The Beginning of an Era

AS BEFITS A MAN with a reputation for being able to work out his victories to the smallest comfortable margin – often only a matter of seconds – Anquetil’s calculated risk in leaving Rivière to contest the 1960 Tour de France paid off, though hardly in a way that he would have wished. Initially, everything was going well for Rivière. Winner of the time-trial stage in Brussels, he soon overcame his only rival for leadership within the French national team – the previous year’s second-placed rider, Henry Anglade – thanks to a breakaway on the stage to Lorient in Brittany that gave him his first Tour de France victory in a road-race stage. It also revealed the naked ambition of which Anquetil was perhaps well to be wary, as the attack, provoked by Rivière with only Nencini, Hans Junkermann and Jan Adriaenssens capable of following, spelled the end of Anglade’s time in the yellow jersey. In only one hundred and twelve kilometres, the Rivière-inspired group of four managed to take fourteen minutes and forty seconds out of the peloton.

Further evidence of Rivière’s form and ability came in the Pyrenees when he won the stage into Pau, and by the rest day in Millau after stage thirteen he was only one minute and thirty-eight seconds down on Nencini in the yellow jersey. With a long time trial of 83 kilometres still to come – as much a Rivière speciality as it was for Anquetil, as the previous year had established – Rivière was a clear favourite for overall victory. At the start of the 14th stage, from Millau to Avignon, Rivière himself was even moved to say as much with a degree of brio: ‘I’m sure to win this Tour, and I may do so even before the last time trial.’

Scarcely has the phrase ‘tempting fate’ had such unfortunate resonance as on that day. On the rough descent of the Col du Perjuret on the lower slopes of Mont Aigoual, Rivière made the mistake of trying to stick to the wheel of Nencini, the same Nencini who had caused Anquetil to take such risks on the descent of the Passo di Gavia a few weeks earlier in the Giro d’Italia. Rivière was not so lucky, although whether luck played as important a part as oil on his rims – as he originally stated – or his consumption of the painkiller Palfium – as he later admitted in a newspaper – is uncertain. Whatever the exact cause, he misjudged a corner, rode into a block marking the edge of the road and was catapulted ten metres down into the ravine below. Only a carpet of leaves and branches saved his life, but it could not save him completely. The two fractured vertebrae he suffered put an end to both that year’s Tour and to his entire career as a cyclist. Indeed, he would remain an invalid until his death, from throat cancer, at the age of 40 in 1976.

The circumstances may not have been those chosen by even the most Machiavellian of rivals, but Rivière’s demise meant that by late 1960 Anquetil was temporarily free from a serious adversary, at least within French cycling circles: Bobet and Géminiani had both retired earlier that year, and the promising Gérard Saint was killed in a car crash. Although still not capable of asserting his pre-eminence at the world championships, where he finished eighth, Anquetil did manage to demonstrate his superiority in two end-of-season events.

At the Grand Prix de Lugano, Anquetil took his revenge on the organisers, as he had previously on Francis Pélissier, after they had offended him by giving the last starting slots, normally reserved for the favourite, to Rolf Graf and Johannes de Haan. His mastery was such that Gilbert Desmet, the rider in second place, owed his finishing position to having been overtaken by Anquetil and, like Gaul, having been able to follow him.

At the Critérium des As in Paris, ridden behind motorbikes, Anquetil was just as dominant, breaking the record set in 1957 by Belgian great Rik Van Steenbergen. The event was also notable for confirming Anquetil’s belief in the skills of the ‘healer’ Jean-Louis Noyès. Already a friend of Anquetil’s, Noyès responded to Anquetil’s confession that he’d not slept for the past two nights due to a sore throat by suggesting he apply his hands to the problem area. Ten minutes later and the race started with Anquetil feeling as peaky as ever. However, he soon went onto the attack – to test, he said, whether he could cope with the 13-tooth cog at the back – and he felt so good that he decided not to slow down. Everyone else in the race was left in his wake, and Anquetil was converted.

With Jeanine’s children Annie and Alain by now regular visitors to the house she shared with Anquetil in Saint-Adrien, 1961 began as promisingly as 1960 had ended. In anticipation of a clear run at the Tour de France as undisputed leader of the French national team, Anquetil began to assert his authority early in the season with overall victory in Paris–Nice. Even better was his victory in the Critérium National, that year run as a one-off race and therefore his first major win in a one-day event since he’d won the amateur French road-race championships back in 1952. The results – Anquetil first, Darrigade second, Stablinski third, all with the same time – suggest he had achieved the unthinkable and beaten them all in a sprint. In fact, he had for once done as his critics suggested he should and taken matters into his own hands. He attacked on his own at one thousand five hundred metres to go and managed to resist the return of the charging peloton by two bike-lengths.

