Look, Dad, No Stabilisers

IF THE IMPACT OF Anquetil’s origins on his subsequent life is questionable, and if the reality of some of those origins is spurious, there’s no doubting the significance and the earthy reality of his rural upbringing.

Anquetil was born on 8 January 1934 in the clinic in Mont-Saint-Aignan, the town next door to where the Anquetil family had a house in Bois-Guillaume. Then, as now, both towns were suburbs of Rouen, the difference being that the populations have almost tripled since just before the Second World War, as is the case with many attractive locations around larger cities. The social dynamic of Mont-Saint-Aignan has been further modified thanks to a student population of 20,000, while the traditional half-timbered cottages of Bois-Guillaume, in one of which Anquetil lived and which he described as ‘the type of house the tourists found attractive but the inhabitants found uncomfortable’, have been either replaced or renovated in a fit of suburbanisation and gentrification.

The first seven years of Anquetil’s life were spent in a hard-working, relatively countrified but far from isolated household. Ernest, the father, was a builder and Marie, the mother, was also required to work. She recalled with a degree of chagrin the clear-eyed look of reproach in the eyes of her son when she was obliged to restrain him in the house, for want of being able to afford a nanny and for fear that he would be run over on the street outside, while she was out. The hotheadedness and independence that might have led to an early demise certainly brought other troubles. At the age of four, for example, he broke a window pane in a neighbour’s house when he wasn’t allowed in to see their daughter, having previously warned the neighbour of the outcome of being refused entry. The neighbour’s mistake was to scoff at the threat, leaving the young Anquetil, in an early demonstration of the spirit of contradiction that would colour his life, with little choice but to meet the challenge.

Another challenge to which he would eventually rise more successfully than even he could have imagined was that presented by his father the same summer in Bois-Guillaume. Later in his life, Anquetil recalled in his book En brûlant les étapes (Skipping Stages), co-written with Pierre Joly, the day his father returned home with an air of mystery for which he was not usually renowned:

‘Has the boy been good today?’ he asked.

‘Well, he’s only broken one plate and torn one pair of trousers so that counts as one of his better days,’ replied his mum.

‘Good, he can have his surprise.’

The surprise was in the form of a magnificent red bike. Magnificent in the eyes of a four year old, at least. Less magnificent, from Anquetil’s mum’s point of view, due to the distinct absence of stabilisers. But Ernest Anquetil wasn’t one to wear kid gloves, and the prospect of his son needing such assistance left him cold (he had already announced before his first son’s birth that he would be a professional cyclist, and to him you didn’t win the Tour de France by starting with stabilisers). Instead, he took Jacques straight outside and enrolled him on what was to become an immediate crash course in keeping his balance. Perhaps some more detailed instructions other than ‘hold tight to the handlebar’ would have helped to avoid the inevitable – Jacques in a ditch with the bike on top of him. Yet the inevitable happened and, according to Anquetil’s own memory, his father didn’t try to hide his disappointment: ‘You didn’t even manage one metre.’ The lesson was over, and Ernest returned to the house to tell Marie, in a voice directed more at Jacques than his wife, ‘You were right. He’s too little. We’ll have to put the bike in the cellar . . .’

The threat of the bike being relegated to the cellar so soon after its appearance, combined with the blow inflicted to his pride by the look of disappointment in his father’s eyes, was all the motivation the young Anquetil needed to try again. It’s not recorded how many times he had to fall off into the ditch at the side of the road before he succeeded unaided. But the following day, while his parents were out – scorning all assistance from friends and neighbours in the process – and after several hours of trying, teach himself he did, even if the only way he could stop was to fall off. At least he was well practised in this particular element of bike riding.

Yet the resulting assertion from his dad that Jacques had cycling in his blood was, according to Anquetil himself, not immediately confirmed. He confessed instead to preferring almost any other juvenile activity and adventure to riding his bike. Nevertheless, according to one of his mother’s favourite recollections of her son growing up recorded by Joly, he still demonstrated a certain prowess and a notable determination:

‘My husband and his brother-in-law decided to cycle to Clères, five miles away. “I’m coming with you,” said Jacques. “That would be very nice, but only if you can make it on your own,” replied his dad. I suggested a ten-mile round trip at the age of five was madness but was overruled.’

