Wounded Pride

YOU’D BE FORGIVEN FOR thinking that the combination of a precocious talent like Anquetil and a crafty old manager such as Francis Pélissier would be a match made in heaven. After all, it was Pélissier who’d surely endeared himself to Anquetil’s commercial instincts by beating his rivals to the punch and putting his money where his mouth was. Anquetil had then returned the favour with his exceptional rides in the Grand Prix des Nations and the Grand Prix de Lugano. What’s more, both men had shown themselves to be aware of the importance of publicity, both for themselves and for the team that paid their wages.

But you’d be wrong. Anquetil’s first full season as a professional had hardly begun before the first cracks started to show in their relationship, and once again it was Anquetil’s uninhibited lifestyle and his insistence on doing things his own way that was the cause. Or at least that’s the way Pélissier perceived the proliferation of civic receptions and late nights that filled Anquetil’s social calendar at the end of 1953 and the beginning of 1954. Anquetil himself did not deny his hectic lifestyle but resented the implication that it was of his own choosing. ‘What stupidity!’ he replied. ‘I’m only 20, and I’ve just started out as a cyclist. I was invited to lots of things by lots of people who had good reason to invite me. What would people have said if I’d started saying no to them all? The answer would have been that success was making me big-headed. So I went along with it. But I can assure you that most of the time it wasn’t much fun. Instead of having to stay up late listening to pleasantries, I would have preferred to spend my evenings with my friends.’ Perhaps invitations to open the dancing with ‘Miss Calvados’ and her ilk helped soothe his disappointment.

Pélissier’s assessment of Anquetil’s motive proved more accurate when it came to his increasingly provocative approach to diet and training. Nowhere was this made clearer than when he arrived at the La Perle winter training camp in the village of Les Issambres on the Côte d’Azur. According to Pierre Chany’s contemporary report in Cyclisme Magazine, Anquetil arrived at 9 a.m. after having driven across France through the night. While the other riders already there, including such luminaries as Raphaël Géminiani and Louison Bobet, were preparing their daily training ride, Anquetil set about sating the appetite provoked by his long journey. Nothing unusual there, you might think, except that he boldly walked into the bar run by former professional cyclist Apo Lazaridès and ordered not breakfast but a seafood selection, langoustine and a carafe of dry white wine. Lazaridès, who’d recognised the precocious athlete, was beside himself. ‘Watching the kid tuck into his langoustine with mayonnaise, I understood that even though he’s only just entered the world of professional cycling, the exit isn’t far away,’ he said to Géminiani and Bobet that evening. (It must be pointed out that Lazaridès’ reaction should be seen in the context of him being the man who reputedly stopped while leading on his own during an ascent of the Col d’Izoard in the Tour a few years previously for fear of being attacked by bears, so desolate did the country seem to him. It seems the difference in the constitutions of the two men was pronounced.)

This was like a red rag to a bull for Pélissier. Although not averse to a good photo opportunity or even a good wind-up (and having apparently been capable of similar excesses, being described in a documentary of the time as a man capable of drinking a pint and a half of rum in the evening and winning Paris–Tours the next day), such a blatant disregard for the basic tenets of the profession of cycling in one so young – look after your body, sleep lots and well, no rich foods and certainly don’t eat to excess – was taken as an affront to his position as directeur sportif. None of this worried Anquetil, however. Even though Pélissier took it upon himself to lay out a long list of suggested amendments to his training regime, Jean-Paul Ollivier records the cool response:

‘Mr Pélissier, you’ve been a champion cyclist, you’ve won very important races, you’re an important directeur sportif, but training methods have changed. Those I’ve been using have served me well, so don’t waste your time. When it comes to my preparation, I will continue as normal.’

Such brazen self-confidence was in marked contrast to his relative humility in front of the challenges that awaited him in his first full season. The first big test was the prestigious week-long Paris–Nice stage race (or Paris–Côte d’Azur as it was called that year), curtain raiser for the whole season. ‘I’ve been designated team leader, but I’ve never ridden more than 125 miles in a race before,’ Anquetil said. ‘What will experienced riders with plenty of victories to their names, such as Maurice Diot and André Darrigade, say? I have to say, I’m a bit scared of such a test, especially if the weather is bad. And I don’t want to abandon. I hate to do that.’

He had no need to fear not finishing the race. In fact, he ended up seventh overall and managed to win the time-trial stage, beating the Belgian Raymond Impanis, the eventual overall winner, into second place – not bad for a 20 year old. The only disappointment was the absence of Coppi, who’d had to retire from the event, and the loss of an opportunity to make a direct comparison. Less promising was his defeat in the hill-climb time trial up Mont Faron, where he was nearly caught by Bobet, who started two minutes later. It may have been a time trial, but the steep gradient was clearly not to Anquetil’s liking.

A series of respectable performances on the road (which Anquetil nevertheless described as disappointing, as he felt he was capable of victory on at least two occasions) then paved the way for an aggressive performance in the Tour de l’Ouest in August, which cemented his place in the French squad for the world championships in Solingen in Germany. Equally significant, however, was the absence of a stage victory or overall success to reflect his aggressive approach, absences that would end up colouring Anquetil’s assessment of the merits of such an ostentatious expenditure of energy. In Germany, he performed creditably in his first professional world race championships with a fine fifth-place finish, in appalling conditions, three minutes behind the winner Bobet and just beaten in the sprint for fourth. Bobet’s victory underlined his current pre-eminence in the world of cycling and confirmed the beginning of the end of Coppi’s reign (Coppi cracked on the last lap of a seven-and-a-half-hour rain-drenched epic, to be overtaken by Anquetil).

