The Curious Incident of the Race in the Night-time

WHAT NEXT? WHAT COULD possibly top a year in which you’d won twenty-one races, including the two biggest and most prestigious races in the world, both in gripping fashion, and proved your all-round versatility with a stunning first victory in a major one-day race?

This was the dilemma faced by Anquetil on the eve of his 13th season as a professional: how to maintain motivation to continue to exceed expectations if pretty much all expectations had already been exceeded. What’s more, even if a sense of sporting desire could be stimulated, what was the point if the rewards for continuing to excel were already as high as they could be? Although Anquetil had probably already earned enough to be comfortable for the rest of his life, and could certainly hope to continue to be paid his going rate for a few years to come, this was of particular importance to someone who never underestimated the importance of money or his own value. After all, being rewarded at a level commensurate with his status as the top rider was not just a practical concern but a matter of pride – hence his frustration at Poulidor earning the same appearance money at criteriums.

Continuing to win became a galling prospect if in doing so you helped your rival maintain an undeserved equal footing. According to Géminiani in Les années Anquetil, Anquetil had already been confronted with the uncomfortable financial reality of his situation in the run-up to the previous year’s Tour. Anquetil summoned his directeur sportif to his house to tell him, ‘I’ve just had a long conversation with Roger Piel [the rival agent to Anquetil’s manager Daniel Dousset]. He made me understand that winning the Tour for the fifth time would be meaningless. The public would still be against me. On the other hand, if Poulidor won, it would be great for me, as I’d become much more popular. Poulidor and Magne know nothing about it, but Piel has guaranteed me 50 very well-paid after-Tour contracts as well as 50,000 francs [France had by then moved to the new franc, so this represented £5,000].’ The combination of improved earnings and improved popularity was tempting enough for Anquetil to need Géminiani’s reassurance before declining the offer.

If winning a fifth Tour de France had potentially been meaningless in a financial context, then winning a sixth was even more likely to be so. ‘He didn’t see a victory in the Tour for its intrinsic value or for its contribution to his palmarès,’ explains Brunel. ‘For him, the notion of a palmarès was absurd if it didn’t add value commercially. That was Anquetil.’

As well as being a gratuitous effort, therefore, it would also have carried a considerable risk. Like all dominant males, Anquetil was subject to constant sniping from younger rivals; like all dominant males, he would eventually have to relinquish his position at the top of the hierarchy. Yet as the Roman general Fabius understood, the art of winning a war is sometimes found in avoiding a head-on battle. Although Anquetil had managed to beat Poulidor in 1964, the margin of victory was so slight as to leave open the prospect of defeat, whether through sporting inferiority or unfortunate circumstance – as had befallen Poulidor that year.

Anquetil was clearly aware of this and, indeed, was sufficiently concerned to want to avoid the confrontation, at least according to his former teammate at the new Ford France-sponsored team, the British rider Vin Denson: ‘In my contract with Ford France, it was stated that I was obliged to ride the Tour if selected. Anquetil was also obliged to ride, as they hoped he would win for Ford France. But he couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like if Poulidor beat him, and he had a funny feeling that he wasn’t going to make it that year. You know, that he couldn’t do it, that he’d passed his sell-by date.’ What’s more, Denson maintains that this was down to more than just the innate precariousness of his position: ‘I’ve never known a rider know himself so well. He knew when to ease off, even if he was just having a bad patch for an hour or so. He was unbelievable. He could see it before it came.’

Whatever the precise reason, Anquetil decided on the classic Fabian tactic of avoiding direct confrontation by determining not to ride any of the three major Tours – Spain, Italy or France – in 1965. He still had to conjure up some kind of performance to demonstrate his commitment to his new team, however, and also to improve his standing with the public, or at least provide sufficient distraction for his absence from his normal hunting grounds not to draw adverse comment. Initially, this gap was filled by an unusually early start to the season, leading to a comprehensive victory over both Altig, now in a different team, and Poulidor in Paris–Nice. His first victory in the Mont Faron hill climb, followed by victory over Poulidor in the Critérium National, not to mention three days participating in a Ford car in the Monte Carlo Rally, helped keep his sponsors happy but did little to add to his prestige or dampen fevered expectation. After all, he was by now ‘supposed’ to win these events. (Even to someone like Anquetil, this must have become a bit wearing.) They also served merely to delay the inevitable: deciding what would be his big goal for the year.

Once again, it was Géminiani who came up with the answer: ‘Looking at the calendar, I noticed something that made me sit up. The Dauphiné Libéré was followed immediately by Bordeaux–Paris. With Jacques having decided to bypass all three grand Tours, an idea sprang into my head. It would have been premature to spell it out there and then, but I let it germinate quietly.’ The idea that Géminiani was reluctant to articulate was for Anquetil to race and win both of these events, even though the five-hundred-and-fifty-seven-kilometre Bordeaux–Paris, the longest one-day race in the cycling calendar, was due to start in Bordeaux just seven hours after the Dauphiné was scheduled to finish nearly six hundred kilometres away in Avignon. The question was how to persuade Anquetil to tackle such an improbable challenge. Géminiani wrote:

I was convinced he could succeed. I’d mentioned it in passing, but he’d hardly been enthusiastic – in fact, that’s the best you could say. So, I had to think of another way. I persuaded Jeanine that my idea was well founded and that Jacques could do it if he applied himself fully. ‘If you help me we can persuade him. I’m not with him day and night. You are. Suggest it to him and let me know how you get on.’

