The Incredible Cycling Career and Scandalous Life of Jacques Anquetil

Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape

By Paul Howard (Mainstream Publishing, 2008)

Review, History and Commentary by Jeffrey Morseburg

The first English language biography of the Tour de France champion Jacques Anquetil has now become available through Amazon, and the book reveals the incredible twists and turns that the French rider’s route took, not only in his cycling career, but also in his scandalous private life.  Written by the English journalist Paul Howard, the biography is a fulsome and fair account of what was an exciting, unconventional and short life, one that was full of great sporting triumphs, and private behavior that thumbed its nose at convention.

To new cycling fans, the name of the French rider Jacques Anquetil may be one that they have only seen in record books or in online discussions of the relative merits of the great champions of cycling.   Unfortunately, the French rider died of cancer in 1987 at the age of fifty-three, so only had a short reign as one of the sport’s elder statesmen.  Anquetil was the first man to win the Tour de France five times, and also won the other two Grand Tours, the Vuelta de Espana once and the Giro d’ Italia twice.  In 1963 he became the first rider to win both the Vuelta and the Tour in the same season, and he was the second man to win the Giro-Tour double, a feat he first accomplished in 1964.  Only the younger French champion Bernard Hinault, who had ten wins in the grand tours, and Belgium’s Eddy Merckx, with eleven, exceeded Anquetil’s eight grand tour victories.  Yet, in spite of his manifold accomplishments, many French fans never warmed to Anqueil and millions of adoring Frenchmen cheered instead for his longtime rival Raymond Poulidor, known as “the eternal second.”

To the French public, Poulidor had heart, le grand passion, while Anquetil was by nature calculating and always chose races that would add francs to his purse or contribute to his prestige, which again helped the bottom line. He spoke frankly and admitted that if it was not for the money he would have had no interest in riding a bike. Where Poulidor had the reputation for being accessible and never lost the common peasant’s touch, Anquetil had a taste for champagne, lobster and the finer things in life.  He was also world’s apart from the popular French champion Louison Bobet. He never gave in to the life of monk-like denial practiced by the latter, and as a result the two never got on.  Anquetil wanted his champagne lifestyle and to be a champion and, because of his unique abilities and enormous drive, he managed to have it all.  Still, he wept privately when spectators cursed him and spat on him on the roads of the Tour de France.  There is a part of the French character that loves the valiant loser, the lost cause, so if someone is too good, if he wins too handily, it can be hard for the French public to come to like him – as Lance Armstrong has discovered.

Jacques Anquetil, First Five-Time Winner of the Tour de France

Anquetil was one of the few great cyclists who became famous overnight. He came from a modest background and grew up on a strawberry farm in Normandy, close by the cathedral city of Rouen. He only started cycling at sixteen, while attending trade school.  In 1953, as a nineteen year-old “independent,” which was then an intermediate step between amateur and professional status, he became an instant sensation when he raced and won the prestigious Grand Prix des Nations, vanquishing Louison Bobet, the current Tour de France champion in the process.  The Grand Prix des Nations was an arduous 140-kilometer time trial, which served as the unofficial world championship for time specialists, men who raced “against the clock.” The French refer to the time trial as “La Course du la Verite,” or “the race of truth” as there is no pack, no drafting, only the rider against the wind, the chosen course and the sweeping hands of the clock. Until 1988, the Grand Prix des Nations was a major event on the fall cycling calendar.  The unheralded young strawberry picker with his slight carriage and bird legs not only won, he was dominant. The public wanted to know where all the power he used to push the huge gears he favored came from.  This great race autumnal race against the chronograph became Anquetil’s specialty; he entered the Grand Prix de Nations race nine times in his career and won each time.  It has been described as Anquetil’s masterpiece.

