Mission: Impossible

IN THE CONTEXT OF the usual progression in the career of a top professional athlete, the next 30 months of Anquetil’s life should be classed as peculiar at best. They began on 22 September 1954, just after his second-straight victory in the Grand Prix des Nations, with his arrival at the Richepanse barracks in Rouen and the start of his compulsory national service. As for all young Frenchmen of the time, two and a half years of military life lay ahead of him. Anquetil’s stint in the army, however, would end up bearing little resemblance to that of most of his compatriots.

For a start, and by his own admission, Anquetil was not exactly a model soldier. ‘I was sometimes candid, never disciplined, but always sincere,’ he wrote in En brûlant les étapes. This in itself would surely not have set him apart from many other young Frenchmen, but, of course, Anquetil was accompanied in his military career by something that did define him in a unique way: his reputation. A reputation, it should be said, that his potential superior officers would have at best perceived with ambivalence, thanks to his much publicised exploits – not all of them on the bike. Nevertheless, Anquetil managed to turn this ambivalence to his own advantage in inimitable fashion: ‘I arrived, preceded by my reputation and by 30 bottles of champagne. The lieutenant advised me to leave the former in the changing-rooms and bring the latter on patrol.’ Not without reason, perhaps, would Anquetil later be referred to as ‘the James Bond of cycling’.

Another benefit of his standing as a sporting superstar was that he was soon transferred from the barracks in Rouen to those of the Centre Sportif des Forces Armées in Joinville in the east of France. This immediately went some way to assuaging his concerns about the impact the military would have on his career, as he would later write: ‘I met the runner Pierre Poulingue, who kindly told me, “Don’t worry, you’re allowed to train.” I started to live again as if he’d suggested we bunk off, something we also did, by the way. In fact, I had a sufficiently good understanding of the layout of the town to have no need for an officer’s pass.’

It soon became clear that Anquetil would be allowed to do much more than just train. Indeed, he was shown such leniency with regards to mundane military obligations that in both 1955 and 1956 his results reveal that he was allowed to ride an almost complete racing calendar. This meant that while the army could bathe in the reflected glory of his achievements in time trials, he could continue his apprenticeship in the wider world of professional cycling.

In 1955, for example, he started the season at the criterium in Oran in Algeria, a long way from his erstwhile colleagues in Rouen. This was followed by his induction to the one-day races that dominate the spring, the highlight being his 14th place in Paris–Roubaix in spite of suffering a broken chain. Shortly after came the Tour of the South-east Provinces, where Anquetil was given a platform for testing himself both in the mountains and in particular against one of his fiercest later rivals, Charly Gaul. Gaul, one of the finest climbers cycling has ever known, won the hilly event, but not before Anquetil had shown his resilience by coming back from a heavy time loss the previous day and beating him in a sprint to win a stage. Antonin Magne felt the experience was decisive in forming Anquetil’s character. ‘I saw Anquetil pull himself together, I felt the way he wanted to redress his wounded pride and I saw him win the next day in Gap in front of Gaul, even though there were not insignificant mountains in the stage,’ he told L’Équipe. ‘That day, Anquetil really pleased me. I felt he had the temperament of a fighter.’

Then came an experience of a different sort in the Dauphiné Libéré, the traditional warm-up race for the Tour de France. Anquetil finished 15th overall, more than an hour down on Bobet, the overall winner. Even in the time-trial stage, he could only finish third, but while the results were not to his liking, the experience gained in the vicissitudes of professional cycling was instructive. His La Perle team was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Francis Pélissier’s idiosyncrasies had become exaggerated by a heart illness the previous winter, leading to a lack of morale and a lack of practical support. The team provided no massages throughout the race, and Pélissier’s descriptions of the stages to come amounted to nothing more detailed than ‘see you in Saint-Étienne’.

In spite of this setback, by the end of the year Anquetil had had the opportunity to become national pursuit champion, to finish sixth in the world championship road race, to beat the newly crowned world champion, Stan ockers (along with such luminaries as Brankart, Fornara, Koblet and Kübler), in the Grand Prix Martini in Geneva and to become only the second man to win three-straight Grands Prix des Nations. As if to emphasise that it was business as usual, this victory was greeted with a headline in L’Équipethat read ‘No Surprises in the 21st Edition of the Grand Prix des Nations’. Such was his dominance, in fact, that Jacques Goddet was moved to write that Anquetil won with miraculous ease: ‘It was enchanting – the rare pleasure of being able to watch a difficult task being accomplished by an artist.’

