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Q&A: Paul Fournel

Trevor Ward
11 Dec 2018

Cyclist talks to the French poet, diplomat and author of the award-winning biography Anquetil, Alone

This article first appeared in Issue 77 of Cyclist magazine

Cyclist: Why does Anquetil’s life continue to fascinate cycling fans?

Paul Fournel: His life was more than a soap opera. He was born into a very poor family but he was so gifted on the bike that he became rich, famous and strange!

By strange, I mean he didn’t live by the rules of the peloton. He was the first one to talk about money, the first one to talk about doping.

He didn’t race to win medals, he was a businessman, which was very new at the time.

As for his riding style, you could identify him immediately on the bike. Today when you see the peloton, all the guys look more or less the same, they all have the same position that has been learned in the wind-tunnel.

Back then, it wasn’t the case. 

Cyc: Will we see his like again?

PF: I don’t know – the racers today are more like robots. They have personalities but they are not allowed to show them.

They have their boss in their ear [on the radio] and their computer on the handlebars. They are working to team instructions and watts.

They also have to play the role they are paid for. This one has to ride hard to the start of the climb, another one has to ride up to within a few kilometres of the top.

Even if they are in the breakaway, they might be called back to wait for the leader. They don’t care about winning – they are paid to do a specific job.

There are no surprises anymore. The only surprise these days is if one of the leaders is sick or doesn’t perform as expected.

Cyc: Anquetil was a self-confessed doper. Surely that makes him less than perfect?

PF: When Anquetil started to race in the 1950s doping was not prohibited. He was taking amphetamines like everyone else in the peloton.

When they introduced anti-doping rules in the 1960s, he said, ‘Why? Everyone’s doing it.’ But people obviously don’t really care about doping because here we are nearly 60 years later, and racers are still doping.

The specifics are different, but the motivation is still the same.

Professional sport is like that. Everyone wants to win, to be the fastest. Russia is doping its athletes; big brands are doping their athletes.

You think [he names a global sporting brand] isn’t capable of doing what Russia is doing?

Cyc: Since Anquetil, which riders have you admired?

PF: Eddy Merckx, of course. But even when he was winning he was a little sad. He carried the sadness of winners, realising he would have to do it all over again in the next race.

I really loved Bernard Hinault, not because he was French – I don’t care about that – but because he was racing differently from the others.

He decided when the race should take place – he wasn’t waiting for the Alps or the Pyrenees. The race took place on his terms.

Contador, also, was a very interesting racer, he was fighting and attacking everywhere, not just on the climbs.

Marco Pantani was spectacular. Even Chris Froome can be spectacular when he wants to be.

Cyc: In Anquetil, Alone you refer to ‘the cyclist’s abyss’ and him being a ‘prisoner of the bike’. Why do cyclists enjoy suffering so much?

PF: I chose cycling because I like tough sports. I like to ride and say, ‘Wow, that was tough!’

Now, though, I’m too old, so I say, ‘Wow, today was sunny!’ It’s easy to make a ride tough. Just pick a climb and do it with a guy who’s stronger than you.

Part of the pleasure is it being tough. When you suffer there is pleasure in it. It’s masochistic – it’s a sport for guys who like to play hard.

Climbs like Ventoux or the Colle delle Finestre are, of course, incredibly difficult, but you can also have a very tough ride around your place on a Sunday morning with buddies who are stronger than you. But there’s always pleasure in it.

And as an amateur, if my legs hurt, I can always stop at the next cafe and have a beer.

Cyc: You covered the 1996 Tour for French newspaper L’Humanité. Novelist Antoine Blondin also regularly covered the race.

What’s the attraction for figures from the world of literature?

PF: The Tour is a novel, because it runs for a long time, the places are always changing, it has different characters and situations evolve.

A football game is a football game, but a Grand Tour is dramatic and very literary. Only boxing has a similar fascination for writers, but while boxing is noir, cycling is more of an adventure story.

I was very happy covering the Tour, even though having to file daily reports to tight deadlines was very different from the way I normally write.

I loved being able to talk to the riders. Today it has completely changed – if you want to talk to Mr Froome you have to go through 15 PR people and then you get two minutes if you are lucky.

Cyc: In another book, Need For The Bike, you say of Ventoux: ‘It’s yourself you’re climbing.’ What did you mean?

PF: It’s never the same twice. It can be very cold or windy or scorching hot. Its reputation can affect you too.

The stories of the climb are important – they give you an idea of what’s going to happen. You know you’re going to have a hard time.

When I climb Izoard, which is one of my favourite passes, I know what to expect, where and when – it’s something you can recite from memory.

But Ventoux doesn’t work like that. It’s different each time. You don’t know where you will feel bad.

It could happen very soon, or it could happen after Chalet Reynard if you have the wind against you. It’s a special place for that reason.

Cyc: In Need For The Bike you describe the bicycle as ‘a stroke of genius’. What bikes do you own?

PF: The bicycle is a fantastic thing. I own five or six bikes. I have bought a new one every 10 years or so.

A year ago my father died and I found my first frame from when I was 16, made by the same framebuilder who built bikes for Raymond Poulidor.

I had it completely rebuilt. The one I use the most is one I bought in London, a Condor Moda titanium frame that was released for their 60th anniversary.

Cyc: How much time do you spend on the bike these days?

PF: Well, it was my 71st birthday yesterday, so to celebrate I cycled 80km with my son to a village southwest of Paris and finished at a bistro.

I ride with a group of friends every month. We ride for four hours at 25kmh and we always finish in a bistro.

But I don’t ride if it’s raining because of my glasses. When it rains, I am blind.

Anquetil, Alone is published by Pursuit Books

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