A butcher in a stained apron and his wife in a bright house-dress stood on tiptoes as the bike racers streamed by in a long ribbon of lavenders and greens and umbers and blacks and golds. "Look at them!" said the butcher disdainfully, struggling to see over a roof of heads. "All muscles and no brains. What would they be without their muscles?"
The woman blinked through the blue-gray cloud from her husband's Gitane cigarette. "Butchers," she said.
Every year in the heat of summer the French play out the complex tragicomedy known as the Tour de France, and every year families are broken, pitched battles are fought and lifelong friendships reft over the hot-weather passions thus aroused. "You Americans can never understand the Tour," a Frenchman told me. "If you cannot understand such a simple thing as the soufflé, how do you expect to understand the Tour? My advice is do not trouble yourself to try. Go and enjoy some raspberries instead!"
"It's just a bike race, isn't it?" I asked.
August 21, 1966
"Oh, yes!" said the Frenchman. "It is just a bike race, and Jeanne Moreau is just a female."
After following the Tour from its start in Nancy to its conclusion in Paris, I am forced to agree that the Tour de France is not just a bike race. Who ever heard of a bike race that lasts three weeks and features a dozen dozen athletes fetchingly attired in advertising messages front and derri√®re, cycling their hearts out with the help of a load of Dexedrine that would stagger even the students at NYU and Berkeley? And who ever heard of a bike race that meanders through an entire country, a gypsy caravan covering almost 3,000 miles of peddling and pedaling until one contestant finally wins and becomes—presto! chango!—an instant franc millionaire? And who ever heard of a bike race in which the roadside partisans spray the overheated contestants with garden hoses, hand them refreshments on the fly, give them discreet pushes on the steep grades—or throw tacks in front of their wheels, taunt them with bottles of cool, clear water and sometimes beat them up?
Parallels to other sports events in other countries simply do not exist. For one thing, nobody really sees the Tour. How can you see it? Let us suppose that the day's program calls for a 164-mile stage from Chamonix to St.-Etienne. The entire route is sealed off by police and turned into a one-way passage for the racing. You can watch the start at Chamonix, or you can pick a spot alongside the road and wait for hours to see the racers whiz by or you can watch them arrive at St.-Etienne. No matter what you do, you will see no more than an eyeblink of what goes on. One might just as well watch the World Series by training a telescope on a spot between first and second base and watching the action there for a third of an inning.
None of this bothers the French, who do not need to see a sports event to enjoy it. Anyway, the Tour de France is no mere sports event but a social, patriotic, political and semireligious spectacle as well, with its roots deep in the medieval concepts of knight and attendant, the mystique of giants and heroes and villains. It is impossible for French journalists to color the Tour anything but purple. The literary pattern was established in 1903 by Henri Desgrange, who conceived the idea of the race, compared himself to Emile Zola and then wrote in his newspaper for a starter: "From Paris to the blue waves of the Mediterranean, from Marseille to Bordeaux, passing along all the roseate and dreamy roads, sleeping under the sun, across the calm of the fields of the Vendée, following the Loire, which flows on still and silent, our men are going to race madly, un-flaggingly...."
Racers who take the lead find themselves described in press and on radio as gods and demigods, Apollos, eagles, knights, heroes. When someone pedals after the leader, he "attacks." Contestants who give chase are "jackals," nipping at the heels of the "lions of the road." This year an otherwise calm newspaper in the east of France headlined on opening day: THE 130 GIANTS ARE OFF! and noted elsewhere on Page One that Charles de Gaulle had left for the Soviet Union. The public address announcer at the finish line in Pau, one of 22 daily stop-offs in the Tour, declaimed to a breathless crowd: "The giants are now pedaling through a horrifying mountainous pass!" and later, "The kings of the road are defeating the mountains with great nobility in a setting of antique splendor!" He really said that. Feuding cyclists inevitably are tagged "Cain and Abel"; a teammate who fails to help out becomes an overnight "Judas," and every stage of the race brings its apocalypse, its Armageddon or its apotheosis. Anyone who finishes the race is a hero (in a typical year about half the starters finish; the rest drop out because of sunstroke, frostbite, broken limbs, saddle sores, overstimulation by goofballs and sometimes even death). The cyclist who finishes last has come to be known as the Lanterne Rouge, or Red Lamp, and he is acclaimed and interviewed along with the rest. After all, another six or eight dozen did not finish at all. The Lanterne Rouge may have lost his toenails from the constant forward pressure in his cycling shoes, his backside may be pocked by suppurating ulcers and his mind so addled by amphetamine that he is not sure of his name, but he is a hero, a major athletic figure, a finisher in the Tour de France, the most trying sports event on earth.
