I can quite see his point, as that’s what kills you in the end.’

In contrast, prior to the 2007 Tour de France, one of the big favourites, Alexandre Vinokourov, anticipated racing a mere 30 days. Even in 2003, when he wasn’t a nominated leader for the Tour and was therefore constrained to race a full calendar in the run-up to the event, he raced for only 60 days before it started.

Nevertheless, the gap between perception and reality continued to grow in the aftermath of the Tour, with particular emphasis placed on the impact Jeanine was having on Anquetil’s career. Her high public profile, her film-star looks and her proximity to Jacques certainly made her an easy target. This was further aggravated by Anquetil’s insistence on having her close to him at all times, breaking the strict rule in professional cycling in the late 1950s of keeping women at arm’s length. Sophie wrote:

My father knew the taboo like the others. Except he wasn’t like the others, and with regards to Nanou he wanted her by his side 24 hours a day. So Nanou didn’t leave him. She was there at the start, at the finish, at the hotel. She drove his car through the night. She passed on his requests to organisers, to soigneurs, to the whole entourage. She even collected his prize winnings from the post-Tour crits [criteriums]. She was his mistress, his mother, his wife, his nurse, his manager, his driver.

This is borne out by Jeanine’s own recollections: ‘He couldn’t do without me. He wanted me to be there all the time, so I drove, carried his suitcases, arranged his hotels. I drove 100,000 kilometres per year. That’s without counting the month of July for the Tour and without counting the winter – December, January – when we were on the coast and didn’t drive much. In the round of the criteriums after the Tours, I wasn’t one of those women who just turned up for a week. I did the whole thing, and I did all the bookings for other riders as well. And in addition to the money I collected for Jacques, I also sometimes found myself with the money for his teammates, and even for some of his rivals and friends – Altig, [François] Mahé . . . and many others. I had money in all my pockets, in my bag, in my hands, everywhere. Once showered and dressed, the guys would come and find me and say, “Have you got my dosh?” I was their cycling sister, and they were all very kind to me.’

The press was less sympathetic. Following the dictum established after Coppi’s affair with a married woman – the infamous ‘White Lady’ – the papers operated under the principle of ‘If a champion loses a race, look for his white lady’. In an unflattering play on words, Jeanine even became Bidot’s ‘bête noire’, in reference to her assumed role in the national team manager’s failure to find a French winner for the first time in five years.

Even those papers that purported to be more understanding were unequivocal in their assessment of Jeanine’s impact on Anquetil’s performance. In a France Dimanche article published immediately after the end of the Tour, entitled ‘I didn’t Lose the Tour because of the Woman I Love’, the paper still felt obliged to emphasise his distraction: ‘He stayed with her, hand in hand, right until the start. A few moments before the flag dropped, he kissed her passionately. When he got on his bike, his eyes were full of a very different passion from that for victory.’ As if the point wasn’t clear enough, the paper ran a picture of him lying with a transistor radio on his bed after a Tour stage. According to the caption, he was not listening to Tour summaries, but to love songs . . .

The couple, of course, denied all the suggestions that he was suffering from being in love, even though his dad enjoyed repeating the phrase ‘Where there’s love, there’s no cycling’. ‘Me, harm his career? But it’s the complete opposite,’ Jeanine told the paper. ‘At the start, he let his training go a bit, but it didn’t last. I quickly got things in order. He’s just a kid. I have to dress him, watch over his diet, his training.’ (She later told me a similar story: ‘He didn’t like training, so he had to do it quickly. He did three hours of training behind the car – one hundred and twenty kilometres – flat out. Then he was content. If I wasn’t in the car, he didn’t do his training. I was his trainer.’ This claim is also given credence by Guy Ignolin when I asked him about Anquetil’s apparent appetite for life rather than training: ‘He was often behind Jeanine in the Mercedes for training. He didn’t like training, but Jeanine forced him. He didn’t like it.’)

Still recovering from his chest infection, Anquetil gave Jeanine his wholehearted support: ‘What would I do without her? She’s the only one who can keep my life in order. Before knowing Jeanine, my life was crazy. I only followed a diet when I felt like it. I trained more or less seriously. I went out all the time, and I went to bed at the time when most people were getting up. Now, all that’s finished. Jeanine has completely changed my life. She’s given me my second wind. She knew how to take over from my life as a bachelor. She’s straight away shared my life as a rider. It’s quite simple – I’m not only her husband, but also her champion. What’s more, she’s been a nurse, and it’s essential for a racer that his partner knows how to provide comfort in the challenges that he faces, as much morally as physically.’

Jeanine managed to provide sufficient comfort for him to overcome what he would later describe as the lowest point of his career, even threatening to give up cycling if he couldn’t finish his first race back, a low-key criterium in Belgium (he did, just). Then, demonstrating his remarkable powers of recuperation, he finished the season with a bang, winning all three major end-of-season time trials: the Grand Prix des Nations (in another new record, his fourth in six years), the Grand Prix de Lugano and the Grand Prix Martini.

His fortunes were still on the up at the end of the year when Dr Boëda granted Jeanine a divorce. France Dimanche celebrated, with no hint of irony and with a back page devoted entirely to the happy couple, under the headline ‘Ignoring the Scandal and Gossip, Following His Heart, Jacques Anquetil is Set to Marry the Woman Who Helped Him to Remain a Champion’.

‘Everything is ready,’ Jacques told the paper. ‘Even the house on the banks of the Seine in Saint-Adrien near Rouen. Jeanine is restoring the pontoon so I can go fishing in peace and quiet.’

The wedding took place on 22 December 1958 in a ceremony conducted by Anquetil’s friend Maurice Martel, president of the French Skiing Federation, organiser of skiing races for holidaying cyclists and mayor of the ski resort of Saint Gervais in the Alps. The wedding invitation showed Jeanine and Jacques in classic pose: on a bicycle made for two.

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