Chercher la Femme . . .

ARMY LIFE, THEN, WAS not the obstacle it might have been to the development of Anquetil’s career as a cyclist. Yet although he had enjoyed more or less free rein to ride when and where he wanted, and although he spent only four months in Algeria – rather than the year or more experienced by most on national service – Anquetil began his return to civilian life as if he’d just spent the last two and a half years having been sent to Coventry. In less than a year, he’d found time to begin a secret affair with his doctor’s wife, rebuff the attempts to seduce him into marriage by a ballet dancer from the Opéra d’Algers and still have his best season yet as a cyclist: he rode and won his first Tour de France, won Paris–Nice for the first time, won his fifth consecutive Grand Prix des Nations and, just to demonstrate his extraordinary versatility, became the first rider to win the Paris Six Day in the same year as the Tour.

It all began on 1 March 1957, the day of his release from the army, which had just concluded with his stint in Algeria. His first race was Genoa–Nice, to be staged the next day. More significant than an impressive second place – he was beaten by Bobet in the sprint – was the fact that this took him to the Côte d’Azur at the same time as a certain Jeanine Boëda.

Jeanine – universally known as Nanou – was a mother of two and married to Anquetil’s doctor. As a result, Jeanine and Anquetil had already known each other for several years before their fateful encounter by the Mediterranean; in fact, since he had first been introduced to Dr Boëda, although there is some uncertainty about the exact date. In his daughter’s book, Anquetil is supposed to have been introduced to Dr Boëda by his friend Sadi Duponchel as early as 1951, although Jeanine told me she met Anquetil for the first time only in 1954. It’s possible, of course, that the two men had merely been professional acquaintances for the first three years of their relationship and only later did this extend into a personal sphere. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine Anquetil would have been quite as gauche in 1954 as Jeanine would later describe, suggesting that their first encounter may have been a year or two earlier, before Jacques had been exposed to the high society to which his prodigious early victories and burgeoning wealth would open the door.

Whatever the precise timetable, between his introduction to the doctor and the spring of 1957 he had become an increasingly regular guest at the doctor’s house in the Rouen suburb of Petit-Quevilly, Dr Boëda expressing both a personal and a professional interest in the young man and in his career. Like so many champion cyclists – consider Coppi’s thighs, Indurain’s enormous lungs and Armstrong’s extraordinary ability to cope with lactic acid – Anquetil was in some ways a freak of nature, later being recorded as having the largest heart in French sport. Jeanine, however, found nothing interesting or appealing in the timid young man incapable of stringing more than three words together the first time he ate with them: ‘I remember the first time my husband brought him home for dinner with us. He was on the edge of his seat. You’d almost have thought he’d never seen a knife and fork before in his life. It was only because the kids admired him and played with him that he relaxed a bit. I didn’t find such a bumpkin attractive in the slightest.’

On the other hand, Anquetil, according to his daughter, was immediately smitten – Jeanine was, after all, a dead ringer for Martine Carol (the French screen goddess of the time, whose own personal life was almost as turbulent as Jeanine’s would become, involving as it did four husbands, drugs, an attempted suicide and an early death), and she was also a daughter of a respectable Rouen family. The result was the embodiment of all that which was still unattainable to Anquetil. Sophie recorded his thoughts in Pour l’amour de Jacques:

‘Even though she knocked me out, there was no more to it than that. I may well have been a champion cyclist, but I knew there was still a long way to go if I wanted a woman like that. What’s more, she was the wife of my friend, so even though I fell in love with her straight away, I stopped thinking about it just as quickly.’

The flame appears to have been rekindled pretty quickly in the spring of 1957, however. No sooner had he arrived on the Côte d’Azur than the two had met, and by the end of the next day had begun the affair that would lead to them living together for the next 25 years.

According to Jeanine, the initial meeting was coincidental – she was simply on holiday, staying with friends in Villefranche-sur-Mer near to Nice, with her children, Annie and Alain, but without her husband. Even the meeting after the race the following evening that would spark their affair was only brought about by the insistence of her children to see Anquetil after the finish. She invited him to dinner, and he said yes but then backtracked. In spite of this hesitancy, they ended up dining together anyway, along with a mutual friend. ‘It’s then that Jacques came to my room, on 2 March 1957,’ Jeanine remembers.

