Just as Italy was torn between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, so too were the French divided over the exploits of Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.
Their duel in the 1960s took place both on and off the bike, and even filtered through French society. Families would discuss the two figures at the dinner table – half grasping for coarse pâté and the other opting for creamy Camembert, before coming to blows over the baguette.
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Theirs was a rivalry that sliced France in two – and not just at mealtimes. It pitted the 'Poulidoriens' against the 'Anquetilistes' in what became cycling's equivalent to the second round of a presidential election.
Professional ties were ruined, friendships broken, and couples divorced as the passions unleashed by these two men pushed France to the limit, creating incredible tensions bordering on civil strife.
Beyond the sporting plane, their conflict was an antagonism of two temperaments, two styles, two philosophies and two ways of life. It was the proud, peppery, urbane and aristocratic Anquetil against a salt of-the-earth farmhand in Poulidor. It was David verses Goliath, an uneven fight of a metronomic superman against a people's champion who embodied traits shared by the average Frenchman.
The writer Jacques Augendre, the first journalist to have followed 50 Tours de France and author of Anquetil and Poulidor: A French Divorce, compared the five-time Tour winner Maître Jacques to the cunning, scheming and unscrupulous Machiavelli set against Poupou, his eternal second rival. Poulidor, on the other hand, displayed the innocent, good-hearted but hopelessly naïve optimism of Voltaire's Candide.
If the Tour was his summertime Eden, then Anquetil also built a greenhouse over Paris-Nice, making the early season stage race his own Arcadia on the Riviera.
Having won the Race to the Sun in 1957, 1961, 1963 and 1965, then-32-year-old Anquetil entered the 1966 edition bent on successfully defending his crown for the first time. As for Poulidor, he was approaching his 30th birthday and had yet to finish on the podium.
The thought of being beaten by Poulidor disgusted Anquetil to the point that, if he couldn't win a particular race, he would at least do his darndest to ensure his rival didn't either. His famous loss to Poulidor when they went shoulder-to-shoulder on the Puy-de-Dôme in the 1964 Tour had displayed a chink in his armour. It also provided an indication that this relentless conqueror was not unbeatable.
But Anquetil was also growing tired of the noise surrounding their rivalry. He was increasingly bitter that his victories did not warrant mention by the press unless Poulidor was also racing. As stressed by his biographer Paul Fournel, author of Anquetil, Alone:
The rivalry goes beyond the two men. It no longer belongs to them but becomes a matter for the press and the fans who have taken it up. No one can talk about Anquetil without talking about Poulidor. This infuriates Anquetil.
Everything was coming to the boil ahead of March 1966, when the combination of Anquetil's win-at-all-costs mentality and his unwavering obsession with beating Poulidor resulted in one of the greatest rides that Paris-Nice – perhaps even the sport – has ever seen.

Setting the scene: advantage Poupou

If the Puy-de-Dôme in 1964 was the then-pinnacle of their rivalry, then Paris-Nice two years later ramped it up another notch.
Before the 1966 edition’s GC battle got going, the likes of Vittorio Adorni, Rik van Looy and Rudi Altig picked up sprint wins as the race, blessed by clement temperatures and bright sunshine, headed south from the Parisian suburb of Montereau.
It might have taken until 2013 for the world's biggest bike race to visit Corsica, but Paris-Nice headed to the Mediterranean island almost half a century before the Tour. The focus was on Frenchman Roger Pingeon during stage 6a – a rolling 67km to and from Bastia – when he abandoned before promptly announcing his retirement from the sport, aged 25, in a hissy fit of epic proportions.
Just one week on, however, Pingeon would return to race Milan-San Remo; he went on to win the Tour a year later, as well as the Vuelta in 1969. Quite some retirement, that.
That same afternoon in Corsica, the riders faced the first GC test of the race on stage 6b with a 36km time trial between Casta and L'ile-Rousse. The undulating course took place on narrow and twisting roads and was described, admittedly with a little hyperbole, as ‘the most beautiful race against the clock ever witnessed in cycling’.
Set against the snow-capped mountains and rocky outcrops above the turquoise sea, the route was said to contain 300 bends and no single straight longer than 200m.
For a rouleur such as Anquetil – a TT specialist in a time trial not especially favourable to his strengths – it proved impossible for him to churn those trademark big gears. And for the first time in his career, a spent Anquetil came in second-best to Poulidor in a race of truth – conceding one second for every kilometre to his big rival.
With Poulidor taking the Yellow Jersey that day and leading Anquetil by 36 seconds in the standings with just two days remaining, the shockwaves could even be felt back on the French mainland. As Fournel writes:
Anquetil is furious at being beaten in his speciality, furious at the reception Poupou receives from the Corsican fans, furious at having, he believes, lost this Paris-Nice that was meant for him. He's in a rage, and even [his wife] Janine has to keep her distance.