"The Tour is finished," Founder Desgrange wrote in 1904 in his newspaper, L'Auto, "and I can assure you that the second edition has been the last—killed by its own success, by the uncontrollable passions which it has released. The fanatical spectators have caused us to forget any ideas of preserving the Tour de France." In the first year of the Tour a naturalized Frenchman of Italian birth had been the winner, and the next year supporters of a French cyclist set out to keep the foreigner from repeating. Cycling near St.-Etienne, he was attacked by a mob, and one of his racing mates badly injured. From N√Æmes to Toulouse the sporadic attacks continued, and police had to pull guns to protect the lead riders. To keep the race from collapsing on the spot Desgrange arranged for predawn starts, secret reroutings and police protection the length of the caravan. But on the final stage, the leg into Paris, cyclists were stopped by improvised barricades of trees, wagons and hay, and each time were set upon by the locals. It was after this that Desgrange issued his gloomy forecast.
But somehow the Tour continued the next year, and every nonwar year since, with frequent outbursts of violence and as many as 12,000 policemen (this year's complement) on the job. Long stretches of tack-strewn road became a commonplace, and racers would ride each stage with six or seven spare tires looped around their necks. In 1913 tacks forced two dozen riders to abandon the Tour on a single leg. One cyclist, Duboc, was headed for the lead when he accepted a refreshment from a spectator and collapsed, apparently poisoned. The Belgians, one of whom was the race leader, quit en masse to protest the pepper that was being flung into their faces. Bikes were sabotaged by second-story men while their owners slept at night. From time to time cyclists had to resort to false hair and beards, stage makeup and phony uniforms to get through certain villages without being buried in garbage, or simply smacked in the mouth.
And yet every threat by its backers to call off the Tour only brought a national cry of anguish from the French. No sports event ever became a monument so quickly, surviving even its own imperfections and its own tragedies, building an overnight folklore. One spoke reverently of the great Péllissier, who suffered serious injuries at the hands of an adulatory mob when he crossed the finish line in Paris. And how could one forget the tragic René Pot-tier, who won the Tour in 1906 and soon afterward was found, inexplicably, dead by his own hand? In the Tour of two years later René's brother, André, reached the summit of the Ballon d'Alsace and dismounted to salute a small monument to his brother's memory. Sobbing uncontrollably, young Pottier was persuaded to remount his bicycle, but he never regained the time lost at the monument and finished in 17th place. And what of the Spaniard Brambilla, who had one Tour all but sewn up, only to lose on the final lap? Brambilla went into a deep depression, and one day his friends found him burying his bicycle, upright like a knight's charger, in a pit in his garden. Another Spaniard, Cepeda, took a bad fall and kept on riding. Later he collapsed, was taken to the hospital at Grenoble and died of a fractured skull. André Darrigade whirled into the Parc des Princes in Paris, traditional finishing place for the Tour, well in the lead for his sixth stage victory of the 1958 race. An official stumbled into Darrigade's path, and the two of them collapsed in a tangle of spokes and flesh. Darrigade recovered to ride the lap of honor with his head turbaned in bandages. The official died.