Piecing together other elements of the story, though, it would not be unreasonable to assume that their combined presence on the Côte d’Azur in early 1957 had a degree of planning. For a start, Anquetil’s own carefully calculating nature had already manifested itself in his dominance in time trials and would later be so noticeable as to earn him the nickname of ‘Maitre Jacques’ (Master Jacques). Although derived from the French title awarded to lawyers, and indicating the degree of respect he inspired in cycling fans, rather than affection, this also captured perfectly his desire to be in control of every situation (whether as owner of a smallholding or one of the most dominant sports stars of his generation). Nowhere would this be more clearly demonstrated than in his later family arrangements, and there seems little reason to imagine he wouldn’t have employed the same approach when pursuing Jeanine.

He would surely also have been aware that Jeanine had begun to warm to him prior to his departure for Algeria: ‘At the start, he seemed to mess up my life. My husband and kids were too attached to him. But, little by little, I began to follow his career, to look forward to his visits, to enjoy the time he spent with us, laughing, drawing up plans for winter holidays we’d spend together. Thus went our lives until the spring of 1957, when what was bound to happen, happened.’

The impact was immediate and pronounced: ‘By the morning, I knew I would love Jacques for ever. But everything else was terrible: to live with Jacques, to never leave him, to be by his side for every second of every day as I wanted, and as Jacques wanted, I knew I’d have to leave my kids, as I knew my husband would never let them go . . . and I knew I couldn’t have any more kids . . . but Jacques didn’t care. He wanted me!’

It’s at best an unfortunate irony, then, that it was Anquetil’s affection for Annie and Alain that had finally won Jeanine round from her initial distaste when she was preparing herself for what she assumed would be the inevitable consequence of their affair: the eventual loss of her children. ‘It was because he loved the kids,’ she recalls. ‘My husband was very intellectual, and he only saw the children on Sundays, whereas Jacques had a real fondness for them, and they were very much attracted to him. That was the first thing that seduced me. And then he was also a faithful friend, honest, straight, and above all kind and fun to be with.’

Fifty years later, sitting at home in Corsica while her great-granddaughter (Sophie’s daughter) has an afternoon nap – her living room dominated by an imposing portrait of her former husband – it’s difficult to know whether the round-the-clock babysitting service she still provides as an indefatigable 79 year old is evidence of her own affection for children or her continuing attachment to Jacques. Sophie is not her only grandchild (there’s also Steve, son of Alain and Dominique), but it is clearly Annie’s daughter and her children who represent the strongest link to Jacques and are the reason Jeanine settled in Corsica some ten years ago. Annie also lives within a five-minute drive, yet it’s her love for Jacques – ‘I still miss him terribly, every day’ – manifested in her desire to be near Sophie’s family, that shines through.

Certainly, even at an early stage in their affair, when their relationship was still a closely guarded secret, Jeanine demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to accommodate her lover. It was to Jeanine, in fact, that Anquetil entrusted the thankless task of conveying to another former lover his subsequent loss of interest.

The woman in question was Paule Voland, a ballet dancer with the opéra d’Algers. According to an article in the French weekly tabloid France Dimanche (a slightly upmarket version of the News of the World but nevertheless including such headlines as ‘Her Husband Changed into a Woman’, ‘The Most Virile Men are the Most Faithful’ and ‘What Women Really Want to Say to Men but Don’t Dare . . .’), Anquetil was reported to have begun a relationship with her while in Algeria with the army.

Under the title ‘The Mysterious Love of Jacques Anquetil’ – and under the pretext of having overheard Voland whisper to a friend that they planned to marry – the paper boldly trumpeted that the whole of France now knew the identity of the future Mrs Anquetil thanks to this ‘soap opera’ being played out between a ‘big star’ and a ‘pretty dancer’. According to the article, the couple met through Charly Bonardi, at the time president of the Algerian Cycling Union. His wife, who went by the stage name of Mona Gaillard, was the mistress of the opera’s ballet troupe. It was she who took Anquetil under her wing and ‘introduced him to l’Opéra and to the pretty dancers’. The paper also reported that it was she who euphemistically ‘helped him discover all the secrets of life behind the curtain’ – the implications of what this might have meant for a famous young bachelor surrounded by a gaggle of attractive young women are clear.