In adulthood, Jacques would accept that he’d been helped up some of the hills en route, but at five the pride that would be a determining factor in so much of his later life made him reject any such suggestion. ‘I would have made it myself . . .’ was the familiar refrain.

Just as well, then, that the freedom craved by the young Anquetil – and by all accounts desired for their mutual benefit by his parents as well – was only a couple of years away, even if it was the silver lining in a much bigger cloud. In 1939, Ernest was mobilised in the French army to fight against the German invasion, but by 1940 he had managed to avoid capture during the capitulation and had returned home in time for the birth of his second son, Philippe. In 1941, however, it became apparent that the only work available to a builder in occupied Rouen was to assist the Germans with their defence installations. This was a step too far for Ernest, so the family decided to cash in its chips in Bois-Guillaume and move another five miles out of town to a smallholding in the hamlet of Le Bourguet, near Ernest’s village of origin, Quincampoix. The plan was to emulate the family’s in-laws – Ernest and Marie’s sister and brother – and cultivate strawberries for sale at the market in Rouen.

This move to a traditional country cottage, consisting of two rooms and a kitchen, no electricity and a hayloft upstairs, surrounded by its own fields, was the real beginning of Anquetil’s love affair with the Normandy countryside. ‘What I remember most is the smell of apples and ferns,’ he told Joly. (The ferns were used for putting under the strawberry plants to stop the fruit being splashed with mud when it rained.) In fact, he often expressed satisfaction at the prospect of having his own small farm, even if this was with the luxury of hindsight (and, thanks to his considerable wealth, the luxury of luxury). ‘As a smallholder, you like your little plot of land in the same way as you do a lifejacket, but also in the same way as a lord does his manor,’ he told his daughter Sophie. ‘A penniless lord, at any rate. All the same, it didn’t dishearten me to think that one day I’d be doing the same kind of thing. Even if things are really tough, you’re still your own boss, and that’s priceless.’

Whether or not this nominal independence would have overcome his desire for material wealth and social advancement is uncertain. Yet even when he had attained both of these, his passion for his native land didn’t abate, eventually leading him to buy Maupassant’s chateau on the other side of Rouen and accumulating, at one time, 700 hectares of farm land, not to mention 150 head of cattle.

According to his first wife Jeanine, who now lives in Corsica in a hilltop village nestled between the mountains and the sea, even the self-proclaimed ‘Island of Beauty’ wouldn’t have been enough to tempt him away: ‘I don’t think he’d have wanted to leave Normandy, even to live here. Maybe he could have managed six months here and six months in Normandy, but I’m not certain.’ And this in spite of a taste for warm climes and island life acquired on numerous holidays to the Caribbean.

All of which confirms that while life in Quincampoix may not have been the ‘Cider with Anquetil’ idyll it could have been in another era – the vicissitudes of making a living from the land and the presence of German soldiers, not to mention unexploded shells and bombs, precludes such a rosy picture – it certainly afforded a lifestyle that suited an energetic young boy. Not that there wasn’t still plenty of trouble to be had and mischief to be made. Throwing bullets collected from the surrounding woods into a fire to hear them explode was a favourite pastime, as was disobeying parental instruction and rigging a home-made raft – constructed from half an aircraft fuel tank, no less – for mucking about with on the local pond. Then there was the prank of putting stones in the church lock and watching the unfortunate curate unwittingly undermine his own authority by swearing blue murder as he tried to open the door (no doubt providing plenty of amusement for the seemingly angelic young Anquetil when at choir practice).

All this took place when there was time in and around completing the day’s tasks, of course. The list of jobs for the seven year old included gathering grass for the rabbits, digging over the garden, spreading the fertiliser and laying the table. Even if he admitted to having more often than not accomplished his part in the Anquetil family division of labour while daydreaming of pilfering wild birds’ eggs or setting traps for rabbits, he also later acknowledged the importance of such jobs in having prepared him for the rigours of a career as a professional cyclist. ‘My muscles were kept busy,’ he wrote.

Of course, the image of French or Italian peasants dreaming of escaping a life of agricultural drudgery is part of the myth of cycling and also one of its greatest clichés. But, as with most clichés, it is founded on a degree of historical truth. Anquetil is simply one of the most famous examples, though there are others. In fact, large parts of the professional peloton in the 1950s and ’60s were made up of journeymen riders, invaluable teammates to the stars, who preferred the considerable grind and occasional glamour of a career on the roads of France to the even more considerable grind and guaranteed absence of glamour of life in its fields.