But not all the memories are so grim. Some recall the North African racer, Zaaf, who made a lone breakaway in the hot sun. Nipping at a flask of Corbi√®re wine, he pedaled into a tidy lead, fell off his bike, remounted and rode off in the opposite direction, meeting the field head on in a few short minutes. And who could forget the Spaniard Bahamontes, who used to race to the top of a difficult mountain and then dismount, eat ice cream and joke with the crowd while waiting for his pursuers to come into sight? Then he would wave at them and take off for the next challenge. Unfortunately for Bahamontes, he was less inspired on the flat and won only one Tour, although he collected thousands of dollars in special prizes for being first over this mountain and that. The Frenchman Henri Alavoine had his own climbing technique. He would seek out one of the official cars chugging up a steep grade and engage the passengers in long argument over some technicality of the rules, all the time clinging tightly to the door and getting a free lift. The rules forbade such tows, but who could turn the poor gar√ßon away when he had a serious point to discuss? In the 1935 Tour, Romain Maes of Belgium opened up a slight lead on the first stage of the race, reached a railroad crossing just before a long freight train came by and thereby improved his lead so much that he was never headed for the rest of the race. The Tour de France is not always to the swift.
The French family packs a picnic lunch and supper, a bag of metal petanque balls, a deck of cards and the dog into the family Simca and heads for a vantage point to watch the annual appearance of the Tour de France. For brief seconds they see the cyclists flowing by, usually in a thick pack called the peloton, moving at speeds up to 45 and 50 mph. But before that fleeting sight they spend hours killing time and watching an outlandish commercial spectacle. The honky-tonk procession that winds past the spectator ahead of the cyclists is aimed at selling products, but judging from the remarks of the onlookers, it is viewed largely as comic relief, a peg on which to hang the French inner craving for ridicule and lampoon. I observed the caravan as it arrived at that day's finish line in a small southern town, and my notebook contains the following loose-knit impressions:
Two motorcycle cops blast their engines and race along edges of crowd, trimming back exactly as barber trims hair. Here is caravan! Four Peugeots in beautiful blue-and-white arrive with musicians on top clinging to platforms. Sign bills one as "Bernard Laroche, accordion champion of France." Not Olympic champion, just champion of France. Important distinction. Bernard is playing as fast as he can move hands, but nobody can hear him, because of din from horns and engines and frantic commercial spiel coming from man at mike alongside finish line. Bernard plays heart out, you feel sorry for the poor guy. He is advertising Camping-Gaz, a butane.
Here come five trucks advertising Catch, an insecticide. On top of each truck is huge fly or mosquito, dead on his back, feet sticking skyward. Very appealing. Crowd reacts with great ennui. Coffee truck comes by, and announcer screams, "This coffee is really good, folks!" Crowd not interested. Bernard Laroche runs up to finish-line microphone just as Esso truck comes along with Mettez un Tigre dans Votre Moteur" lettered on side, followed by another car pushing hair tonic, another with a giant power saw on top and then a Singer sewing-machine truck bearing words, "Singer, your sincere friend," and all of them equipped with loudspeakers blaring commercial messages, but not one of them can be heard. Bernard Laroche and his champion accordion have taken over the P.A. system, and here he goes! He plays the Minute Waltz in 27 seconds by my watch, beating Liberace's record by eight seconds. Can see how he became champion of France. Another accordionist comes by atop another truck, and he is billed as "Champion Accordionist of World!" Does not faze Bernard; he plays on; he has the mike.
Now comes truck, topped by huge plastic banana, sponsored by Le Comité de Propagande de la Banane, whose sign points out that banana is "Le Fruit √† Maillot Jaune," the fruit with the yellow jersey. Significant because the daily leader of Tour de France is allowed to wear a maillot jaune, symbolic of his excellence, and so does banana. Get it?
Here come three baton twirlers billed as "Les Majorettes championnes des U.S.A." They are advertising Europe 1, a big radio station, and they are probably worst twirlers extant. Wear white crash helmets and short skirts and boots, and they stop often to retrieve dropped batons and try to pick up beat from little combo called Les Haricots Rouges, the Red Beans. Nobody can hear Red Beans because Bernard Laroche still has microphone. "Why do those girls wear crash helmets?" I ask, but my question is answered instantly when one of the majorettes conks self on helmet. "They wear them not only for safety," says a friend, "but also because they are bald!"