The attraction – whether in a general sense or in the specific form of Paule Voland (22 years old, daughter of a civil servant and first in her class at the Algiers conservatoire – it’s a surprise there are no ‘vital’ statistics) – certainly appears to have been sufficient to motivate Anquetil to take even greater liberties with his role as a soldier. The paper had him bunking off from barracks every night in a Peugeot 203 bought for the sole purpose of conveying himself the 30 miles from Boufarik, where he was stationed, to the capital. Never mind the curfew or the road blocks – circumvented by distributing pictures and autographs – or the fact that he was supposed to have an armed guard with him whenever he went out training. (Tensions were high in Algeria when Anquetil was there, as the armed struggle for independence had begun in 1954 and had been escalating since 1955 when the Front de Libération Nationale killed 123 civilians in the town of Philippeville – now Skikda – while thousands more had died during the reprisals by the French army.)

According to France Dimanche, the relationship even continued once Anquetil had returned to France at the end of his national service – by which time he had already begun his affair with Jeanine: ‘She went out with him and introduced him to her parents. He took her to France to see Paris.’ They were reportedly pictured hand in hand, and had apparently been to meet Anquetil’s parents as well. On 2 June 1957, with the blessing of the opera’s director, Voland terminated her contract, ‘renouncing a career that she considered incompatible with the duties of marriage’. She announced that their wedding was planned for shortly after the world championships at the end of the summer and recounted how Anquetil phoned her every night from the Tour de France.

Then, the bolt from the blue: at the end of the Tour, Anquetil denied all knowledge of any marriage proposals. In spite of Voland purportedly receiving a telegram telling her not to worry, he would no longer return her calls. But he would speak to a France Dimanche reporter: ‘There’s no question of me getting married, either to Paule Voland or to anyone else. Of course I went out with Paule Voland, but if we’ve got to talk about getting married every time I go out with a woman, we’ve got a lot to talk about. People tell me of a telegram. I can assure you it wasn’t me who sent it, though I’d like to know who did pull that trick. No, right now I’ve other fish to fry. I’m getting ready for the world championships.’

In Sophie’s book, the story is corroborated by Jeanine, who recalled meeting Voland – describing her as a superb young woman – in Rouen, although she insisted Anquetil had made no promises and that there had been nothing more than a brief flirtation between them:

‘There she was in Rouen, not hiding the fact she wanted him to marry her. She couldn’t forget him, she loved him, she knew he loved her, she was ready to offer herself there and then . . . But she was out of luck. Jacques and I were already in love. The situation helped us to relax a bit.’

In fact, the meeting between Jeanine and Voland was far from coincidental: ‘Jacques fobbed her off on me: “Take care of her, Nanou. Tell her whatever you like, show her Rouen, take her to the shops but most of all make sure she gets back on the train.”’

Of course, in typical Anquetil fashion, the backdrop for all this activity in his personal life was his best season yet as a bike rider. With hindsight, it almost seems as if he was combining the two on purpose, though he’d not yet experienced the full extent of the rancour he would incur later for his continued ‘lack of professionalism’ to goad him into such intentional excesses.

It also proves beyond doubt that, although he was in the peculiar position of having the media scrutinise his every move, he didn’t miss out on some of the joys of being a young man. Many people have suggested that Anquetil’s later behaviour was the result of him being deprived of his youth or a chance to enjoy it – or both. His journalist friend Pierre Chany wrote:

After the 1953 Grand Prix des Nations, he no longer belonged to himself. When he retired, he gave the impression he’d been everywhere and done everything. In fact, he was still a kid who knew little about life. When he retired, he uncovered another world.

Philippe Brunel, successor to Chany as chief cycling writer at L’Équipe and friend of Maître Jacques towards the end of his life, told me Anquetil had been forced to live his life backwards. The implication is that the excesses of youth simply came at the end of his life after an enforced period of early maturity. ‘He made a bit of a pig’s ear of things emotionally, but you mustn’t misunderstand it,’ Brunel told me. ‘He hadn’t lived before, so when he got to the end of his career he was a man who hadn’t had adventures. Nothing much had happened in his life. He very quickly became a star and was in the limelight, so he couldn’t do anything without people knowing about it. Anquetil in reality hadn’t lived, so when he finished his career he suddenly wanted to make up for lost time, emotionally and sentimentally. He lived life the wrong way round.’