Another commentator, Maurice Vidal, writing in Miroir du Cyclisme, agreed:

The style of Jacques Anquetil is astonishingly perfect. It could even be said that it’s too perfect. In fact, efficiency in cycling is often achieved at the expense of the beauty of the effort . . . Anquetil’s beauty is in his attitude. To watch him turn the pedals is a pure artistic pleasure. Whether he’s chasing a record, a rival on the track, the clock in the Grand Prix des Nations or surmounting a col, he maintains the same feline allure.

The next year, 1956, proceeded in a similar vein, and his results were similarly mixed. At the beginning of the season, he crashed out of Paris–Nice, the press again making no allowances for his ostensible position as a conscript in the army by questioning a seemingly fragile morale. Victory overall in the Three Days of Antwerp gave him his first significant road-race win since the Tour de la Manche when he was still an independent. He followed this by demonstrating his growing versatility as a rider in retaining his national pursuit title and finishing second in the world pursuit championships to the Italian specialist Guido Messina. Further victories in the Grand Prix Martini and the Grand Prix des Nations – a record fourth in a row – went some way to repaying, through the resultant publicity, the faith placed in him by the army.

After all, the indulgences required for Anquetil to race so much certainly needed repaying. As well as the dispensations required to race in serious, prestigious bike races, there was also the permission to participate frequently in the lucrative series of criterium races that were as much to do with riders earning considerable fees in appearance money as they were with the prestige afforded to the victor. The number of these participations can be deduced from his recorded successes: in 1955, Anquetil won two and finished in the top five in another four criteriums; in 1956, he won seven and was on the podium in another five. He must have ridden a good deal more to have had this level of success. Then there was the track. Anquetil had by then become a regular, normally in the company of André Darrigade, at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the famous Parisian track of the time, known universally as the Vél d’Hiv. His contracts for such events were reported at 30,000 francs (£30) per appearance.

There was even time for Private Anquetil to fan the flames of his growing rivalry with Louison Bobet. The first incident came within a few weeks of Anquetil entering the army, at the Baracchi Trophy time trial, ridden in pairs, at the end of the 1954 season. Perhaps because he was still a relatively new recruit, Anquetil was only given permission to race at the last minute. Chastened by his experience getting to the start line in Lugano a couple of weeks before at similarly short notice (the private plane he was being flown in had to make an emergency landing in a field due to fog, and he had to complete his journey by train – he still won the race comfortably, of course), he decided to drive to Italy. It took him all night and, as Albert Baker d’Isy noted in L’Équipe, was far from the best preparation: ‘At 8.10 a.m., with a start time of 9.27 a.m., Anquetil, who’d only just arrived, was still eating his breakfast, hardly ideal for a quick start.’ Although Baker d’Isy added that Anquetil performed well, the French pairing lost by one minute twenty-six seconds to the Italian duo of Coppi and Filippi, and Bobet was furious.

The extent of the burgeoning bad blood between the pair was made clearer in the following year’s French national road-race championship. Involved in the decisive breakaway, powered by Bobet, who was seeking to add a French crown to his Tour de France and world championship titles, Anquetil dropped back to help Darrigade catch up. Darrigade then beat Bobet in the sprint for the title, which prompted him to thank Anquetil publicly: ‘I understand that Anquetil turned down Bobet’s invitation to collaborate with him to stop me from rejoining them. We were already good friends, but right now I can’t thank him enough. He’s more than a friend. He’s become a brother of the road.’

This unfettered freedom to race while in the army, and at a crucial stage in his development as a rider (he was still only 20 when he was conscripted), clearly had a beneficial impact on his later career. It was also in marked contrast to the man who would later be touted as his main adversary and greatest rival, Raymond Poulidor.

Poulidor’s upbringing and subsequent experiences as a cyclist have inured him to the vicissitudes of life. At home in his native Limousin, in a smart detached house in the small town of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat that backs onto rue Raymond Poulidor, and still inundated with requests for his presence at various events, Poulidor has long since accepted and made the most of the cards that fate dealt him. It’s with no bitterness then, simply with a desire for people to understand the differences between them, that he recalls his own military experiences: ‘I say it in my book: when I went into the army in 1956, I was 20. In 1956, I could have been like Anquetil, winning important races, but I was in a small, local club, so I hadn’t turned professional. The result was that I did my two and a half years of national service split between Germany and Algeria [Anquetil spent just four months in Algeria]. When I came back, I was nearly 23 and weighed 85 kilograms, even though I had been careful not to go to the bars too often. It was only once I was back from the army and my parents had moved farms to somewhere where the soil was better and we could use horses rather than cows for work on the farm that I could try my hand at racing seriously, and even then I did another year as an independent before turning professional in 1960, straight away getting good results. I could very well have done in 1956 what I did in 1960 and 1961 – that’s to say, at Anquetil’s age.’