For an hour or more great procession keeps coming. Announcer regains microphone from Bernard Laroche and begins shilling for passing products. A car advertising Suze aperitif goes by, and harassed announcer informs bored crowd that Suze is a wonderful product and will kill bugs one! two! three! "He is probably right," says man next to me. Giant beer barrel rolls by on truck, topped by sign announcing "Champigneulles, queen of beers, the most important brewery in the Common Market." Atop the barrel sits still another accordionist, face covered with accumulated chalky dust of the countryside, fingers racing silently across keys. "What a job!" says a man. "I would rather have a thorn in my foot for a living." Trucks and cars come by advertising Coper p√¢té de canard, Pastis-51, Longines watches, Poulain chocolate, Mercedes ("the Good Star of the Tour"), kitchen ranges, refrigerators, freezers, glue, gasoline, soft drinks, some 90 products in all, and each vehicle with its own distinctive screaming attention-getting noise. One modest little automobile rolls by silently, its panels advertising L'Humanité, Communist newspaper of Paris. "There they go," says friend. "For once the Communists are making converts by keeping quiet." Truck marked L'EQUIPE screeches to stop, and two men begin shouting from tailgate, "Allons-y, les Sportifs!" Come on, sports! Afraid to risk being stigmatized as nonsport, I line up for privilege of paying 40¢ for L'Equipe's special edition, which includes five copies of other magazines published by L'Equipe company, all at least six months old. "That's how they get rid of back copies," man explains. "This morning I paid 10¢ for a special edition of another paper, and I got three TV programs from 1965. The very definition of useless!" Fat man pedals up to knot of local officials and delivers case of cold beer from deep box over front wheel. "What are you waiting for?" somebody shouts. "Join the Tour!" Fat man cries, "I am not crazy," pedals stoutly away. At last procession ends; short lull, and then far down road I can see a flash of color that marks first cyclists, straining and wiggling up the grade en dansant, like dancers. Who are these interlopers? I say to self. What are they selling?
The interlopers, themselves festooned in advertising patches like cars at the Indianapolis 500, started this year from Nancy, an industrial town near the German border and not far away from the fields where they say Joan of Arc tended her sheep. In a chill morning mist, the leader of a French Army contingent barked "Envoyez!", the tricolor creaked up a wooden shaft and La Marseillaise filled every corner of Stanislas Square. The cyclists pedaled slowly down a long row of plane trees, eased up to the starting line and then shot away with a speed that came as a shock to those seeing the race for the first time. "Outsiders have a tendency to think of the Tour de France as a leisurely spin across 4,300 kilometers," an official explained, "with the winner being the man with the most stamina, like the winner of a marathon running race. But the Tour actually is a series of longdistance sprints, with overnight rests in between." Indeed, the average speed for the 2,688-mile race is between 20 and 25 mph, and when one takes into consideration flat tires, steep mountain grades, icy passes and rough spots where bikes must be walked or carried, one sees that downhill speeds must nearly double the average, and speeds on the flats have to stay near the 35-mph mark if the rider is to have a chance. Add to this the behavior of the domestiques, or support riders, and one can see how the race involves brain and brawn in a torturously subtle blend. Each 10-man team has one, or sometimes two, riders who are reckoned to have a chance to win; all the others are domestiques, helpers, attendants for the stars of the Tour. The domestiques pace their heroes, serve as shields for them when the wind is breaking across the road, provide slipstreams in which the hero can pedal with less effort, and keep a weather eye out for stars of other teams attempting breakaways. Like picadors, they harass enemy racers. Sometimes they will form a slow-moving clot to hold back an attacker while their own man pedals into a solid lead. When an enemy star breaks away, opposing domestiques sprint after him, sometimes sacrificing themselves for the remainder of the stage merely to put the stopper on a challenger, like pawns in a chess game. It is not unknown for overeager domestiques to yank enemy stars by the sweater, try to dump their bikes and engage in other hanky-panky. There is something in excess of $100,000 in prize money hanging on the race, and by tradition it is divided among domestiques, with the stars making their own incomes from side money that pours in with each success. The smell of $100,000 seems to be enough to dispel the usual French sense of fair play. This year two riders were fined and set back to the last two places for dirty play. Others were not caught, or caught and forgiven.