The day of reckoning: hit the road, Jacques

Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served cold. But Anquetil was running short on time – and he seemed to be dining out on former glories. Still, he knew full well that nothing could be done on the race's last day in Corsica, with stage 7, a 155km affair to Ajaccio, not offering enough climbs to spring an ambush.
And so, with his manager, Raphaël Géminiani, he plotted one final throw of the dice on the final stage between Antibes and Nice in a bid to turn things round. In the words of Fournel:
He ruminates, delves into his memories, consults old press cuttings. He has noticed that, following a huge effort, Poulidor pays for it 48 hours afterwards. He calls Géminiani and tells him he won't bother in the next stage, but on the last one, on the mainland, he will launch an attack. Gem needs to prepare the troops and their allies, because it will be total warfare.
The troops in this case were Anquetil's Ford teammates: Jean Stablinski, Jean-Claude Annaert, Paul Lemetayer, Pierre Everaert, Jean-Claude Wuillemin and Arie Den Hartog. Their allies, if the rumours were to be believed, also included the race's two Italian teams.
Having survived a minor scare on stage 7 – dropped on a Corsican climb before being forced to take risks rejoining Poulidor on the descent – Anquetil entered the final 167km stage on the Côte d'Azur with, in Fournel's words, "vengeance in his soul". Poupou was on the brink of beating his nemesis, finally turning the tables on Anquetil.
But there was another player in the frame – Vittorio Adorni, lurking in third place in the overall standings. When the Italian escaped on a narrow climb in the back country of the Riviera, the two French riders' Ford and Mercier teams were forced into an unlikely alliance to extinguish Adorni's fleeting GC dreams. Although, to be fair, Anquetil made Poulidor do most of the chasing.
Either side of Adorni's ambush, and from the opening kilometre, Anquetil's Ford team attacked Mercier mercilessly. It was reported that Poupou had to extinguish no fewer than 38 attacks by his opponents. Yet more hyperbole from an era in which the written word was gospel. Fournel takes it up:
It soon becomes obvious that the Italian Salvarini and Molteni teams are riding for Anquetil. At the same time, it's plain that the Peugeot riders are on Poulidor's side. One of them, [André] Zimmermann, pushes Poulidor up a climb, and it's said that the motorbikes pull Anquetil up the climb at Tourette. Some of the cyclists claim to have been pushed into the gutter. Everywhere there are claims of dangerous riding, intimidation.
If Anquetil was keeping his powder dry for the final climb, his intentions were clear for all to see. Realising he had to play to his strengths – that is to say, time trialling – Anquetil was riding the hilly stage with a TT bike sporting 180mm cranks.
After a series of softening blows on the last ascent of the day, Anquetil finally managed to distance Poulidor, who had been stretched to breaking point. Alone at last, Anquetil crested the summit with a small gap. With a long, flat stretch along the seafront following the descent, he needed to recoup 36 seconds if he wanted to pull off the most unlikely of victories.
Although GPS had yet to be invented, the consensus was that Anquetil rode the fastest 33 kilometres ever recorded on a bike – pushing the kind of gear ratio usually seen behind a derny on the track. Here’s Fournel again:
He puts on one of those performances only he knows how to, alone in front of the peloton, riding as if it was a time trial, livid with rage.
Soaked in sweat, Anquetil crossed the line on the Promenade des Anglais and fell straight into the open arms of his joyous directeur sportif Géminiani. The chasing pack came home 1'24" down; Anquetil had wrested yellow from Poulidor's shoulders in extremis, winning his fifth Paris-Nice by 48 seconds.