There is some evidence to bear out this assertion. ‘In 1956, when I was still an amateur and before I’d joined the army, I won a race eight minutes ahead of a professional racer who’d just ridden the Tour,’ Poulidor recalls. Then there is the comparison between his and Anquetil’s performances in another local race. In 1955, while in the army, Anquetil won the Bol d’or des Monedieres. The following year, Poulidor, when a year younger than Anquetil had been and when still an amateur, came sixth behind Bobet, whom he’d dropped on a climb part way through the race. After the race, Bobet said, ‘Who is this rider who’s applauded more than me and that everyone calls Pouliche?’ The nickname ‘Poupou’ would not be adopted until later.

This contrast with Poulidor’s life in the army and the delay it caused in his development as a cyclist is highlighted by the culmination of Anquetil’s career to that point – breaking the world hour record, a feat accomplished while still on national service. With the ease of his transition to the track and his successes as a pursuiter, momentum had been building throughout 1955 for Anquetil to make an attempt on the hour record. This momentum came to a head, after his third-straight win in the Grand Prix des Nations, with the reluctance of the army to accord even to Anquetil the two weeks deemed necessary for preparation, arousing the ire of French journalist and writer Antoine Blondin, again in L’Équipe. ‘It’s not a question of giving Anquetil permission, but a mission,’ he thundered. After suggesting the army was now demonstrating itself to be as far behind the times in sport as it was in war – a sore point after the tribulations of the recent past – and then proposing they portray Anquetil’s attempt as punishment (‘sentence him to two weeks of Vigorelli [the track where the attempt would be made]’), the powers that be finally acquiesced. Another contributing factor to this decision may well have been Anquetil’s decision to offer his earnings to an army charity.

Thus Anquetil set off for Milan and his first tilt at the record at the end of October 1955. To cut a long story short, on Saturday, 22 October, in front of 10,000 overtly sceptical Italian fans, he failed by a considerable distance, posting 45.175 kilometres compared with Coppi’s record of 45.848 kilometres. This was not only a long way off the existing record but was also worse than the performances of the three record holders before Coppi (Maurice Archambaud rode 45.767 kilometres in 1937, Frans Slaats had posted 45.485 kilometres the same year and Maurice Richard had covered 45.325 kilometres a year earlier).

The reasons for his failure, it seems, were legion, and everyone with any claim to have an opinion was encouraged to express it. Pélissier, apparently, ‘knew he was bound to make a mistake, and if not would invent an excuse. Also, he was badly advised, and if he’d received good advice, he wouldn’t have listened.’ Maurice Richard said Anquetil’s preparation hadn’t been specific or serious enough, while the journalist Pierre Chany captured the prevailing mood: ‘There were so many mistakes it would have been a miracle if he had broken the record. The conditions were against him, he’d ridden little since he’d arrived in Milan and he had become bored by the sterile discussions of his advisers.’

There was also the vexed issue of the markers used to determine the inner limit of the velodrome to ensure each lap was the required minimum distance. These had already caused controversy when Coppi set his record, with his predecessor Archambaud claiming that he had fewer than the required number (14 per bend instead of 28). Indeed, by some accounts, this led to Coppi’s record being reduced by 73 metres from 45.871 kilometres to 45.798 kilometres, though neither of these corroborates the official UCI figure, and that which Anquetil set out to break, of 45.848 kilometres.

Whatever the situation in 1955, the markers were an important element in Anquetil’s subsequent failure on his next attempt on 25 June 1956 (this had to be brought forward from the traditional end-of-season period, as even Anquetil was obliged to spend some of his military career in Algeria, and this was fast approaching). Initially, demonstrating the optimism that he often displayed when facing such considerable challenges, he had refused to be too concerned about the fact there were still 28 bags on the bends of the track and that these bags were filled with sand rather than foam. However, after a promising first half-hour, when he had been over three laps up on Coppi’s schedule – putting him on target for 46.3 kilometres – and had managed to beat, by two seconds, Archambaud’s record for the time taken to cover twenty kilometres, things started to go wrong. As fatigue set in, Anquetil started to clip the sandbags with his pedals and began to appreciate the importance of their make-up and their number. ‘It wasn’t cycling; it was bowling,’ he would later write. ‘I tried to get back on track, but I knew it was a lost cause.’

His assessment proved accurate. He rapidly lost ground and eventually stopped after covering 41.326 kilometres in 54 minutes 36 seconds – ‘Way off the mark,’ as he put it. While the crowd were chanting the name of Coppi, Anquetil had to be carried from his bike, unable to straighten his legs. ‘I was like one of those little toy knights that children throw away once they’ve lost interest in the horse they’re supposed to ride on.’ With hindsight, it wasn’t just his over-enthusiasm and the sandbags that got the better of him. André Boucher, with whom he’d been training, had wanted to postpone the attempt, as wind conditions were unfavourable, finally agreeing to a start only at 7.30 p.m., while his indispensable corner man Sadi Duponchel was unconvinced about Anquetil’s choice of bike.