Anquetil First Won the Tour in 1957

In 1957, the first year that commercial advertising was allowed to appear on the rider’s clothing, Anquetil, racing for the French National Team, won his first Tour de France. This was the era when the Tour was contested by national teams rather than the trade teams that competed in the race before 1930. In 1957 there were national teams from Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland as well as a number of French regional squads. When the leading French rider of the day, Louison Bobet, who had won the 1953, 1954 and 1955 editions, declined to ride the tour, the French team was built around Anquetil, who was just emerging as a contender for the general classification.  The use of national teams in the tour gave the race a different complexion than we are familiar with today. Instead of a dozen or more trade teams, each with their own commercial interests, the national team format meant that the outstanding riders were concentrated on fewer teams and that nationalism sometimes outweighed other interests.

1957 was not only the year of Jacque Anquetil’s first tour victory, it was also the season that his life took a different turn and in which the first of the many controversies that marked his life and career emerged. Anquetil was always an unconventional cyclist. He insisted on doing things his own way, and even today, those who were around him are still not sure whether his unconventional approach made his career better or diminished him as a rider. Every sport has its conventions and hide-bound traditions and European cycling has more than its share. From early in his career, Anquetil seemed to thumb his nose at each and every fixture of life in the professional peloton. First and foremost, there was his relationship with Jeanine Boeda, who was known by the nickname of “Nanou,” who became French cycling’s “scarlet woman.” Married to Anquetil’s friend and doctor, Jeanine lived in Rouen with her husband and her two children. When she first met Anquetil, she thought the shy young man was a country bumpkin, but he was attracted to the curvy blond with film-star looks the first time they met.  Their affair began in 1957, when the rider was on the Riveria for Paris-Nice, the important early season stage race. Soon afterwards, Jeanine abandoned her husband and children to accompany Anquetil everywhere he went.

Jacques and Jeanine "Nanou" Anquetil

While affaires de couer were tolerated in French society, some discretion was expected of the participants.  So when France’s young sporting hero began to openly carry on an affair with his friend’s wife, including sharing rooms at races, tongues wagged and the affair became a hot topic in gossip columns and the sporting press.  What caused further controversy was that Jacques and Jeanine had violated cycling’s convention against wives or girlfriends traveling with the teams, a convention that still exists today. To the cycling world, the rider’s female companion’s role was to keep the home fires burning and, if she wanted to watch her husband race, there was always the television or the radio.  By tradition, a rider’s family only visited him on the rest day during the three weeks of the Tour de France.

In fact, cycling lore is full of stories of how women “ruined” riders, and over a dinner my friends and I will laugh about the ones that we used to hear in Belgium.  Fausto Coppi, the great Italian “Campionissimo,” carried on a torrid affair with a married woman and it sometimes seemed that every European coach was given a handbook where he was instructed to tell young riders how the immortal Coppi had fallen from grace.  To cycling coaches and managers, especially in Europe, results are everything, and anything that gets in the way of achieving those results is verboten. To them, a pretty blond, brunette or redhead can only be a distraction for the male cycliste, never a plus.  An assignation at the end of a race with a podium girl is one thing, but carrying on an affair was simply not done.

When Anquetil insisted on taking his married mistress on the road with him, it caused a scandal.  Jeanine, who was seven years older that her lover, was a nurse and a mother, though these were only two of the roles she played for her Jacques.  She drove him to the races, motorpaced him with their Mercedes, booked the rooms, carried the bags and even helped with the prize splits in the lucrative post-Tour de France criteriums.  Amazingly, at least to the cycling world, Anquetil’s career did not careen downhill after he met Jeanine.  In fact, she actually brought a new sense of order and purpose to her lover’s career and if anything, he was a better, more confident, more content rider because of her influence.  After all, he was a young man with little life experience when he met Jeanine.  Because this was Anquetil we are speaking of, his trade team’s leader and France’s great cycling hope, Jeanine’s constant presence was grudgingly accepted, especially after her divorce was finally granted and she and Jacques were married.