According to his daughter Sophie, Anquetil himself said:

‘I don’t think I’d have done what I did had my home life been more comfortable. You have to be hungry to want to overcome all the challenges involved in professional cycling. Nowadays, we’re not disposed to make these types of sacrifices. But, if you make a comparison, it’s still easier to become rich by pedalling like a maniac for a period of your life than spending decades at a work bench or in a factory.’

Philippe Brunel told me that Anquetil said the same thing to him: ‘He always said this was an important aspect of his character. He said it was bending over picking strawberries when he was young that accustomed his back to such hard labour and discomfort, and that, relatively speaking, being on a bike was easy. All thanks to the strawberries. I think it’s true.’

Guy Ignolin, who was something of a deluxe teammate for Anquetil for several seasons in the famous St Raphaël team, also agrees. He won three stages of the Tour de France during his career, as well as taking a second place in the French national championships, just ahead of Anquetil. He was also, like Anquetil and so many others, from a modest background. ‘We were, above all, manual people,’ he said. ‘Most of us had stopped school by the age of 14 or 15. In general, those who succeeded on the bike when Jacques and I were riding were those who were used to a “hard” life, who had been used to working manually from a young age.’

In addition to an early inoculation against hard work, another activity common to many cyclists at the time was a considerable journey to and from school, almost always accomplished on foot. The obvious contemporary comparison is with the continued success of Ethiopian and Kenyan runners, inured to both hardship and long distances. According to Ignolin, Anquetil was no exception: ‘Jacques used to tell me, “When I went to school, I ran there every day.” He even used to say he’d run across the fields sometimes, as it was shorter than going by the road. And I did the same. I ran to and from school four times a day – in the morning to go to school, at midday to come home for lunch, back to school in the afternoon and then home in the evening, although I may have taken a bit more time over this, as it normally involved coming home with the other kids who lived nearby. Still, it was maybe four miles per day . . . It meant we were more resistant, certainly when it came to long distances.’

Anquetil himself said that one of his most potent early memories was the sound of his boots clip-clopping on the road as he ran to and fro. Writing towards the end of his career in En brûlant les étapes, he added:

I don’t believe you’re born a champion, but I think a certain way of life helps to develop such talents as you have. The heart is a muscle like any other and can be strengthened in the same way. I had the chance to do just that. At 32, I’m already an ancestor, a man from the time before mopeds – thank the Lord.

Precisely because he was from a time before mopeds, his only hope of being able to join his friends from the village on their weekly Thursday afternoon pilgrimage to the cinemas of Rouen (‘Ah! The cinema, the Westerns, the adventure!’) was to obtain a new bike – his second bike, rescued from a state of decrepitude by his dad, now being too small. He had hoped that he might receive one as a present to coincide with his First Communion, but the more significant coincidence was with a bad year for the strawberries, an unfortunate combination of frost followed by heat wave. The resulting poor harvest precluded expenditure on luxury items such as new bikes, so Anquetil showed some of the determination to have his own way that would strike fear into his rivals in later life. He proposed that his father dismiss one of his harvesters and allow him to take her place; the money he would earn could then be used to pay for his new bike. His father, well versed in the difficulties and strenuousness of harvesting strawberries, initially demurred, not believing, in spite of his upbringing, that Jacques would cut the mustard. Eventually, however, he acquiesced, and by matching the requirement to fill 50 panniers a day the 11-year-old Jacques soon had enough money to afford his first proper bike: a sky-blue Stella that was the envy of his friends, even though it was not yet a proper racing bike.

When not adding to this training of heart and muscles by requiring him to pick strawberries, Anquetil’s father Ernest also encouraged him to train his stomach, or at least to develop the constitution that would one day earn him a place in the pantheon of bon viveurs. ‘When Jacques started to watch what he ate and drank, having mineral water instead of cider, his dad said, “You’ll never make it as a cyclist if you can’t drink a bit of cider,”’ Jeanine remembers. ‘He was told, “You have to drink cider.” He was brought up like that.’

