Italian Job

IF 1958 HAD BEEN Anquetil’s année terrible, in spite of the happy ending provided by his marriage, 1959 didn’t turn out much better. He started in upbeat mode by declaring his intention, in a bid to restore some lustre to his tarnished reputation, to up the stakes and target both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. There’s no doubt that becoming only the second rider in history – after Fausto Coppi, of course – to accomplish such a double would have had the desired effect. However, right from the beginning of the season, it soon became clear that if competing with a sporting legacy such as Coppi’s wasn’t enough, he would have another serious rival to contend with.

The emergence of Roger Rivière onto the global stage had been almost as startling as that of Anquetil himself. In the UK, Cycling was moved to write that ‘his rise to immortality is one of the most rapid ever’. Two years younger than Anquetil, Rivière announced his potential in 1957 at the age of twenty-one by becoming world pursuit champion (the closest Anquetil would come to this title was his second place the previous year) and then by breaking the world hour record that had been taken from Anquetil by Italian rider Ercole Baldini. As if this wasn’t enough, he repeated both achievements the following year, in the process becoming the first man to ride five kilometres on the track in less than six minutes and also the first to ride more than forty-seven kilometres in an hour. In fact, his new mark of 47.347 kilometres was not only more than a kilometre further than Anquetil had managed scarcely two years previously, it was also accomplished in spite of a puncture in the last quarter of an hour.

By 1959, Rivière was intent on proving that he was not just an exceptional track rider but was also capable of greatness on the roads, though this did not stop him from taking on and beating Anquetil 3–2 in an omnium (a competition made up of a variety of races) at the Vél d’Hiv at the beginning of the season. The first real confrontation on the roads came during Paris–Nice (or Paris–Nice–Rome as it was that year), where, as a result of the heavy marking to which they were both subjected, the two men were obliged to battle vicariously through the intermediary of their teammates. In this respect, round one went to Anquetil, who enjoyed victory by proxy thanks to the overall success of Jean Graczyk. The extent to which Graczyk owed his victory to Anquetil became clear at the finish in Rome, where he presented his cup to his team leader. Gérard Saint, Rivière’s teammate, came third, and Anquetil had the added satisfaction of beating Rivière in the time trial.

Rivière didn’t have to wait long for his revenge, though, which came in the form of victory in the Mont Faron hill climb, even if Anquetil wasn’t present. Aside from managing to win a race in which Anquetil had never threatened victory, he also demonstrated that his talents against the clock lay not just on the flat but also on more challenging terrain. All this provided journalists with the ammunition they’d been waiting for to talk up the rivalry between the pair. Pierre Chany, one of Anquetil’s closest friends, was no different. According to an interview recorded with Christophe Penot for his book Pierre Chany, L’homme aux 50 Tours de France, he had already been encouraged by Robert Pons, Anquetil’s soigneur at the time, to goad Anquetil into a reaction with an article about this rivalry. (The goading was required in Pons’ view because of the potentially deleterious influence of Jeanine.) Chany obliged in an article lauding Rivière’s new records under a headline that concluded ‘. . . While at the Same Time Anquetil Eats Moules à la Crème’. Anquetil’s reaction to this intentional slight reveals much about his character, though the conclusions that can be drawn depend on which account you believe.

When I asked Jeanine about the episode, she recalled it with evident fondness: ‘Yes, he fell out with Pierre Chany, who was a close friend. It was in Italy, and I arrived one day, and he just wouldn’t look at Pierre. I said, “Jacques, aren’t you going to say hello to Pierre?” And he said, “No, he doesn’t tell the truth. His articles are good, but he doesn’t tell the truth.” So I said, “OK,” and went to ask Pierre what he’d done. He said, “I’ve no idea,” so they didn’t speak to each other for three weeks. After three weeks, I told Jacques to tell us why he was sulking and wouldn’t talk to Pierre, so he said, “It’s because in the paper he wrote that while Poulidor [sic] and the others are out on their bikes, Anquetil is eating moules à la crème, and it wasn’t moules à la crème it was moules marinière.” We had a good giggle about it with Pierre afterwards, but Jacques told him, “You’re a journalist. You’ve got to get things right.”’