The fallout

The race was won but the war far from over. In disgust at Ford's behaviour and their alliance with the Italian teams, Poulidor told the press that: "Now I know that Anquetil is the patron. His teammates did not behave well on the road to Nice and he would acknowledge as much if he is honest with himself."
To which Anquetil, hardly the most sympathetic of souls, later replied: "Poulidor is just a cry baby. The interview in which he repeated the accusations by his team to cast a doubt over the correctness and sincerity of my victory, that interview is not worthy of a champion and I will find it difficult to forgive him."
The French Cycling Federation opened an enquiry at the demand of Mercier directeur sportif Antonin Magne, who accused Ford of having barged his riders off the road. In particular, they cite Jean-Claude Wuillemin for knocking Britain's Barry Hoban into a ditch and forcing him to abandon (a charge he would later admit to).
With his team's sponsorship deal with Mercier bikes now in jeopardy because of these accusations, Géminiani threatened to lodge his own complaint about Magne for "sporting, moral and commercial prejudice". A thorough investigation followed and decided that the result should stand. But France was divided by this non-political sporting hot potato of Dreyfusian proportions.
Speaking to Eurosport, Fournel says that, for all the controversy, both Anquetil and his team deserved praise for what they achieved that day – turning a lost race on its head with a flawlessly-hatched plan.
The team was strong and, that day, was perfectly in line on its mission. There was no place for anything but Anquetil's victory. Every teammate paid a big price: they were exhausted and even Wuillemin had to admit that he had pushed Hoban out of the road. Were Italian teams involved in this battle? We will never know for sure. Overall it was not a very 'pure' race, but we must recognise that Anquetil was fantastic in playing his final role in the last part of the stage.

What happened next: a rainbow stalemate

After the dust settled on his record-breaking Paris-Nice victory – capping his latest success in an ongoing quest to stifle Poulidor – Anquetil reflected on what might have been:
I thought what would happen if the results were reversed: first, Poulidor, second, Anquetil. Then, I'd have been written off straight away. One lone defeat would count as much as 15 or 20 victories. Was that fair? I could already picture the crocodile tears being shed because of my supposed decline.
This decline was on its way, but there was still time for a few peaks rising out of the trough. Two months later, Anquetil took the only Monument win of his career at Liège-Bastogne-Liège before finishing on the podium of the Giro.
He withdrew from the Tour de France a few days from Paris once a sixth win became impossible – but not before ensuring that his teammate Lucian Aimar, and not Poulidor, would win the Maillot Jaune.
Their simmering rivalry was brought back to the boil during the 1966 World Championships at Nürburgring when Anquetil and Poulidor cancelled each other out, enabling German rider Rudi Altig to take the victory.
By finishing runner-up (and ahead of Poulidor on the podium) it was the closest Anquetil came to winning the Rainbow Jersey. However, some members of the French press (the Poulidoriens, presumably) claimed that Anquetil had opted to ride for his former Saint-Raphaël teammate to eliminate the chance of his compatriot taking the gold medal.
This accusation was fuelled by the fact that Anquetil and his wife had been staying with the Altigs prior to the race. And, with Anquetil and Poulidor clashing off the front of the peloton, Altig was able to bridge over on the last lap before easily outsprinting the French duo at the finish.
"That world championship story is a shame," Fournel tells Eurosport. "This was the ridiculous side of the opposition between the two French riders. After that, it had to stop. It was not a fallout of Paris-Nice only, it was the result of thousands of articles and declarations, hundreds of races, and more than a few blows below the belt."
While Poulidor still had 11 years left in his legs – famously never winning the Tour de France – Anquetil quit racing in 1969, adding just a few minor wins to his name after his glory in La Doyenne. But as his reign of imperiality was closing, another more famous era of domination was about to begin.
Indeed, all eyes were soon on the rider who finished fourth in that famous 1966 edition of Paris-Nice – behind Anquetil, Poulidor and Adorni – a young Belgian by the name of Eddy Merckx. The 20-year-old came third in the opening stage and put in a solid display for Peugeot that week, never coming in outside the top 10 and showing an all-round ability that made a mockery of his tender years.
Here was a star for the future. And that future arrived sooner than they had anticipated: later that month, Merckx won his first of seven Milan-San Remo crowns. Anquetil and his nation-splitting spat with Poulidor would soon be a fleeting memory and France’s cycling fans had nothing to squabble about. For if Anquetil was a Jacques of all trades, Merckx was a master of many more.

