“I was sitting in the middle of the back seat. My grandad on one side, my granny on the other. No seatbelts, no lights because the car was crap. Just a baguette in my hand, and cigarettes in the hands of all the others. The smoke rivalled the misty morning outside the windows. What a sight that would be now,” Louise laughs about her very first trip to see the Tour de France.
The year was 1964 and the family camped under the famous climb of Puy. The next day, they lined the mountain road with half a million other spectators. On the very first family trip to the Tour, the 7-year-old Louise witnessed history. Jacques Anquetil, the movie star of cycling, was battling it out with Raymond Poulidor, the beloved farmer boy.
“I remember the roar. It was deafening. I had no idea where the road was. I was just hugging my grandfather’s leg. Then he sat me on his shoulders and I saw the two. I remember their faces. One stoic, like he wasn’t even there. The other one trying to hide the pain, unsuccessfully.”
You can probably guess which one was which. Jacques Anquetil was leading the GC. He knew he only had to hang on to Poulidor’s wheel long enough to minimize the loss. The last stage was a time trial. And he was far better at that than his rival. Yet, for once in his career, the great tactician refused to do the reasonable thing. He rode side by side with Poulidor, claiming he would not give his rival the satisfaction of being in front. The battle went on forever. 10km to be exact.
In the end Poulidor did manage to break away from Anquetil. But only with the finish line almost in sight. Poulidor cut 42 seconds off his lead, but that was not enough. A few days later Anquetil conquered the Tour for the record-breaking fifth time. Did the great tactician know when exactly to let go? Most likely.
“We went to many Tours after that. But no memory is as strong as the first one. Years went by and I went from the shoulders of my grandad to the firm hand of my granny, then the shoulders of my father and ended up with hugs just from my mother. In the end, the only thing that remained was the smoke,” says the woman with a bittersweet smile, lighting another cigarette.
Then the year 1989 came around and Louise started a family of her own. Just in time for her daughter Marie to see another thrilling stage.
“We lived in Paris back then and my husband at the time demanded that we go. ‘It’s your stupid family tradition after all,’ he said,” Louise laughs at the memory.
The Tour seemed to be a sealed deal back then. Everybody was expecting Laurent Fignon to win his third Tour, but somebody forgot to tell Greg LeMond. He was better at time-trialling, that was very well known. But the stage was 24 kilometres long. Far too short to gain 50 seconds. At least that’s what everyone thought.
“I remember Marie babbling away into my ear as my husband went on about LeMond looking like a Martian. He really did look odd, in his aero helmet on that weird bike. He was quick though. You could tell he cut that corner we were at, in a totally different line than the others. He clearly had nothing to lose.”
In the end Fignon’s time was 58 seconds slower than that of LeMond. And all newspapers around the world had to rewrite their pre-written articles.
“I remember thinking that every true Dubois sees something special on their first trip to the Tour.”
Fast forward to 2016 when I met Louise, and it’s happening again. Marie is a grown woman now, with a baby of her own. And her son, even though not named Dubois, is huddling under a raincoat on the sideline as Romain Bardet rides to victory on the ascent to Mont Blanc. The family invites me to their caravan for a celebration of what they are sure was the start of the Frenchman’s road to GC victory.
Well, we know that didn’t happen, but Louise doesn’t despair.
“The French just need to wait for another Dubois,” she smiles and shows me an ultrasound picture. Marie is apparently pregnant again.