Sophie also records the incident in Pour l’amour de Jacques. The only difference is the timetable – three weeks has become three months – and the explanation for Anquetil giving Chany the cold shoulder is the same: that he didn’t like his apparent excesses being exaggerated unnecessarily. Certainly, Jeanine was keen I didn’t fall into the same trap. ‘No, you mustn’t exaggerate these things,’ she told me. ‘When there was an important race, he stuck to his job. Merckx said the same thing. One day, they asked Eddy about Jacques, and he said, “Hang on a minute. When there’s a big race, he’s a pro.” He liked seafood and shellfish and grilled meat, and I don’t see any harm in that. But he didn’t like rich sauces, and he wasn’t a cake eater like Coppi.’

This justification comes in spite of the fact Jeanine is happy to recount that Anquetil was ready to wind up the press and his opponents – precisely by exaggerating – when he wanted to: ‘He didn’t usually smoke except on rest days in the Tour or the Giro, but when I was there and he knew journalists were coming he’d pinch one of my cigarettes and smoke in front of them to say to people, “Look at me. I couldn’t give a monkey’s. I’ll smoke if I want to.”’

Aside from this inconsistency in his dealings with the press, there is another problem with Jeanine and Sophie’s take on the story, and that is that Chany’s own recollection of events is considerably less flattering. For a start, according to his account in Pierre Chany, L’homme aux 50 Tours de France, the dispute lasted not three weeks or three months but two and a half years. In fact, although their paths crossed innumerable times in the interim, it took being sat together at a meal organised by another rider – Jean Graczyk – for ‘the boil to be lanced’, as Chany put it. What’s more, again according to Chany, the discrepancy over the type of mussels Anquetil had eaten was not the reason for the dispute but simply an excuse for it – a means by which Anquetil could smooth their eventual reconciliation without him having seemed to have backed down.

Certainly, there is good evidence that Anquetil was not as fastidious about his consumption of sauces as Jeanine suggests. The magazine Cycling saw fit to list what he ate on a visit to the UK that afforded the opportunity for a profile: ‘For the record, before his races at Herne Hill, Jacques ate hors d’oeuvres (sausages, meat, salad), sweetbreads in cream sauce with creamed spinach [my emphasis] and fresh fruit, and he drank spa water and coffee.’ Of course, the fact that he once ate a rich sauce doesn’t mean Jeanine wasn’t correct in her general assertion. But it does suggest Chany’s assessment that there was more to their dispute than a simple factual inaccuracy may be more precise. In which case, something often portrayed as only a minor spat in an otherwise long and intimate friendship in fact reveals the jealousy with which Anquetil guarded his reputation and the grudges he could hold against those accused of traducing it.

Whichever, it’s also clear the gauntlet had well and truly been thrown down, both in the press and on the bike, between Anquetil and Rivière. (Before their dispute grew quite so out of hand, Anquetil’s soigneur Pons told Chany that his article had had the desired effect in geeing him up.) However, before battle could be joined in earnest on the roads of that year’s Tour de France, Anquetil had the small matter of his first participation in the Giro d’Italia to attend to. Although always in the shadow of the Tour de France, victory in the Giro would be no mean feat. Not only did the list of previous winners read like a who’s who of Italian cyclists, from Alfredo Binda to Coppi via Bartali and Fiorenzo Magni, only three foreign riders had managed to add their name to the role of honour. This was in part because the focus for a lot of non-Italian riders, then as now, was on the Tour de France. Yet the bigger factor was that the peculiarities of the Italian race – that’s to say Italian expectation of an Italian winner in an event organised by Italians and with the rules enforced by Italians – meant that it was exceptionally difficult for a foreigner to beat an Italian rider on his home ground.

Just how difficult is revealed by the recollections of Guy Ignolin, Anquetil’s teammate in the 1964 race. ‘Ah, the Giro is a bit “special”,’ Ignolin recalls. ‘I remember one year when I was riding with Jacques, Arnaldo Pambianco, a former winner, asked if he could go ahead to kiss his wife and baby when going through a town. All the roads were lined with crowds; in fact, there were so many people it was like the Alpe d’Huez. I warned Jacques that it might not be a good idea, but he said Pambianco would stop – it would be OK. So, Pambianco went ahead, and we never saw him stop. He got a lead of nearly four minutes. He knew that the roads of the town weren’t wide avenues, that they were a bit winding and that because of the crowds nobody could see him if he had a lead of 300 metres . . . It was a struggle for the whole stage to try and catch him, and it was Jacques who took charge. That was Jacques.’