Yet it was a fact of life in the 1950s that adult responsibilities were often assumed at a much younger age, as had been the case with his father a generation earlier. What’s more, Anquetil’s awareness of and insistence on his own commercial value so early in his career suggests he was far from a callow youth. Even if living life as a national hero may have been unusual, Anquetil doesn’t seem to have let that get in the way of him making the most of his bachelorhood. Indeed, if any excuse needs to be made for his later family arrangements, it would seem to be more a case, as with his contract negotiations, of too much, too soon, rather than of having lost out. Certainly, he himself acknowledges his enjoyment of being young, free and single. Writing in 1966 in his book En brûlant les étapes – in a chapter entitled ‘First Tour de France, First Victory: Thanks to Darrigade’ – Anquetil describes his friendship with his former teammate: ‘I’d known him since 1953, and he was my best mate. We’d chased after innumerable victories together, and also innumerable girls, with varying fortunes . . .’ If his quotations at the end of his affair with Voland are anything to go by, it must have been Darrigade whose success rate with the girls was lower than his success rate on the bike. Maybe this, and the fact Darrigade could apparently eat more than Anquetil – clearly no mean feat – was the reason for their friendship.

This first victory in the Tour was just the highlight of a remarkable season. Following his second place to Bobet in Genoa–Nice, Anquetil returned to the capital of the Riviera in the leader’s jersey of Paris–Nice for his first overall victory in the race, thanks to his time-trial win on the roller-coaster stage from Alès to Uzès (this in spite of requiring one month and one thousand two hundred kilometres of training to lose the extra ten kilograms that was his leaving present from the army). This immediately propelled him into the position of favourite for the Tour, yet he couldn’t even be certain of being selected. At that time, the Tour was run on a national team basis, and while Anquetil’s star was certainly rising, French national team selector Marcel Bidot had the unenviable task of trying to fit a quart into a pint pot. Alongside Anquetil, he also had to consider three-times winner Bobet and his successor in 1956, Roger Walkowiak, as well as that year’s runner-up, Gilbert Bauvin. He also had to consider how best to make whoever he selected function effectively together, rather than be riven by the rivalries that so often plague teams with too many stars.

To illustrate the complicated politics involved in the selection process, Darrigade, for example, said he would ride only for Anquetil. This was the best support Anquetil could have asked for. Darrigade might have had no chance of winning overall, but his popularity, his willingness to work for the team and his ability to win stages (three in 1957, twenty-two in his career) meant that not selecting him would cause a furore almost as big as if Anquetil were not selected. Darrigade was essential to Anquetil in another way, too. It was he who persuaded Jacques it was high time he rode the Tour: ‘The Tour de France is marvellous, Jacques, an experience you’ll never forget. You should waste no more time.’ Anquetil needed little encouragement. Moreover, in a clear attempt to further unnerve the ever-serious Bobet – his most realistic rival for team leadership – Anquetil responded to Darrigade’s urgings by saying that he would take a suit to be able to go out and about in the evenings to escape the hotels he’d be living in for three weeks. In an event as arduous as the Tour de France, such decadence was hitherto unheard of.

With what turned out to be impeccable timing for Anquetil, Bidot had his mind made up for him by Bobet while he was attempting to become the first Frenchman – and only fourth foreigner – to win the Giro d’Italia. Part way through the race and sitting pretty in the pink jersey of overall leader, Bobet announced, live on the radio, that he had decided against participating in the Tour: ‘I’m leaving it for the youngsters. Let them take the responsibility of winning.’ Whether motivated by his anticipated victory in the Giro or by concerns that his efforts in Italy would cause him to lose form in the Tour is uncertain, but his decision backfired disastrously. First, his confidence in his position in the Giro proved unfounded, and he ended up losing by a meagre 17 seconds to the Italian Gastone Nencini. (His defeat was hastened by provoking the ire of another rival, Charly Gaul, by attacking him while he was answering a call of nature, a move that inspired Gaul, a former butcher, to threaten to turn him into sausage meat and become a deluxe, if unofficial, teammate for Nencini.) More importantly, perhaps, it forced Bidot’s hand, leaving him no option but to build his Tour team around a nucleus of promising young riders, of whom Anquetil was the youngest and most promising. According to Pierre Chany, Anquetil and Darrigade had both been out of the reckoning five minutes before Bobet’s announcement.