It was Duponchel, however, who had the presence of mind to goad a spent Anquetil into a final attempt: ‘Kid, tell me we’re not going to give up at that.’ Anquetil’s reply was revealing of the effort he’d just made: ‘OK, I promise you that straight away, as tomorrow I know I won’t want to.’

It was also Duponchel with whom Anquetil indulged in one of the most unlikely preparations for any serious athletic effort in the history of human sporting endeavour, let alone the agonising pursuit of the world hour record. Frustrated by the constant media attention in Milan and finding himself in the unusual position of sleeping badly, Anquetil and Duponchel took themselves off to a nightclub on the banks of Lake Como and danced until the small hours. According to Anquetil, the sleep of the unjust that subsequently overcame him and the relaxed state of mind that ensued more than compensated for the energy expended.

In the meantime, while Anquetil was letting his hair down, two Italian mechanics had been commissioned to make a replica of the bike used by Coppi in his successful attempt. This was apparently a work of art in itself, enamelled in an extraordinary green colour and containing mica windows in the pedals to reveal the bearings turning. More importantly, it also featured a longer wheelbase than Anquetil’s pursuit bike, invaluable for alleviating the lower back and buttock discomfort he had experienced last time.

It was therefore with renewed morale and renewed machinery that Anquetil embarked on his third effort on 29 June. The rest of the setting that greeted Anquetil and the fifteen thousand spectators looked familiar to those who had been present four days previously: two flags placed twenty-six metres apart as the reference point for each lap; Captain Gueguen from Anquetil’s regiment stationed to ring a bell to indicate Coppi’s lap times; Daniel Dousset, his manager, on the back straight with a spare bike; Boucher in the stands; and Duponchel as the roving corner man. ‘I put great store on his familiar voice to either restrain my ardour or keep me going,’ Anquetil said. The one significant difference was in the markers. These had been reduced in number from 28 to 14, as had been the case for Coppi, and the sandbags had also been replaced by bags filled with foam.

Against such an auspicious backdrop, Anquetil was finally able to live up to expectations. Managing to resist the temptation to set off too fast, as he had done previously, Anquetil completed each lap exactly on the bell and in accordance with his schedule: the first 20 laps at 31 seconds each; the next 27 laps at 31.2 seconds; then 37 more between 30.4 seconds and 30.8 seconds. Anquetil’s own recollection best sums up the finale: ‘Sadi shouted, “It’s in the bag, kid. It’s in the bag.” The stands were silent. On the 84th lap, Boucher shouted, “Give it everything.” The bike sped like a champagne cork, and I made up seventy-five metres in one lap. “Forza Jacqué!” came roaring from the stands. It felt as though I could ride for a lot longer than an hour. The last lap was covered in 29.2 seconds. I’d ridden 46.159 kilometres.’ He had beaten Coppi by the not insignificant margin of 311 metres.

After the achievement came the plaudits: ‘Ah, the crowd. Those who were whistling me four days ago were kissing my bike, my jersey, wanting to touch me like they must do on the days of religious processions.’ Even in the immediate aftermath, however, and running high on adrenalin and surrounded by this tumult, Anquetil still found it difficult to show his emotions. When Captain Gueguen congratulated him on realising a remarkable feat, Anquetil’s response was, ‘Yes, the crowd seems happy.’

According to Dieulois, it was always thus: ‘He was always a quiet boy, never exuberant, never showing off his emotions by waving his arms or shouting when he won. He was always quite reserved, but at the same time very satisfied with what he’d achieved or managed to accomplish, even if it was without showing it.’

And surely breaking the record of his idol at the still tender age of 22 would have given him great satisfaction. One report suggested the merit of his achievement was as much in having the courage to be the first to challenge such a benchmark as in the actual distance ridden. Chris Boardman, who himself set three hour records, agrees: ‘The first big challenge with the hour record is to be prepared to consider it. There is no second place, and people forget that. The marks he set demonstrate for me just how similar human beings are when it comes down to it. The differences come from how they apply themselves (which is why I fared well in the Tour de France prologues – I specialised when no one else did). I would guess if you evened out training, knowledge and equipment, we would have all been in a very tight grouping. Who knows who would have come out on top?’ In mid-1956, it was Anquetil who reigned supreme, a fact that was not lost on the military. He was received at the barracks with a guard of honour and promotion to the rank of corporal. Mission: accomplished.

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