Whether or not victory was even sweeter as a result of an apparent cooling of his relationship with Darrigade, or whether it was simply made possible because they were no longer teammates, is uncertain. Yet the careers of the two men had certainly begun to take different directions, with Anquetil losing his former right-hand man and mentor, who had left to join the Alcyon-Leroux team. According to a gossip column in Paris-Jour magazine, and in a scenario as old as time, the cause of the split was not their own relationship but that of their spouses. ‘Darrigade and Anquetil Fall Out Because of Their Wives’ was the not-so-subtle headline.

‘Françoise Darrigade is a straightforward girl, conscious nevertheless of being the wife of a champion,’ the story went. ‘Jeanine Anquetil is more of the intellectual type. The squabble between the two women began as a result of everything and nothing: the best hotel room that was given to the “other one”, the dresses they wore, the people they visited. The two men, their ears burning, were being driven to distraction. Realising they would end up falling out, in spite of their best efforts, they decided – not without regret – to separate. They will now race against each other.’

Philippe Brunel suggests the story of the hotel rooms is not as anodyne as it might appear. ‘Anquetil and Darrigade used to travel around the criteriums together, and often, as in the Tour, they shared a room, sometimes with Jeanine as well,’ he told me. ‘It’s funny. When they went into a room, often there would be two beds: one big, one small. Anquetil, as the champion, always took the big bed, and Darrigade took the small one. But then one day he thought, “I’m knackered. I’d really like the big bed this time. I’m fed up it always being me who takes the small bed.” But when he got to the room, there was Anquetil, already settled in the big bed. Darrigade had had enough: “Jacques, I’m fed up. From time to time, we should swap beds.” Jacques said, “But why do you say that? If you’d come in first, which bed would you have taken?” Darrigade said, “The small one and left you the big one.” Anquetil said, “Well, you see, everything’s worked out as it should, then.”’

Back on the bike, Anquetil beat Baldini by more than four minutes at the Italian’s home-town time trial in Forlì and then won the time-trial stage in the Tour de Romandie, his last warm-up race for the Giro. Things looked promising in his second attempt at becoming the first man other than Coppi to do the Giro–Tour double in the same year when he took over the pink jersey of race leader after the time trial on the ninth stage (53 kilometres covered at a mere 46.573 kilometres per hour). Unfortunately, the assertiveness that had served him so well in previous grand tours and in the recent Critérium National deserted him as he let a race-winning escape develop en route for Florence. The beneficiary was Italian rider Arnaldo Pambianco – the same Pambianco who would later cause Anquetil and Ignolin so much trouble after his impromptu escape when apparently going ahead of the peloton to see his wife. Anquetil managed to claw his way back to second, but Pambianco held onto his lead in spite of the fearsome challenge of riding over the Passo dello Stelvio, at 2,757 metres even higher than the Passo di Gavia from the previous year.

Disappointed but in good form, Anquetil vented his frustration by declaring before the upcoming Tour de France that he would win the yellow jersey on the first day of the race and not relinquish it until Paris. With the support of a for-once united French team, Anquetil was as good as his word. The first day was split into two half-stages: a 136-kilometre road stage from Rouen to Versailles (won by Darrigade), followed by a 28-kilometre time trial. Having won the second by nearly three minutes, and having benefited from Charly Gaul losing five minutes in the morning stage, Anquetil had put on the yellow jersey with an already comfortable lead over all his rivals at the end of the first day.

This relative comfort was short-lived, however. The following day, on the stage to Roubaix, the French lost two team members, obliging directeur sportif Marcel Bidot to decide on a strategy of attack as the best form of defence. Putting all their resources on the line, the team set out to ride at sufficient pace to stifle all attacks. Initially, this approach was not widely criticised for its deleterious impact on the racing, as it appeared fraught with danger: it was far from certain that the French team would manage to demoralise its rivals before it had worn itself out. The outcome became clearer, however, thanks to Anquetil stamping his personal authority onto the race on the seventh stage from Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saône. Faced with a deficit to a breakaway group that had grown to 17 minutes, and the risk of losing his yellow jersey, albeit to teammate Joseph Groussard, Anquetil took it upon himself to react. According to Chany, Anquetil rode alone at the head of the bunch for 30 kilometres until his position as race leader was once again assured.