Anquetil came of age in an era where some of the great champions lived almost monk-like lives of deprivation, but early on he developed the reputation as a rider who hardly trained and liked to go out on the town. While there was some truth to his reputation for late nights and a lack of concentration, once he married Jeanine he spent time at home with his wife and with a small group of mates. He eschewed nightlife and didn’t like being recognized or signing autograph for fans. While Anquetil had a considerable ego and a large dose of Gallic pride, these found expression on the bike, not amongst adoring crowds.  He did hate to train, but then so did many of the riders in his era, who often raced themselves into shape with a hundred and fifty or two hundred days of competition each season.  Jeanine pushed him to train and so dutifully he did, but instead of the steady diet of day long rides recommended by coaches of the day, he preferred intense two or two-and-a-half hour sessions of motorpacing, riding behind the derny at speeds of fifty-five to sixty kilometers per hour.

In the first six decades of its history, the Tour de France was usually won by French riders as the Italians, who were often the only foreigners who could challenge the Gallic riders in the Alps and Pyrenees, preferred to race in Italy. However, because there was often more than one outstanding French rider, the team manager had to be as much a diplomat as a strategist and sometimes the strong egos and personalities of the riders on the team meant that none of them won. In the infamous 1959 tour, Anquetil and his younger rival Roger Riviere let the Spaniard climber Federico Bahamontes win so that their French rival Henry Anglade of the Centre-Midi team couldn’t. The subtext of this dramatic incident was that two different agents represented the three French riders. Riviere and Anquetil were with Daniel Dousset, the leading agent, and Anglade was with the younger Roger Piel, so the tussle was really over the spoils of the lucrative post-Tour criteriums, where the riders made most of their money. When Anquetil let a Spaniard who he knew would be hopeless on the tight turns of the criterium courses win rather than see a French rival emerge victorious, the French public was furious, and he was greeted with jeers when the Tour de France finished on the old Parc des Princes Velodrome.

The Eagle of Toledo, Federico Bahamontes

In 1960, Anquetil decided to concentrate on the Giro d’ Italia, abandoning the role of the great French hope for the Tour de France to Riviere, a former pursuiter and the only man who seemed to be able to challenge Anquetil him in long time trials. Anquetil won the Giro in dominant form, a task that was incredibly difficult for foreign riders to accomplish because of the nationalism of the Italian riders, fans and officials. In the 1960 tour, poor Riviere made the mistake of trying to keep up with the Italian climber Gastone Nenceni, who was just as fast downhill as he was when the terrain tipped up.  On one of the treacherous descents, Riviere went over the side of the cliff and broke his back, an accident that ended his career and made him an invalid. In the end Nenceni emerged victorious, winning the tour by more than five minutes.

Roger Riviere Never Raced Again.

In 1961, with the three-time winner Bobet retired and Riviere crippled, Anquetil asked the French team manager Marcel Bidot to build the national team around him, and the manager agreed. Buoyed by his growing list of triumphs and ready to assert himself as the leader or patron of the peloton, Anquetil decided to put his stamp on the Tour de France. He brashly announced his intention to lead the tour from beginning to end before the start of the race. In those days, the tour often had half stages, two stages on the same day, and after the first flat stage was won by his French teammate Andre Darrigade, Anquetil won the time trial and pulled on the malliot jaune of the leader of the Tour de France, which he was to wear all the way to Paris three weeks later. Unfortunately, his dominance was so great that it killed all suspense and once again, thousands of fans jeered him at the finish in Paris. Winning the race was not enough for the French fans, who cared deeply about the method used to win the Tour de France as well as the elan of the victor. To cap off a brilliant year, Anquetil he won the Grand Prix des Nations and in the fall was awarded the Super Prestige International Pernod award, which was given to the world’s top professional cyclist.