Even before the posterior of the last cyclist had disappeared from the environs of Nancy, headed for the Meuse and the Forest of Ardennes to the north, the results of this year's 22-day Tour had been preordained by the French press. The matter was summed up by L'Equipe, the sporting daily which, along with Le Parisien Liberé, sponsors the race. L'Equipe headlined: ANQUETIL'S SIXTH GREAT YEAR or POULIDOR'S FIRST? There were 128 other racers in the Tour, but there was no doubt in any Frenchman's mind that the race would be between the two French farmers' sons, one of them Anquetil, the Babe Ruth of cycling, the other Poulidor, a Jimmy Stewart type who never seems to win but charms everybody while losing.
Jacques Anquetil, a blond and handsome Norman with a chic wife and several million dollars, had last appeared in the Tour of 1964, when he had rattled off his fifth win, the last four consecutively, an accomplishment roughly equivalent to leading the major leagues in batting, home runs and RBIs four years in a row. Only 55 seconds behind the superstar Anquetil in that 1964 race, the closest in history, had come the hapless Raymond Poulidor, the poor-but-earnest racer with the sloping, sad eyes and the shy, friendly smile. All of France knew how to evaluate and handicap the two: Poulidor was the stronger, particularly in the high mountain passes, but his sweet innocence was no match for the cunning, intellectual Anquetil, who utilized his domestiques with consummate cleverness to thwart Poulidor at every opportunity.
Nonetheless, Jacques was now an aging 32, two years older than the hungry Poulidor. Maybe this Tour would mark the first victory for the perennial loser, rewarding him for the stolid indefatigability with which the Frenchman in the street easily identified. You could get an argument on behalf of either cyclist; in fact, such arguments were hard to avoid, especially after the two stars had begun to quarrel between themselves. Their original strategy for the first half of the Tour had been to cycle together, providing pacemaking and windcutting assistance, thus breaking the wills and spirits of the competition. Then, with the German, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and Italian riders disposed of, the Frenchmen Poulidor and Anquetil would duel it out to the finish for the glory of France and their sponsors. The only problem was that the two began feuding on an early leg after Poulidor was knocked from his bike by one of the official cars that dart around the Tour like foxhounds. Announced Poulidor as he limped across the finish line of the stage: "Anquetil saw me fall, and the moment I fell he really started going. Do you think this is a loyal sporting attitude?"
The Tour wound northward and then westward, passing through the coal and grime and steel country of France, into a snippet of Belgium, back to France through the nostalgic town of Armenti√®res, along the windswept beaches on the Channel coast, through cities like Dunkerque and Dieppe and then southward down the Atlantic coast, with Anquetil and Poulidor spatting like two old washerwomen all the way. A German, Rudy Altig, held onto the maillot jaune for almost half the Tour, and then an Italian took over. It was not until the 11th leg that a Frenchman pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time, and then it was not Anquetil or Poulidor, but a virtual unknown, a domestique named Jean-Claude Lebaube. The two great stars of the Tour were seven minutes behind.
I made the mistake of bringing the matter up indirectly in the Welcome Bar, a little spa delightfully named in Franglais and perched back off the hot streets in the Place St. Georges in the ancient town of Toulouse. All I said was, "That was an interesting stage today, wasn't it?" There were six people in the bar at the time: four men, including the bartender, and two middle-aged women. Within 15 minutes of my opening remark there were at least 20 people in the bar, attracted by the shouting and screaming, and all of them joining in.
"I will bet anybody in the house a bottle of champagne against Anquetil!" shouted Dédé, the bartender, thus offering a ferocious underlay, as is the custom of French bartenders. Several accepted the bet. A woman said that Anquetil was the best racer because "he has sensitivity," and another answered, "So does a jellyfish!"
"Poulidor hurt Anquetil's feelings with that crack today," said a woman with a Pinocchio nose. "He should be ashamed of himself. That Poulidor, he is nothing but a packet of muscles. He should go and tend his cows!"
I thought of an instant way to quiet the trouble I had started. I proposed a toast to Charles de Gaulle. "No, thanks," said the woman with the long nose.
"Why not?" I asked.
"If you paid my taxes, you'd know why not!"
"I will toast with you," said another man. "To the great De Gaulle!"
Said the woman: "Monsieur, you are confusing tall-ness with greatness."
"Perhaps you should change your nationality," a man sitting alone at a corner table called to the woman.