With the Alps and Pyrenees still to come, and with Rivière’s accident the previous year still fresh in everyone’s minds, there was no certainty that Anquetil would win his second Tour. Yet the odds continued to shorten as Gaul fell while leading Anquetil by nearly three minutes on the first serious mountain stage and was unable to cement his advantage. The resultant truce in hostilities lasted throughout the Alps, and the sense of frustration at the perpetuation of the status quo was palpable. When neither the inaugural mountain-top finish at the ski resort of Superbagnères nor the supposedly super-tough 17th stage from Luchon to Pau the following day – featuring the climbs of the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque – conjured any excitement in the race for overall victory, the ire of both spectators and journalists became manifest. Whistled and booed by the crowds on the hills, Anquetil woke the next morning to accusations in the press of having killed the race. Race director and L’Équipe journalist Jacques Goddet reprised Henri Desgranges’ famous ‘Giants of the Road’ headline in distinctly less flattering terms. ‘Dwarves of the Road’ he lamented, going on to say that Anquetil had interrogated his rivals but none of them had been able to respond – the race had stagnated: ‘Yes, fearful dwarves, either impotent, as Gaul has become, or resigned to their mediocrity, content simply with a good placing. Little men who have managed to save themselves, to avoid inflicting pain – cowards who above all are scared of suffering.’

In reality, Goddet, at least, should have expected nothing more. Gaul had declared on the radio on the eve of the stage to Pau that his chances of victory had receded: ‘If you want the truth, I tried ten times to drop Anquetil and ten times he responded by going faster still. It’s true that I can’t take off any more, that my attacks are easily anticipated. I’ve grown old; I’ve grown old.’

By the time the race reached Paris, with Anquetil having extended his lead, thanks to the final time trial, to the more than comfortable margin of 12 minutes over the Italian Guido Carlesi and just behind him Gaul, he was once again barracked by the Parisian crowd. Even the Anquetil-inspired attack on the last stage, which allowed him to demonstrate his gratitude to his teammate Robert Cazala by presenting him with the stage victory at the Parc des Princes, couldn’t appease them.

Yet, while frustration at the relative weakness of his rivals may have been legitimate, Anquetil could hardly be blamed for being a cut above the rest, even if that is precisely what happened. A report written after the race in L’Équipe starts by explaining to the holidaymakers who had complained to the paper about the dullness of the racing that it was really the fault of all the riders, before adding:

Above all, it’s Jacques Anquetil and his superior ability that are to blame. Anquetil is at the same time a champion and a phenomenon. That’s to say, an example not to follow. He can do everything, and those other riders who are more or less in his wake think they can lead the same life as he does. They’re wrong. Anquetil is a unique character. He can race often, no matter where and no matter when. Yet when it comes to the major races, and in particular the Tour, he manages to turn up in perfect condition.

This indicates a subtle metamorphosis in the popular perception of Anquetil. Up to this point, apart from his bad reception after the 1959 Tour – for the more or less justifiable reason of his apparent pact with Rivière in favour of Bahamontes and against Anglade – his success had generally been greeted with a good degree of popular acclaim. Think of his initial victories in the Grand Prix des Nations and then his reception after breaking the hour record. A certain lack of warmth with the public had been noted, as had a taste for provocation, but by far the biggest antagonism came from journalists and rivals opposed to, or exploiting, his seemingly inappropriate lifestyle. Now, however, his continued success and the dominant nature of his victories had more or less put paid to such observations. The other side of the coin, however, was that the apparent ease of this success had served to alienate the public.

Yet this seeming effortlessness was only relative. Anquetil, of course, suffered greatly as a result of his efforts. At the start of the Tour in 1961, he weighed sixty-nine kilograms, but over the next three weeks he lost 4.5 kilograms – the best part of a stone. This, of course, was after exposing himself to a similarly gruelling Giro d’Italia scarcely a month previously. The problem, from the point of view of his public perception, was that he didn’t show it. ‘He didn’t want to show he suffered,’ recalls Ignolin. ‘He always kept his same tempo, his same position on the bike. He said to us, “You might think I make it look easy on the bike, but it hurts me just as much as it hurts you.” He once gave us a little wake-up call: “I’m hurting as much as you. I’ve got sore legs, a sore back, sore everywhere. When I have to make a real effort . . .” When he was attacked by climbers in the mountains, he couldn’t respond straight away, but he always managed to get back to them. He was very courageous.’

Part of this desire to conceal his suffering was to avoid showing any weakness to his rivals. ‘Perhaps it was to encourage us as well,’ suggests Ignolin. Perhaps the biggest part, however, was simply down to his essential character. ‘Ah yes, the descendant of the Vikings. Blond hair, blue eyes, a bit cold, a bit reserved,’ he adds. ‘He certainly never wanted to show his emotions.’