The Crafty, Voluble Director Rapael Geminiani

In 1962, the Tour de France was re-structured and one of the decisions the organizers made was to bring the trade teams back to the race after an absence of more than thirty years.  Six sponsored French teams lined up with fifty French cyclists in all and the Italians were represented by six squadras with fifty-two Italian riders between them. The rest of the riders on the teams were from Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britian.   Anquetil and his teamates would contest the race for the ACBB team, wearing the colors of their sponsor St. Raphael. Raphael Geminiani, the crafty former star rider, now ran the ACBB team.  The agressive Geminiani, who Anquetil had initially sought to replace, built his team around Anqueil and together they would set the cycling world on fire.

The 1962 Tour was a seesaw battle – no less than seven riders wore the yellow jersey. The race was marred, however, when fourteen riders pulled out of the race after stage thirteen in the Alps. They claimed they had eaten bad fish, but others suspected tainted drugs were the cause of their withdrawal. In the late stages of the race, the outstanding Flemish rider Josef “Jef” Plankaert, who was having a career year, took the yellow jersey. The tour of ‘62 also marked the emergence of Raymond Poulidor, who attacked during the mountainous 19th stage and gained so much time that he was catapulted into third overall on the classification general.  As for Anquetil, he and Geminiani knew that with his prowess against the clock all he had to do was keep within striking distance of the top of the overall standings. The blond rider from Normandy was always at a slight disadvantage to the pure climbers on the steep climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees, so he employed a strategy of not following every attack, limiting his losses by climbing at his own pace and keeping something in reserve until he needed an all-out effort. True to plan, Anquetil captured the yellow jersey with a decisive victory in the Stage 20 time trial. He only wore it on the final two inconsequential stages that took the remaining riders to Paris, but all that mattered to him was that he had it at the finish.

In 1963 it seemed like the Tour organizers wanted to end Anquetil’s dominance, as they reduced the distance of the time trial stages to lessen the advantage he could build up over mere mortals in the races against the clock. This was also the 50th anniversary of the Tour de France and if Anquetil could win the silver edition of the race, he would be the first man to triumph more than three times.   Once the tour entered the mountains, it became a battle between Anquetil and the great Spanish climber Federico Bahmontes who pulled on the maillot jaune on the 15th stage.  On the next stage Anquetil was having a difficult time keeping the Spanish climbing machine in check, so on the leg to Chamonix, where Bahamontes had opened a gap, the French rider feigned a bicycle problem and switched from a lightweight climbing machine to a more stable bike for the long, fast descent, where he caught the man known as “The Eagle of Toledo.” The Spanish rider has always felt the Tour organizers had conspired to help Anquetil against him, to prevent a Spaniard from winning.   Once again, Anquetil triumphed a in the time trial, widening his lead to three and a half minutes at the finish.

The Beloved Mercier Star Raymond Poulidor, "The Eternal Second."

The 1964 Tour de France will always be remembered for the epic battle between Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Once again, the yellow jersey changed hands in the early stages between riders who had little chance of winning in the end, for the calculating Anquetil was only concerned with who wore the maillot jaune into Paris. He and his team director Geminiani had no interest in defending the yellow fleece any longer than necessary.  Poulidor was clearly superior in the mountains that year and on the rest day in the little Pyrenean tax haven of Andorra, between mountain stages, Anquetil made the mistake of attending a barbeque with his wife, where he ate some lamb that upset his system.  Thumbing his nose at convention, he also failed to ride on the rest day, something that riders always feel they need to do during the long stage races in order to keep their legs loose.  The next day’s race, Stage 14, went up the 26 kilometer Col de l’Envalira right away and because Anquetil had failed to warm up he was unable to answer the attacks that came right after the start. He was in such discomfort that he actually climbed off the bike at one point, but was shamed into starting to chase by his teammate Louis Rostollan.  Legend has it that Geminiani gave him some champagne to settle his stomach, but in any event, he began to recover and with 150 kilometers of descents and flats remaining in the stage, gradually reeled in the leaders, finally catching them before the finish in Toulouse and actually putting some time into Poulidor, who flatted late in the race.