Anquetil needed no second invitation, however, and took advantage of the absence of a nominated leader to win his first Tour. Although the overall margin of victory suggests otherwise – he beat Marcel Janssens into second place by nearly 15 minutes – success didn’t come quite as easily as it might have appeared. He won the third stage into Rouen, giving his bouquet to Jeanine, and took the yellow jersey for two days after the stage to Charleroi, yet he was in danger of approaching the Alps with a serious deficit. It was Darrigade, earning the homage Anquetil paid to him in his book, who stressed the dangers of not paying attention in the race. On several occasions, breaks with contenders for overall victory had stolen a march on Anquetil, obliging him to make considerable efforts to reduce the deficit. On one descent in the Ardennes, he missed a bend and had to ride across a field, preceding Lance Armstrong’s famous cyclo-cross escapade in the 2003 Tour by nearly 50 years. Darrigade told him he’d no hope of winning the Tour if he was 15 minutes down by the time they reached the mountains: ‘You have to do something special beforehand.’

Suitably inspired, or perhaps chastened would be a better word, Anquetil attacked in the feeding zone on the last stage before the Alps and made up 11 minutes on his most serious rivals en route to winning the stage into Thonon-les-Bains. He finished close enough to the front on the next stage into the Alpine town of Briançon to regain the yellow jersey, having been fortified both on the rest day and in his passage over the fearsome Col du Galibier by a draught of champagne (the first courtesy of team sponsor Félix Potin, the second received from a supporter in the crowd). By doing so, he won further approving comments from his friend and mentor: ‘I didn’t think you’d be such a good climber. You may not be Charly Gaul, but there isn’t a bloke born who’ll beat you by five minutes.’

Even several further moments of inattention – notably on a transitional stage to the Pyrenees when seven riders from the top ten overall broke away while Anquetil was dawdling at the back of the bunch, requiring Darrigade to lead him in a fearsome pursuit that he later described as the greatest achievement of his career – and what Bidot described as a ‘serious rough patch’ in the Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees, couldn’t prevent Anquetil from extending his lead all the way to Paris, winning the two remaining time trials on the way. In doing so, he became, at 23, the youngest Tour de France winner since the war and at the time the fifth youngest ever. (Only Felice Gimondi and Laurent Fignon have won at a younger age since, while the ‘surprise’ 2007 winner, Alberto ‘Kid’ Contador, was 24.)

The celebrations in Paris included a rapturous reception from the crowds and a telegram from the president. The enthusiasm was exaggerated by the success of the entire French team. In addition to overall victory, it had accumulated 21 days in yellow, the team prize and 12 stage victories. To emphasise Anquetil’s unique stature, hinted at by newspaper headlines such as ‘Anquetil Wins His First Tour de France’ and ‘He Came, He Saw, He Conquered’, Darrigade couldn’t help pointing out that the beaten rivals didn’t just extend to those who’d been in the race. Clearly thinking of Bobet, he said, ‘Jacques was simply the strongest. It seems those who stayed away made the right decision.’ Anquetil himself later referred to Bobet’s decision, telling L’Équipe, ‘It was a brazen challenge. The best way possible to ensure we stuck together as a team.’

After a whirlwind tour of the lucrative post-Tour criteriums, Anquetil again won the Grand Prix Martini and the Grand Prix des Nations (beating Ercole Baldini, the man who broke his hour record, into second both times) before being reunited with Darrigade – along with Italian rider Fernando Terruzzi – for his first appearance at the Paris Six Day, which they of course won. Jean-Paul ollivier reported Anquetil’s response when asked about his preparations for coping with the lack of sleep inevitable in such a race: ‘I’ve been to the circus in Rouen and several times to the cinema. These past few weeks, I’ve quite often not been in bed before midnight, which is as good a preparation as any. It certainly meant I could have some fun with my friends.’

The acclamation of the notoriously hard-to-please Parisian crowd was nothing short of remarkable. Little did Anquetil know, however, that this was as good as it was going to get for some considerable time.

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