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Tour de France history: Anquetil and Poulidor go head to head

In-depth
13 Jun 2022
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In 1964 Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor rode the Puy de Dôme side by side in one of the Tour de France’s most celebrated moments

Words Giles Belbin Photography L’Equipe

July 12th 1964. Stage 20 of the 51st Tour de France is ready to roll out from Brive-La-Gaillarde. Over three weeks of racing the peloton has shed 51 riders since its start in Rennes, leaving 81 to head out for the 237km slog through the Massif Central to the top of the Puy de Dôme volcano.

Among those still racing are four-time winner and defending champion Jacques Anquetil and his eternal rival Raymond Poulidor.

Anquetil is leading the race with Poulidor second. Of course – that is the natural order of things with these two. Fifty-six seconds separate them and time is running out for Poulidor: just two days remain after today and one of those features a time-trial where Anquetil tends to dish out a masterclass to mere mortals.

For Jock Wadley, the editor of Sporting Cyclist who is on the ground following the race, today will be spent ‘wandering narrow restless roads’ and tackling a ‘hundred vicious little hills’. For Poulidor it will be spent trying to take time from the man in yellow.

After more than six hours of riding, the stage enters its definitive phase. The pace is high and the attacks fly. With the Puy de Dôme hovering on the horizon, so Poulidor’s team ramps up the pace.

But Anquetil is calm. He just follows the wheel of his teammate Rudi Altig and, as the climb starts, he is right where he needs to be, in the leading group of nine, alongside Poulidor. 

The road to the summit is steep and narrow. With 6km to go only five riders remain at the front: Anquetil and Poulidor, alongside Federico Bahamontes, Julio Jimenez and Vittorio Adorni. Here the road steepens still. It’s a launchpad waiting for an explosion and when Jimenez and Bahamontes finally fire, Anquetil and Poulidor let them go.

They do not concern the two Frenchmen, who stay locked together, shoulders clashing, bikes leaning; scaling the last great climb of the race wheel to wheel, one man desperate to ride away before the road runs out, the other desperate to cling on.

‘Everybody wanted to see this battle,’ Wadley later reported, ‘but race director M Goddet correctly made us keep well in front. We could see them only occasionally.’ Like many others, Wadley had his ears tuned into Jean Bobet, the former pro rider turned journalist and brother of Louison, who was describing the action for radio from a following motorbike.

‘Three kilometres to go, still side by side,’ reported Bobet. ‘Poulidor attacks, Anquetil gets back alongside… Poulidor attacks again, same result. It just doesn’t seem possible for Anquetil to be dropped.’

So when Wadley leapt from his car with a little under 1km to go so he could watch the finale from the roadside, he wasn’t prepared for what would pass his eyes. After Jimenez and Bahamontes, the next rider around the corner was Poulidor.

And he was alone. Not by much, just five metres or so, but he had finally, improbably, shaken off the yellow jersey.

‘Anquetil’s face was white and he looked plainly awful,’ Wadley wrote. In the following team car, Anquetil’s sports director Raphaël Géminiani was distinctly worried: ‘“Oh no – not possible, not possible,” he was muttering.’

The Tour is saved on the Puy

Poulidor finally stopped the clock in 7:10:30. Further down the climb Anquetil was labouring, but he wasn’t a man who knew when he was beaten. Earlier in the race he found himself four minutes down in the Pyrenees and had nearly thrown in the towel. He wasn’t about to fold now.

Grinding his way to the finish he came in 42 seconds down on Poulidor. Paul Howard’s biography of Anquetil, Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape, describes Anquetil collapsing onto Géminiani’s car before asking how much of his lead remained intact: ‘Fourteen seconds,’ came the answer. ‘That’s 13 more than I need,’ Anquetil replied. 

British rider Barry Hoban was on Poulidor’s Mercier-BP-Hutchinson team and had a key role leading into the final climb.

‘I was first at the bottom of the climb,’ Hoban said in 2017. ‘Anquetil had everything down to a fine art. Poulidor would panic. Anquetil never panicked. About 30km before the finish Anquetil stopped and changed bikes. Antonin Magne came up to me and said, “Anquetil has stopped. Don’t make it easy for him son.”’

Hoban duly drove hard to the foot of the climb to set up Poulidor’s move. Yet while Poulidor ultimately gained time over his rival that day, it would prove to be not nearly enough, and the end result was a familiar one: Anquetil standing in Paris in yellow for a fifth and final time, 55 seconds the final margin over Poulidor. 

‘But Poulidor lost the Tour not on the Puy de Dôme,’ Hoban recalled. ‘He lost it on the stage from Andorra to Toulouse.’

This was where Anquetil had been four minutes down. ‘Anquetil was off the back, Bahamontes attacked and they were away,’ Hoban said. ‘Poulidor broke a spoke in his rear wheel and it was going ting, ting, ting.’

With 30km to go Anquetil was back in the group but Poulidor still had his broken spoke.

‘Well, it’s only a broken spoke – all he’s got to do is finish in the bunch. But it annoyed him so he put his hand in the air. Poulidor stopped. The mechanic fell over, duffed the wheel change. Poulidor panicked and lost two and half minutes.

‘That was where he lost that Tour. There was no reason for him to have stopped.’