Eddy Merckx

Image credit: Eurosport

The significance of ’66

Anquetil's relentless psychological grip over Poulidor is one of cycling's enduring mysteries. For all his anger and opposition towards his rival, it's as if – to borrow again from Fournel – Poulidor's admiration for Anquetil was such that it ultimately proved fatal.
Speaking to Eurosport 54 years after their epic dual, Fournel highlights the monumental nature of Anquetil's last-gasp win over Poulidor in Nice – a win that came after his rival looked to have beaten him, finally, at his own game.
It is an apex in the Anquetil-Poulidor battle, and it is a special victory because it did not come in the traditional Anquetil style. He rode more like the 'baroudeur' that he was not. He had no space left to calculate, to speculate or to spare some strength.
Fournel, however, cannot say whether the victory in Nice was more symbolic than Poulidor's most famous scalp, two years earlier on the Puy-de-Dôme:
Those two moments cannot compare. The Puy-de-Dôme was obviously a 'mano a mano' victory, there was nothing left for strategy. It was pure strength. Paris-Nice in 1966 was a victory of teamwork well finished by Jacques.
When asked whether Anquetil was more motivated by stopping Poulidor win a maiden Paris-Nice title, rather than by winning his own fifth crown, Fournel says it's impossible to tell:
Choosing between these two options would be an act of reason. But there was no reason involved at that point. It was a matter of pure rivalry. There was no other plan than beating the other. And at that game, Anquetil was stronger.
Given their rivalry on the bike and constant sniping at one another via the press, it would be reasonable to conclude that the two most popular French riders of their generation hated each other with a vengeance. But that was not the case. At heart, the pair were very close – and their friendship blossomed after Anquetil finally retired in 1969.
In fact, the story goes that Anquetil, reflecting on his relationship with Poulidor, lamented before he died in 1987 that: "We lost 15 years of friendship."
For all his wins and his rival's lack of Yellow Jerseys, it's perhaps telling that the majority of French fans at the time would have voted the everyman Poulidor rather than the clinical Anquetil into the Élysée Palace – had there ever been a presidential-style vote between the two.
Even Anquetil's own daughter, Sophie, born in 1970, was transported by the wave of what the French called Poupoularité. As the five-time Tour de France and Paris-Nice winner later admitted to his former adversary:
She knew how to say 'Poupou' before saying 'Papa'. Not only did you piss me off for most of my career, you continue to do so in retirement. I live in the knowledge that she worships the ground you walk on.
-- By Felix Lowe. Make sure to also subscribe to The Re-Cycle Podcast: Subscribe on Apple Podcasts | Subscribe on Spotify
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