Jacques Anquetil is a cycling legend. He was the first person to win the Tour five times. In 1961, he gained the yellow jersey in stage 1 and held onto it all the way to the last stage. He was a dominant force. He was the man to beat in 1964. His rival, Raymond Poulidor, was raised on a farm and had a huge natural talent. In 1959, he was signed by Mercier, the same team where Anquetil started. After two successful starts at the Tour and a triumph at Vuelta, he was ready to challenge Anquetil for the title in 1964.
Poulidor also had the French fans on his side. He was Anquetil’s polar opposite. Anquetil was called the cycling aristocrat with his high cheekbones, styled blond hair, smooth pale skin, sharp northern French accent, and elegant cycling style. Poulidor was a man of the people, he talked slowly in a middle French accent, had wrinkly sun-tanned skin, and he looked like a pedalling bulldog on the bike.
Their most dramatic confrontation was to happen during stage 20. Anquetil had the yellow jersey but Poulidor was only trailing by 56 seconds. Poulidor’s plan was to attack during the climb to Puy de Dôme and take the overall lead.
The scene was set. They were climbing for 10 kilometres on a steep road up to the famous Puy de Dôme crater. Side by side, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow they were locked together in pain and pushing hard. They could hear each other gasping for air despite half a million fans cheering around them. It was a sight to behold, an intense fight. Poulidor was the favourite because he was the better climber but Anquetil was using his best weapon, strategy. He was taking the inner lane, closer to the mountain. Three times he bluffed pretending he couldn’t match the tempo. Three times Poulidor tried to shake him off without success, exhausting himself. When Poulidor tried attacking again, Anquetil grasped at his jersey knowing he was unable to answer with another attack with his legs. Anquetil lost the moral battle but managed to keep himself in the fight.
“I slowed down, he slowed down. I attacked, he answered. It was unbelievable. I never felt that awful on a bicycle,” admitted Poulidor when recounting the events.
Poulidor succeeded in leaving his rival behind about 500 meters before the top of the climb. Anquetil was losing ground fast but hoped he did enough. Poulidor couldn’t steal the full 56 seconds at that point, could he?
Poulidor won the stage. Anquetil finished after him and nearly collapsed at his team car. He couldn’t catch his breath. His skin turned purple and then white but he still kept counting.
“How many?” he asked.
“You kept 14 seconds,” he heard in response.
“That’s more than I needed,” he gasped in relief.
The final stage was a time trial where Anquetil was a favourite because that was his discipline. Poulidor rode really fast and held on to the fastest time of the day before it was Anquetil’s turn to race. Poulidor was faster in the first half split by 5 seconds. That gave him hope that he might have done enough. Anquetil was a lot faster in the second half and won the time trial and the whole Tour by 55 seconds. At that time, it was the smallest margin in history.
Fans in Paris were not happy that their favourite Poulidor lost and didn’t cheer for the champion. That’s what Anquetil had to deal with. Poulidor was forever the fan favourite but Jacques Anquetil clinched the very important 5th title. But we all got a battle to remember.