Another impressive showing in the Critérium des As, run behind motorbikes at the horse-racing circuit in Longchamps, saw him lose by just three seconds to Bobet. This was no mean feat: Bobet was fresh from his second-consecutive Tour de France victory and it included victory over his La Perle teammate Koblet.

All of this relative success – very impressive for such a young and inexperienced rider but still clearly in the realms of ‘potential greatness’ rather than ‘current star’ – went some way to smoothing the relationship between Anquetil and Pélissier. At least, there had been no further causes for upset. All that was to change, however, at the end-of-season time trials, where it was hoped that Anquetil was about to fulfil Pélissier’s assertion that last year was just the beginning.

First up was the Grand Prix Martini in Geneva, where Anquetil could only manage a disappointing third place, two minutes seventeen seconds down on local favourite Koblet and also behind Pasquale Fornara, whom he’d beaten the previous year at Lugano. This was all the excuse Pélissier needed to renew his attacks on Anquetil’s attitude and approach to training, especially combined with the rumours of too much of the good life and not enough training, which were proof that the press could be a double-edged tool.

If this and his impending military service (‘What would I be like after 30 months in the army?’) weren’t sufficient to dampen his enthusiasm, his reception at the La Perle headquarters the week before the Grand Prix des Nations surely were. Anquetil recalls an unsettling atmosphere as soon as he arrived: ‘The mechanics wouldn’t look me straight in the eyes, and people were speaking quietly in my presence as they do when they’re near someone who’s unwell.’ Things took a turn for the worse when he discovered that it wouldn’t be Pélissier in the following car but Roger Jacquot the mechanic. Pélissier would be following Koblet.

Anquetil recalled his anger at the time in En brûlant les étapes:

Pélissier didn’t have a reputation for following those who came second. I went mad. I went into his office without knocking. ‘What’s up, kid?’

‘Nothing, other than the fact you’ve no faith in me!’

‘But I do, I do . . . But I’ve got to follow one of you, and as I’ve two stars . . .’

Anquetil also explained that the consequences of Pélissier’s decision were not merely psychological. Pélissier had a wealth of experience, manifested in a thousand and one tricks of the trade to help his racers and almost as many means by which to encourage commissaries to turn a blind eye to these nefarious manoeuvres. The previous year, Anquetil had noted how Pélissier had arranged for an ‘unofficial’ car to drive almost on the wrong side of the road some 100 yards ahead of him so as to slow down traffic from the opposite direction and thus reduce the eddying wind that can disrupt a rider’s rhythm. Then there was the ‘feeding-zone trick’ that Anquetil would now have to try and encourage his new entourage (Jacquot and Anquetil’s own indispensable corner man from AC Sottevillais, Sadi Duponchel) to adopt. This involved the rider quite legitimately holding onto the team car to receive food and drink. The difference with Pélissier was that he had refined the process to such an extent that not only did he make it seem quite normal for the rider to hold on for the entire 500-metre zone (ostensibly while Pélissier looked for something vital for the rider that he appeared to have misplaced) but he drove at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour while this happened. Anquetil described the impact of not only being deprived of this support but of seeing it go to his principal rival as being like he’d been spat at.

The blow to his morale was as nothing compared with the blow to his pride, however. This, of course, provided the perfect antidote to any lack of motivation from which he might previously have been suffering. Depending on which report you read, a night out in Paris or a 100-mile training ride in torrential rain (or possibly both) saw him arrive at the start line in determined mood. His principal determination was not to win the race, however, but to beat Koblet, with whom he had no particular grudge, in order to prove Pélissier wrong. He went as far as instructing Duponchel and Jacquot to base all his time checks on Koblet.

The immediate result of this approach seemed promising – ten seconds up at the first checkpoint, twenty-five seconds after twenty-five of the eighty miles. By halfway, notwithstanding a rear puncture and two bike changes, Anquetil was more than four minutes clear of Koblet. But he was more than two minutes down on the Frenchman Isaac Vitré and the Belgian Jean Brankart. Another puncture and another two bike changes (a spare bike being used while the flat tyre on the original was replaced) left a deficit of forty-five seconds to Brankart with only fifteen miles remaining. Yet all was not lost. In Anquetil’s own words, he didn’t know what came over him: ‘Throughout the last few miles, I was no longer human. I had become a machine, a runaway robot. The crowds were screaming, and I returned to the attack. It’s difficult to explain, that incredible feeling, that liberating resentment.’

In the end, he made up the time on Brankart to beat him into second place by a meagre 21 seconds, and he also managed to beat the course record – held previously by Koblet. To rub salt into Pélissier’s wound, Anquetil ignored him at the finish – instead shaking hands with Boucher, who was sitting next to the directeur sportif of the La Perle team, before combing his hair and walking off – and then delivered his winner’s bouquet that evening to Mme Pélissier at the couple’s bar in Mantes-la-Jolie, en route from Paris to Rouen. ‘He’s a peculiar kid. He never raises his voice, and you can never tell whether he’s happy or not,’ she later said.

History would also serve its judgement on Pélissier’s fateful choice of rider when it became clear that Koblet would never again reach the heights scaled in his record-breaking year of 1951, when he not only won the Grand Prix des Nations but also the Tour de France. That this failure was put down to his inability to resist the distractions available to a handsome young cycling champion was an irony surely not lost on either Anquetil or Pélissier.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this whole episode, however, was Anquetil’s enormous pride, a pride which, if wounded, would so often serve to inspire him to his greatest feats. No one characterised this better than Jean Bobet, former professional cyclist turned journalist and brother of Louison, who described it as a spirit of contradiction: ‘Take the picture of a professional cyclist as it should be: careful, meticulous, serious. Erase it all and say, “Jacques Anquetil is the contrary of all that.” Truth be told, he’s always contrary to someone or something.’

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