"I am French!" the woman cried. "I would not change my nationality for anyone."
"Well spoken!" said a man with his head half resting in his beer. "Neither would I."
"What nationality are you?" the woman asked.
When the arguments were at their dissonant peak, a friend and I ducked into the night. "You think they're all upset," my friend said. "That shows what you know about the French. Listen to them yammering at each other. They've never been happier."
No edition of the Tour de France is complete without a scandal, and the 1966 cause cél√®bre took place smack in the middle of the Anquetil-Poulidor feud, momentarily making a grateful nation forget that its two heroes were rapidly blowing the race by their childish vendetta. One evening at 6:30 Poulidor was getting a rubdown in his room at the Hotel de Normandie in Bordeaux when two doctors and a policeman banged on the door. Before Poulidor could struggle into his pants, the awesome trio was standing in front of him demanding a specimen for laboratory analysis. "You realize, gentlemen, that it is not easy to give such a specimen when one is under emotional shock," Poulidor said. Several minutes later the doctors departed, carrying two bottles.
Word went from hotel to hotel, where the different teams were quartered, as quickly as by pneumatique. Zut, alors! The medics were testing Poulidor! Well, hadn't they pulled something like that every year? Yes, but this year was different! Something would have to be done!
This year was different, because the sponsors of the Tour, along with the new Minister of Youth and Sport, a cabinet officer, had decided to make a frontal assault on the touchy subject of goofballs, which had been sustaining and succoring Tour de France racers ever since pills were invented. Every year, with no lack of bombast, Tour officials had been saying that the goofballs had to go, but this year they had backed that up by pushing through new laws providing for fines up to $1,000 and a year in jail. The spectacle of Poulidor being hauled off to the penitentiary struck terror into the other racers, because if Poulidor went, no one on the stuff was safe. Secret covenants were secretly arrived at, and the next morning the Tour departed from Bordeaux toward Bayonne at an ominously slow pace. Officials pulled their cars alongside the riders and inquired as to why they could not seem to move faster than a tortoisian 10 mph.
"Yesterday," said one of the racers, "an attempt was made against freedom of work and human dignity." He pedaled off, leaving the officials to ponder that arcane explanation. A few minutes later, along a shady stretch south of Bordeaux, the whole Tour de France ground to a stop. A Spanish racer started it by dismounting; a second joined him, and then every cyclist stepped from his bike and began slowly walking down the road, pushing his bike alongside. "My, my," said Poulidor merrily, "if we keep on walking, it will take us a long time to get to Bayonne!" With each step the riders began chanting in unison a word that is not in polite use in the United States and only slightly more acceptable in France (a fact that did not prevent the French press from using it repeatedly in articles about the scandal). After three minutes of rendering the air blue the strike ended, as quietly as it had started, and the riders revved up to normal racing speeds.
That night the directors of the Tour sputtered and fumed. "We're going to discuss the matter," one told the press. "It's a very delicate thing. We don't know who started it and who are the leaders. All we know is that two of the racers who were at the tail end of the group got off their bikes, but we couldn't penalize them because they were already among the last in the race."
The organizers said the whole affair was going to degrade professional cycling in the eye of the public. Nothing further was heard about the two bottles carried out of Poulidor's hotel room. The implications were clear: any charges against Poulidor would bring the Tour to an end immediately, and the officials, with tens of thousands of dollars at stake, did not want to run such a risk. Roger Flambart, sports editor of Le Figaro, the organ of French respectability, delivered himself of a philosophical oration on the subject "Bicycle racers are 15 years ahead of other sportsmen. They are the most intelligent of athletes, and while they all take dope, they take it intelligently. Whenever you have to make an effort that is above average, you have to take something. And where does doping start? You are doping yourself when you drink coffee. There is no other event in the world where you have to keep going in a maximum effort six hours a day for 22 days. It just cannot be done without dope."
A few evenings after the incident, someone knocked at Jacques Anquetil's door while he was in the bathtub. Anquetil shouted, "Who is it?" and before anyone could answer, he said, "Is it the investigators? If it is, I've already been to the bathroom." Whoever had knocked did not knock again.