Another of Ignolin’s memories is equally revealing and suggests that the ‘beat the foreigner’ mentality was as much institutionalised as it was opportunistic: ‘During one Giro, somewhere on the return to Turin after having crossed into France, there was a break with 15 riders ahead. We’d all been flat out, then there was a fall, or something, and there was a break, and all the Italians flew the coop. Jacques was in the break as well. All the cars with the Italian directeurs sportifs had gone past, but when our directeur sportif Géminiani wanted to pass in his car the police bikes wouldn’t let him. He tried to overtake on the right, so they went right; he went to the left, so they went left. There were no neutral support vehicles at the time, and they wanted to stop him being able to help Anquetil if he punctured.

‘After a while, Géminiani got fed up and pushed them with his car, and off they went into the ditch. Police bikes from in front had seen what had happened, and they stopped the car, and the riders got off and got their truncheons out. There’s a photo from Miroir Sprint – it’s a shame I didn’t keep it – in which you can see the back door of the car, and you can see a foot coming out, and there’s a cop receiving a boot in the chin. It was Louis de Bruyckere, the mechanic. The cops had opened the door and had begun to lay into him, and he was trying to kick them off. Eventually, the race director caught up and started haranguing Géminiani, so he said, “If it’s like that, we’re all off. It’s over. No more Giro. We’re off.” After that, the break was neutralised, everybody waited until the bunch caught up and we all set off again together.’ (Extreme as all this may seem, the story is corroborated, with only a few minor differences, by Géminiani in his book Les années Anquetil.)

As a Frenchman, none of whose compatriots had ever won the Giro (the closest any had come was Bobet’s defeat in 1957 by 17 seconds), Anquetil was no doubt acutely aware of what to expect, even if he had yet to face up to the reality. In 1959, he would also have been aware that along with the host of Italian hopefuls waiting to chance their arm against him he would have to confront his nemesis from the previous year’s Tour de France. Not only had Charly Gaul inflicted such a painful defeat on him in the Chartreuse, he had also already won the Giro in 1956.

Justifiably, then, Anquetil gauged his efforts according to his position relative to Gaul. After having taken the first pink jersey of his career on the short time trial on the second stage, he was happy to relinquish the responsibility of leading a few days later in order to concentrate on Gaul. The race would come down, he assumed, to the final time trial and the passage through the Dolomites. In this context, the unexpected bonus of picking up more than two and a half minutes on Gaul on an earlier mountain stage, when he managed to drop his rival on a descent, with Gaul once more claiming to have been the victim of sabotage, gave him great encouragement and a lead of one minute forty-eight seconds. With the time trial and the mountains to come, Anquetil’s calculating mind explained the equation to the assembled media: ‘I need another four minutes after the time trial to have a sufficient cushion before the mountains.’

Unfortunately, his victory in the time trial only gave him half the advantage he anticipated needing. In spite of winning the 51-kilometre stage at an astonishing average speed of 47.713 kilometres per hour (faster, it should be noted, than Rivière’s hour record), he had the unlikely disadvantage of setting off one minute thirty seconds behind the Luxembourger. By 20 kilometres, Anquetil had caught Gaul, putting him well on course for the required margin of victory. However, far from disheartening his rival as would normally be the case, Anquetil’s appearance galvanised him. Over the next thirty-one kilometres, Gaul managed the remarkable feat of remaining within three hundred metres of Anquetil – hence the relatively small gap at the finish of only two minutes one second.

As with the Tour the previous year, the denouement would take place on the final mountain stage, which covered more than 300 kilometres from Aosta to Courmayeur. Gaul waited until the last climb – the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard – to attack, as he’d said he would. He also said he would take five minutes out of Anquetil, but this proved to be an underestimate. By the top of the climb, his lead was more than six minutes, and by the end of the stage he’d beaten Anquetil by nearly ten minutes. Although so often dismissive of his rivals, Anquetil was gracious in defeat: ‘My consolation is to have no excuses. I didn’t have the chance to eat anything in the climb, and I could say I “bonked”. I punctured three times, and that could have happened to Gaul instead. But, above all, I couldn’t keep up – all the rest is just supposition. Beaten fair and square, I’m glad it was by six minutes.’ With a final dig at an erstwhile rival, he added, ‘It would have been a lot harder to bear if I’d lost the Giro by a few seconds, as happened to Bobet in 1957.’