According to Anquetil’s own version in En brûlant les étapes, the cider-related story happened slightly differently – by his account, his father woke him up by popping cider corks in his ear at 2 a.m. on the eve of a race, teasing him about the fact he liked it but couldn’t drink it. Whichever is true, this example of the behaviour of Ernest reveals that not all of the hard edge to Anquetil’s young life can be seen in a positive light. The ‘tough love’ that Anquetil said he at times perceived as vexatious but which generally helped to toughen his character was occasionally the precursor of a deep and sometimes violent rage in his father. At various points, and with varying degrees of provocation, he is said to have threatened to knife Jacques’ legs so as to prevent him from ever riding his bike again and to burn the car he’d won in one of his first races.

Even this wasn’t enough to make him lose his affection for his father, however. Sophie recalls her father telling her about her grandfather:

‘You couldn’t doubt the affection he had for my brother and me. It warmed the heart, but it never got in the way of what had to be done. That’s to say, working the land. If you really had flu, you were smothered with tenderness, but if you feigned an aching head, you’d most likely find it on the floor.’

‘There was no lack of love in his family,’ maintains Maurice Dieulois, one of Anquetil’s closest friends from his youth. ‘He had a huge admiration for his father, though he was a tough chap, the dad. He was a builder, which was hard work at the time and involved lots of physical work, and Jacques admired his father for being capable of it. He loved his parents lots, and they loved him, too.’

‘He held his father in very high esteem, and he didn’t drink that much,’ says Jeanine, before adding, ‘Jacques loved his parents, but there were times it was too much for his dad, because he would have liked to have been a cyclist himself, but instead had to become the head of his family at only 12 years old.’ Eventually, it also became too much for Jacques’ mother, who moved to a rented apartment in Paris, although not while the children were still dependent on her.

This may not have been the way they would have chosen to demonstrate it, but the purchasing power that allowed Marie this freedom to move to Paris indicates the extent to which the family had risen above the level of subsistence farmers. The progress had been gradual, first with the expansion of the smallholding and then the taking on of labourers to help in the harvest. It had culminated in Ernest managing to replace his handcart with a truck on which to transport the strawberries to market. But, in Normandy at least, strawberry fields were not destined to last for ever. The only strawberry cultivators left in Normandy now are of the pick-your-own variety, according to Dieulois.

With progress up the social ladder and ensuring material comfort taking their natural place as the family’s prime motivators, Anquetil’s parents decided he should continue this trend. The way he would do this, at the ripe old age of thirteen and three-quarters, was to attend technical college in the southern Rouen suburb of Sotteville. With the growing number of factories in greater Rouen and a decent practical qualification, there should be little to stop him ending up with a good job, went the parental logic. After all, he had been an able performer at school, regularly at the top of the class, and he demonstrated an enthusiasm for arithmetic that would hint at the meticulous way in which he would later be able to calculate the amount of time he could give to various rivals in races and yet still beat them by the finish.

According to his daughter Sophie, this thoroughness manifested itself in another way, too, and offered another portent for his career as a cyclist. In fact, show me the schoolchild and I will show you the man: never one to do more work than was necessary, Anquetil could not see the point in scoring sixteen out of twenty when ten would suffice to keep him ahead. What’s more, she says her father, in typically individual fashion, would spend the first few weeks of each new school year learning his textbooks off by heart and completing all the exercises in them. ‘Once I’d done that, I’d nothing else to do for the whole year,’ he told her. Employing an appropriate cycling analogy, he added, ‘I just took it easy at the back of the bunch. I could follow everything, as the work had already been done, so I had nothing to worry about.’ Although later criticised for his similarly singular preparation for big races, the effect was much the same: Anquetil could afford to take it easy at the back of the bunch and follow everyone, as the work had already been done.

The upshot was that although technical college would mean he was deprived of his immediate proximity to nature and potentially his inheritance as a smallholder – and the opportunity to be his own boss – by all accounts Anquetil wasn’t unduly perturbed at the prospect of leaving home and, later on, of working in a factory. ‘I didn’t have a definite plan. I didn’t find technical college unpleasant, and besides, as soon as classes finished I was out in the countryside again,’ he told Sophie. As with most 14 year olds, he was more interested in chasing girls and messing about with his friends than worrying about what he’d later become. In fact, it was the friends he made at Sotteville technical college, rather than the lessons he learned there, who would make the most important contribution to his subsequent career.

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