That this reserve – seen by many as hauteur or arrogance – was an integral part of his make-up is quite certain, at least according to Jeanine: ‘Being a star didn’t change him. He didn’t care for it or for the popularity it brought. We’d go into a restaurant, and I had to go in first to see if we could eat. If yes, then we’d go in, but if people started looking at him, coming up to him, we’d leave. He didn’t like being recognised. He wanted a quiet family life. Eating in a restaurant with just me, he wanted to be peaceful. He was very reserved. He never threw his bouquet into the crowd. He said it would have been as if he were saying, “I couldn’t give a monkey’s for having won this race. I’ll chuck away the bouquet.” The fact he didn’t was out of respect for those who’d given him something, but people took it to be pride.’

Another problem for Anquetil in the court of public opinion was that he also didn’t show much emotion in the way he raced. He didn’t understand the need to attack and had no desire to do so just to please others. In this, he has an unlikely ally. ‘People often reproached him for winning the Tour thanks to the time trials, but I think he wasn’t sufficiently recognised for what he did,’ his great rival Poulidor asserts. ‘I think that if you’d taken out the time trials, he’d have won anyway. He’d have sorted himself to do something special one day or another and won anyway. By emphasising his brilliance in time trials, I don’t think we acknowledged what else he achieved. He used time trials, that’s all.’

Nevertheless, while he could use time trials to engineer overall victory, he would – at the expense of all other methods, as Ignolin recalls: ‘He just didn’t want to attack. On one stage, from Angers to Limoges in 1963, I think, we wanted to get him to attack. A large part of the team worked hard for the first 15 kilometres of the stage to create a platform for him to attack. And he went. He got a lead of about 300 metres and then sat up: “I’m not crazy, you know. What do you think I want to go and ride 250 kilometres on my own for?”

‘It’s not just that it would have been an unnecessary effort. It would have led to 25 or 30 riders being disqualified. He’d have finished – like Merckx one year in the Pyrenees – seven or eight minutes ahead. It would have been a gratuitous effort, and then they would have reproached him, like they did Merckx and Coppi, for having killed the race. For having put a straitjacket on the peloton and saying, “It’s me who’s in charge.”’

This touches on another criticism of Anquetil in general and the 1961 Tour de France in particular: that Anquetil and the French national team exerted their authority in such a way as to dictate the way others raced. Again, Ignolin suggests that this was somewhat at odds with the reality: ‘In 1961, he took the yellow jersey the first day in Versailles and held it until the end, but I still won a stage, even though I was in a rival team.’ In fact, Ignolin, not noted as a climber, won the prized Alpine stage over the Col de la Croix de Fer and Mont Cenis from Grenoble to Turin. The fact that he could do so, and the remarkable margin of victory over the main bunch of 28 minutes, is used by some as evidence of the extent to which Anquetil’s real rivals were intimidated. Still Ignolin demurs: ‘In 1963, I was in his team, and I won two stages, but I didn’t win them in a sprint. I won from breakaways. One was a solo break and one from a group of five when we’d been away for one hundred and sixty kilometres. He didn’t control everything. The overall rankings, maybe, but that’s what he was there to win. He didn’t block everything.’

Yet his desire for control over the things that were important to him, whether the overall classification or the time gaps in a time trial, was once again apparent at the end of the season. Returning to the Grand Prix des Nations for the first time since 1958, Anquetil surprised no one by taking his seventh victory in seven appearances and breaking his own record for the event. The manner of his victory – more than nine minutes ahead of Gilbert Desmet in second place, with former winner Aldo Moser ten minutes down in third – and the margin by which he broke the record – one minute and twenty-three seconds – gave the crowd no option but to applaud him. Yet Anquetil was furious. He had, in fact, been misled by his directeur sportif, Mickey Wiegant. Instead of being given accurate time checks against his schedule, he had been repeatedly told by Wiegant that he was behind.

According to Poulidor, Anquetil was far from happy: ‘He said to Wiegant, “You give me the times to see if I’m ahead of the previous year.” He didn’t want to break his record by too much. His idea was to beat it by a narrow margin – like the pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka. Otherwise, the next year it would be too difficult for him to beat. But one year, Wiegant, as Anquetil was going well, kept saying to him that he was behind, and he pulverised his record. He was furious: “What will I do next year? If I’m not as good as this year, what will they think?”’ Maybe the answer was that they would have thought he was a bit more vulnerable and that he would have been a bit more popular as a result. But Anquetil wasn’t about to give them the chance to find out.

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