Back in France, his sights were once again set on Rivière, his most serious current rival, and the Tour de France. This in no way facilitated the task faced by Marcel Bidot in his attempts to bring together an effective team consisting not just of Anquetil and Rivière but also Bobet and Géminiani. The situation was exacerbated by the fact Rivière now rode in the same team as Géminiani, who had become a kind of mentor to him. What’s more, Bobet’s grudge against his former soigneur – now employed by Rivière – meant a special meeting had to be called between the four major players to try and call a truce. This was achieved with more or less success, as Anquetil made clear: ‘For the rest of the year, I race against Roger. Today, we’re asked to be teammates. The organisers and Marcel Bidot are insisting on it, but I will still race against him.’

Against such a backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that the 1959 Tour did little to add to the reputation of any of these four assumed star players. Bobet abandoned at the top of the Col de l’Iseran, never to return to the race. Géminiani was not the force of the previous year and failed in his plan to help Rivière to overall victory. Rivière and Anquetil, meanwhile, neutralised each other to such good effect that although they were separated by less than three minutes with only the Alps remaining, they had let Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes and French national champion Henry Anglade (riding for the Centre-Midi regional team) gain a lead of nearly ten and five minutes respectively. Realising they were by now both beaten by Bahamontes, Anquetil and Rivière were forced to confront the reality that Anglade could still win overall and steal all their limelight. Worse, in fact, than the loss of the limelight would have been the negative impact on their respective earning power on the post-Tour criterium circuit. According to Chany, in an article explaining the convoluted selection politics for the French team, Anquetil’s defeat in the Giro meant his standing was more precarious than it had been. This would have been exacerbated as a result of the shift in the balance of power between the managers of the respective riders that would have been caused by an Anglade victory. Anquetil and Rivière were signed up with the hitherto undisputed number-one manager Daniel Dousset. Anglade was attached to his rival Roger Piel, whose stock would rise considerably if he represented a Tour de France winner. Then there’s Pierre Chany’s assertion in his book La fabuleuse histoire du Tour de France of pressure from a representative of the producers of Fausto Coppi bikes, who sought to take advantage of Anquetil and Rivière’s rivalry to persuade them to help Bahamontes win, as he was riding one of their machines.

Ignoble as it may seem, all this was sufficient motivation for Anquetil and Rivière to set aside even their own rivalry for the status of top dog and to work together to contrive a way to help a Spaniard maintain his lead over a fellow Frenchman. According to contemporary accounts, this contrivance manifested itself most clearly on the stage to Aosta. Bahamontes, always a timid descender, lost time on the long, rainy descent of the Col de l’Iseran to a powerful group containing Anglade, Anquetil and Rivière. With the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard still to come, as well as another long time trial, there was still a chance that all three of these riders could challenge Bahamontes. The most likely beneficiary, however, was clearly Anglade, so while he was labouring at the front of the group to try to increase his advantage over the Spaniard, Anquetil and Rivière sat at the back and refused to contribute to the pacemaking. Thus demoralised, the lead group’s attempts to stay clear foundered, and Bahamontes managed to rejoin – and with him went Anglade’s chance of overall victory.

Anquetil and Rivière’s combination as allies of circumstance had worked, and their personal balance sheet was sufficiently even to deny either man the opportunity to claim victory over the other. (It seems appropriate to describe it this way, as they were more concerned about losing to each other than their own performances.) Rivière beat Anquetil in the two long time trials, but Anquetil finished third overall to Rivière’s fourth, even if only by twelve seconds. The public, however, was not impressed. The whole French national team was whistled and booed when the Tour finished at the Pare des Princes in Paris. The impact on Anquetil was pronounced, though perhaps not in the way that those in the crowd had hoped. Far from repenting of his actions, Anquetil effectively sought to immortalise them in the name he gave to the boat he bought to keep at his house on the Seine: Sifflets 59 (Whistles of 59).

The year ended with Anquetil taking a leaf out of Bobet’s book and spurning the Grand Prix des Nations. The way was open for Rivière to win the race for the first time, but, unlike for Bobet, Anquetil’s decision did not backfire on him. Rivière lost to the Italian Aldo Moser, whom Anquetil beat in both the Grand Prix Martini and the Grand Prix de Lugano. It was with renewed confidence, then, that Anquetil decided to play double or quits the following year and omit the Tour de France from his 1960 schedule altogether. If Rivière couldn’t win the Grand Prix des Nations in his absence, there was a good chance he might fail in his attempts to win the Tour. Meanwhile, Anquetil was intent on getting back to winning ways by focusing exclusively on the Giro (a focus that may have been magnified after the untimely death at the beginning of 1960 of Coppi, at the age of only 40, from malaria contracted on a trip made with Anquetil to Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso).