Entering the Pyrénées and Alps stages of the Tour, Poulidor and Anquetil made up their quarrel, to the relief of the newspapermen covering the race, most of whom seemed to feel that a victory by any other rider, after so many reams of copy had been devoted to the two star Frenchmen, would be a national disgrace. Indeed, the rapprochement so pleased one columnist that he proclaimed the Tour would now turn into a poem of happiness, which he proceeded to quote:
Montons sur nos deux palefrois,
Si tu veux faisons un r√™ve
Tu m'emm√®nes, je t'enl√®ve
L'oiseau chante dans les bois....
Which means, freely translated, that we should get on our horses and have a beautiful dream together and if you take me along I'll go with you and the bird will be singing in the woods. The applicability of this to a bicycle race was not entirely clear, but the columnist was too ecstatic to care. He exhorted the now friendly stars to remember that there were not 50 ways to wage a struggle, but only one: "to win!"
Inspired by these and similar words throughout the press of France, Anquetil and Poulidor slowly began to make up the seven minutes they still lagged behind the leaders. But the closest they could get in tandem was five minutes behind the new wearer of the maillot jaune, who turned out to be one of Anquetil's teammates on the Ford team: 25-year-old Lucien Aimar, a domestique in his second year of professional racing. On a rest day in Turin, Italy, after 17 of the 22 stages had been completed, Anquetil announced with a flourish that he was going to crown his long career by sacrificing his own chance of victory and turning domestique for the little Aimar. The king was going to wait on the servant boy! France applauded with admiration, all except Poulidor. Where did this new spirit of cooperation leave him, a member of another team? He still had five minutes to make up, and now he had to work without the cooperation of friendly enemy Anquetil. "Things are getting serious and uncomfortable for me now," Poulidor said at the H√¥tel Pinata Reposo in Turin. "If I attack tomorrow, Aimar and Anquetil probably will be there to squeeze me out."
But the next day Poulidor broke away across the mountains to Chamonix and took 49 seconds from Aimar's lead. Said Le Parisien Liberé: "Too much effort for so little." Why had Anquetil not chased Poulidor on the breakaway? "Poulidor made a very nice escape, and I was incapable of following him," Anquetil said graciously. Later he explained that at the frigid summit of the Grand St.-Bernard pass, second highest of the Tour, a spectator had doused him with a bucket of ice-cold water. Immediately Anquetil had experienced troubled breathing, and a long history of pulmonary difficulty began to repeat itself.
The next afternoon, on a chilly mountainous leg from Chamonix to St.-Etienne, the pack crossed the Rh√¥ne and began to work out its various stratagems during a blinding summer thunderstorm. Suddenly Anquetil dropped back 200 yards. He pulled his bike to the side of the road and announced to his team manager, alongside in a car: "C'est fini. J'arr√™te." The doctor bundled him into the ambulance, "the cage of lost illusions" to the racers, and announced that the greatest champion of the Tour de France had a chest cold and a fever and could not continue. Said Anquetil: "My teammate, Lucien, has surmounted many difficulties. I tried to help him as much as I could, but what more could I do? In my condition I would have been more of a hindrance.... If Lucien Aimar enters Paris with the maillot jaune, I think that I may have been of some help getting him there. For me the Tour is finished."
Three days later Lucien Aimar fulfilled Anquetil's hopes, pedaling into an applauding mob of 46,000 at the Parc des Princes 67 seconds ahead of the Dutchman Jan Janssen and 122 seconds ahead of the valiant Poulidor, who had cut Aimar's lead almost in half on the 32-mile sprint leg from Rambouillet to Paris. The people's choice, Poulidor, clearly the most physically talented rider in the Tour, had managed to lose again. The crowd cheered Aimar and runner-up Janssen, but when third-place Poulidor mounted the stand in his royal-purple-and-gold uniform to accept a bouquet and a kiss, the emotional Parisians jumped to their feet and began chanting, "Pou-li-dor! Pou-li-dor!" When their breath gave out, they began a rhythmic clapping, three claps over and over again, one for each syllable of Poulidor's name. The weary farm boy from the country near Limoges pushed back his shock of black hair, smiled his shy smile and waved weakly to the crowd, secure in his annual role: France's favorite loser in France's favorite race.