Elbow-to-Elbow on the Puy-de-Dome, The Epic Stage 20 of the 1964 Tour de France

Despite stage wins by Poulodoir and Bahamontes in the mountains, Anquetil captured the maillot jaune after the time trial that finished in Bayonne, but his lead was less than a minute.  This set up a show down that all France was waiting for on the slopes of the volcanic peak known as the Puy-de-Dome. Stage twenty went down as one of the great races in the history of the tour, for Raymond Poulidor was determined to drop Anquetil on the slopes of the last significant climb of the 51st tour. Despite acceleration after acceleration, with handebar-to-handlebar racing on the steep climb, though, “Poupou” couldn’t seem to get a gap.  Between bluffing and sheer willpower, Anquetil managed to stay with crowd favorite Poupou until the last steep incline of the race.  In the rarefied air at the top of of the 4,642 foot mountain, at the flame rouge banner that marked one kilometer to go, Poulidor managed to finally get his opponent to crack and by the finish had opened a small gap.  As Anquetil collapsed after the finish he asked his director what his lead was now over  Poulidor and when he was told it was fourteen seconds he said “That’s one more than I need, I have thirteen in hand.”  So, because of Anquetil’s time trialing ability, the race was as good as finished.  Once again he won the final time trial, from Versailles to Paris, but at the finish in Paris, Anquetil was only 55 seconds ahead of Poulidor.

The 1964 TDF Podium - Anquetil, Poulidor, Bahamontes

Anquetil’s greatest and strangest triumph was the Dauphine-Libere-Bordeaux-Paris “double” of 1965.  In cycling, a double had come to mean racing and winning two of the major national tours in the same season, but Anquetil’s manager, the  gesturing, gesticulating, volatile Geminiani, had come up with a crazy new double, the concept of riding a stage race and a one day classic back-to-back.  The Dauphine Libere, which is named for the regional newspaper that sponsored it, is the second most prestigious French stage race after the Tour de France. In that era, the epic 370-mile Bordeaux-Paris, longest of the single-day “classics, started just hours after the Dauphine finished. To Geminiani, who was a tireless promoter, the idea of Anquetil riding and possibly winning these two events back to back would be a massive publicity coup for their new sponsor, Ford Motor Company, which was making a big push in Europe.  However, to his rider, the one who would actually have to race five hundred miles in two days, the idea was perfectly insane.  So, the manager and the rider’s wife conspired together and, when both expressed doubts as to whether even the great Anquetil was capable of riding and winning the Dauphine and Bordeaux-Paris back to back, poor Jacques declared he was all in.  Perhaps he could use the double to put some dent into the popularity of Poulidor, the French public’s favorite cycliste.

The Headline Says it All...The Extraordinary Exploit of Jacques Anquetil

Many years ago, when I had the opportunity to meet cyclists from the 1930s and 1940s, they would scoff at how “soft” cycling had become. They would say “in my day, one of us had to be on the track at all times during a six day track race.” Imagine one rider having to be on the track at all times for the 144 hours a six-day lasted!  They would show me albums of photos of epic stage races that no longer existed like the three-day Berlin-Copenhagen Runt of the late 1930s. The stage races of that era often had 250-mile stages that took ten or twelve hours to cover.  Unbelievable.  Just imagine riding them on single-speed bicycles and having to repair your own bike on the awful goat tracks that were the “roads” they raced – or survived – over in the Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites. Is it a wonder why doping – mainly stimulants like strychnine – was part of cycling since its inception?  Now, even by the 1960s, the Bordeaux-Paris classic was a vestigial part of the earlier lost world of Pre-War cycling, so epic that it bordered on the ridiculous for riders who had to race and show the colors of the sponsor all the time.