After a quiet early season, notable mainly for a surprise pursuit victory over Rivière, Anquetil started the Giro in assertive form. Although only second, by seven seconds, in the first time trial, Anquetil had taken advantage of a small breakaway to become overall leader by the end of the third stage. Although happy to once again let his lead slip mid-race, this time Anquetil made sure that he made no mistakes when regaining it in the last long time trial. Once again setting off behind Gaul, Anquetil reckoned to have upped his speed by five kilometres per hour when he caught him to ensure that there would be no repeat of the previous year’s performance by the Luxembourger. His margin at the end of the stage was more than six minutes (Baldini was second on the stage, nearly one and a half minutes down), leading Anquetil to declare it was as though he hadn’t felt the pedals: ‘I wanted my revenge, and I’ve had it.’ In L’Équipe, the stage was reported as ‘without a doubt one of Anquetil’s masterpieces’.

The impact of this victory was pronounced. Italian three-time Giro winner Fiorenzo Magni conceded the unique pressures placed on foreign riders in the Giro when he told Paris-Soir magazine that Anquetil was a class above the rest: ‘He’s the strongest of the lot. His class, his form, his tactical intelligence, the fact he doesn’t leave it to anyone else to control things – all these mark him out as the big winner of this Giro. All the coalitions that could be arranged to help Nencini win would be pointless. It’s the Frenchman who lays down the law and is the real boss of the peloton.’

There were only two hurdles to surmount before he could become the first Frenchman to win the Giro. The first was a literal hurdle in the form of the mighty Passo di Gavia. This unmade goat track, climbing to 2,621 metres with pitches up to 22 per cent gradient, was being used in the Giro for the first time. With the last spring snows still clinging to the mountainsides – indeed the top had to be dug out through the drifts – the stony, muddy track, scarcely three metres wide and without so much as a fence at the side to protect the riders from the precipitous drop, was a formidable obstacle. Contemporary film footage of the climb shows riders, including Anquetil, struggling just to keep going, while a report in L’Équipe declared it a miracle that there were no deaths.

The second was the reaction of the Italian crowds to a potential French victory. Their only hope lay with Gastone Nencini, winner in 1957 and now three minutes and two seconds behind the race leader. Their plan was simple, and every bit in accordance with the attitude described earlier by Ignolin: push Nencini up the climb of the Gavia. If in doing so they could obstruct Anquetil, then so much the better. By the top of the climb, Nencini, renowned as a dare-devil descender, led Anquetil by 15 seconds. In spite of this slender lead, Nencini managed to pull away from Anquetil all the way to the finish in Bormio.

Anquetil’s own account, given to L’Aurore newspaper immediately after he’d finished the stage, explains what happened (and reveals the intensity of his efforts):

Anquetil: ‘Give me a drink.’

L’Aurore (giving him a drink): ‘Was it hard?’

Anquetil: ‘Yes, very hard. I dropped Nencini twice on the climb, but twice he came back to me, pushed by dozens of arms. There were hundreds of them waiting to push him . . . When I saw what was happening, I was mad with rage. I started pushing some of the fans back down the hill . . . It’s terrible in Italy . . . I’d have had to fight non-stop.’

L’Aurore: ‘You couldn’t catch him again on the descent even though he was only 15 seconds up on you at the top?’

Anquetil: ‘No . . . though I took some risks. I thought I was about to die 100 times. And then I punctured again.’

L’Aurore: ‘Again?’

Anquetil: ‘Yes, once on the climb and once on the descent, because of the mud. I had to change my bike three times.’

In spite of all this, Anquetil had managed to keep a lead of 28 seconds over Nencini. The race finished in Milan the very next day, and Anquetil secured his first overall victory in the Giro by the same margin. ‘Jacques Anquetil has made history,’ trumpeted L’Équipe. He had also made a clear statement to his rivals back at home about his intent to regain his position as undisputed number one. Sticking to his word to skip the Tour, Anquetil concluded a triumphant homecoming by ensuring the ball was now very much back in the court of Roger Rivière.

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