Now, when I witnessed the life of the professional riders of the 1980s up close, I never felt their life was soft, that it was anything but backbreaking, especially for the winter track riders or those who raced for the small hand-to-mouth professional squads.  When I watched the pros race seven hours a night in the six day races and then climb in the car on the seventh day to drive to the next race, I would think ironically, “Oh, yes, what an easy life!”  I remember the carousing, combative Aussie professional Gary Wiggins, father of the current British Olympic champion, riding most of an entire six day season with a painful saddle boil – which is a nice way of describing a raging, infected abscess – that had to be drained every night.  Yet Wiggins had to keep racing because if you signed a contract with the six-day organizers, with what some of the riders called “the mafia,” you had better be on each and every starting line or you wouldn’t keep getting the invitations for the show.

Well, back to the crazy Dauphine-Libiere-Bordeaux-Paris double.  The Dauphine itself was epic that year, with stage after stage run in torrential spring rain, conditions that Anquetil never liked.  After a tremendous battle with his rival Poudoir, he triumphed in the Dauphine, winning the final time trial in Avignon to confirm the win.   It was a dominating performance, three stage victories, second in the points classification, second in the mountains competition and minutes clear of everyone else in the G.C. After the podium festivities were over, he ate a dinner of steak tartar, drank two beers and was flown from Nimes across France in a chartered plane, rumored to have been provided by now less an august figure than General de Gaulle, Monsieur le President.  He had time for a quick massage in the airport terminal and then tried to catch a few hours of fitful sleep in Bordeaux before a pre-race meal.

A Great Crowd Greeted Anquetil at Parc des Princes

While all of the single-day classics can be described as demanding races, at 370 miles, the now-extinct Bordeaux-Paris race was so long that it bordered on the inhuman. The race started at 2:00 in the morning, so the half-day long event would finish in prime time the next afternoon.  The conditions made the race one of the most dangerous on the schedule. To make the concept of Bordeaux-Paris even more difficult for non-Europeans to understand, the first half of the race was run under normal rules, with the usual pack of riders and breakaways. However, in the second half of the race, which fortunately began after it became light, each of the rider was picked up by a pacer on a small motorized cycle called a derny, at which point, with each combatant in the slipstream of the pacer, speeds in the race could reach more than forty miles an hour. There were a number of derny-paced events on the calendar in that era, but today, even on the velodrome, they are rare.

So, at 2:00, Anquetil dutifully pushed off into the cool, spring darkness with the rest of the pack.  As tired as he was after ten days of racing and little rest, he managed not only stay on his bike but remain with the lead pack.  Now, these were the days before extensive drug testing and Anquetil made no bones about the fact that he and the rest of the riders relied on stimulants to get themselves up for one infernal event after another. He later told interviewers that he could never have completed Bordeaux-Paris “on sugar water” and scoffed at riders who claimed to have won the Tour de France without any sort of aid for a bad day.  So, we have to assume that to push his body beyond what was reasonable, healthy or indeed even possible, he relied on some form of stimulants.  However, after racing almost three hundred miles in less than 24 hours, Anquetil was so exhausted, so spent, that he quit and climbed in the car before first light. His manager, Germiniani, ever the psychologist, called him a quitter – and things that I won’t repeat here – and then, in a fury, the already thin Frenchman, who now looked like a starving prisoner, re-mounted his steel steed and joined the hunt.  The derny portion of the race was an epic battle, where a number of the racers had to chase down Francois Mahe, who had built up a considerable lead after an early attack, but finally the pursuers caught him. Then Anquetil had to battle the British rider Tom Simpson in the last miles of the race, alternating attacks with his Ford-France teammate Jean Stablinski. Finally, the gutsy British rider cracked and Anquetil was able to ride into the Parc des Princes stadium to a rapturous welcome, the greatest of his career.

Rating: 5 Stars

Copyright Jeffrey Morseburg 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior written permission.

This entry was posted in Bicycle Racers, Bicycle Racing, Bicycling History, Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, Uncategorized, Velodromes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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