Even then, it wasn’t simply a question of Jeanine suggesting it directly. ‘The thing to remember with Jacques was that you shouldn’t challenge him,’ she recalls. ‘You shouldn’t say no to him. If you said no to him, he’d do it anyway. It’s the same with his daughter. If you say don’t do something, she’ll go and do it. That’s typical Sophie and Jacques. For that reason, Géminiani couldn’t tell him to do it. So, he called me to talk about it – I always answered the phone, even to journalists. Jacques never bothered, unless perhaps it was Chany. If not, I’d ask him the questions, he’d answer and I’d relay them to the person on the other end of the phone. So, Géminiani asked me how we could persuade him to do it, as it would be a great achievement and he’d be really popular. I said that it was quite a task, but Géminiani said that he could do it. I said, “If you think he can do it, we have to tell him that he can’t.”’

Jeanine still chuckles at the memory and at the predictability of her husband’s reaction: ‘After a while, Jacques wanted to know what Géminiani had said on the phone. I said, “He’s crazy, that Géminiani. You can’t imagine what he’s got planned for you now. He’s mad.” Then I explained to Jacques what the idea was, and he said, “What, you think I can’t do it?”’

Géminiani was delighted and concluded the deal with a final nod to the publicity to be garnered were he to succeed: ‘Imagine what they’ll have to write if you succeed. Imagine! There’s nothing more to say. You’ve won five Tours, two Giros, one Vuelta. It’s the only thing left for you to do.’

However, there were still some considerable logistical hurdles to overcome. First was the reluctance, not to say downright antipathy, of Georges Cazeneuve, the organiser of the Dauphiné, who sent Anquetil an open letter asking him to renounce his pursuit of his double aspirations, as it was prejudicing the merit of his race. He was eventually won round, though, on the back of the wave of publicity the undertaking had generated and even went so far as to facilitate the crux of the logistical challenge – getting from Avignon to Bordeaux in time – by bringing forward the start of the last stage of the Dauphiné by an hour. Yet the question remained of how this journey could be made. Ford France had initially hoped that one of their new cars could be used, but even with a police escort this would have been cutting things too fine.

Help came from an unlikely source. ‘Just before the start of the Dauphiné, a person who wanted to remain anonymous called me on the phone,’ Géminiani recalled. ‘Monsieur Géminiani, I am with you. A Mystère 20 – a twin-engined business jet – will be waiting for you at the military airfield in Nîmes to take you to Bordeaux. Don’t worry about anything. I’ll take care of it.’ Anquetil legend has it that it was none other than the then French president General de Gaulle who approved the loan of the plane. This may well be true – de Gaulle was an avowed Anquetil fan – although according to L’Équipe the person directly in charge was air force general Marcel Dassault.

However, in order to justify the confidence shown by the favours provided by friends in high places, Anquetil first had to win the Dauphiné. Contemporary race reports in Cycling reveal that this was no straightforward task. In fact, his overall margin of victory was a slender one minute forty-three seconds, all but thirteen seconds of which had been accrued in time bonuses for stage-finishing positions: Anquetil had beaten Poulidor in the sprints for victory on stages four and six, on both occasions after having been dropped on the last climb, and also the sprint for second place on stage three. Only in the final 38-kilometre time trial had he put any time into his great rival. He also had to confront the terrible weather, in particular during the penultimate stage. Cycling recalls a stage with an average speed of a meagre 18 miles per hour and ‘an appalling icy sleet which fell all day which reduced the field, while those that remained could hardly pedal. Two hours after the race had finished, Anquetil was still shivering with cold.’

Of course, this was just the hors d’oeuvre. The plat principal was still to come – and was 600 kilometres away. L’Équipe recorded the timetable for the transition between the two:

16:58 – The Dauphiné finishes in Avignon.

17:00 – Anquetil on the podium, acclaimed by the crowd. He fulfils his obligations as winner – flowers and kisses – but a bit faster than normal.

17:10 – While his mechanic parts the crowds, he runs to the Ford Taunus team car, driven by Géminiani.

17:15 – They leave the car park, surrounded by cheering fans.

17:20 – Arrival at the Hotel Crillon. Anquetil goes to his room – number 18 – for a bath. His soigneur Vergani gives him a massage. Next it’s dinner time – Anquetil devours a steak tartare, some Camembert, a strawberry tart and drinks two bottles of beer.

17:55 – Departure. In the car with Anquetil, with the Bordeaux–Paris bikes on top, are Géminiani, [Tarcisio] Vergani, de Bruyckere, the mechanic, and Rostollan, a teammate. A police escort clears the way. The scene is staggering: speeds of up to 140 kilometres per hour, screeching tyres. Anquetil and Rostollan have to cling on tightly, and look far from comfortable. Mothers call their children off the streets.

18:30 – Arrival at Nîmes airport, 60 kilometres from Avignon. In the departure lounge, Anquetil is being massaged on a bench by Vergani, surrounded by reporters and photographers. ‘I’m completely disoriented. Going from a bike race where I was quite comfortable to this incredible rally is really something.’ He checks on the weather.

18:35 – The group walks towards the plane, a Mystère 20, the name of which couldn’t be more fitting: Business Jet. Anquetil is slightly concerned by the number of engines. Out of friendliness, he shakes hands with the pilot, René Brigand, a hot shot. Another handshake for the cameras and television crews. Then he sits down and fastens his seat belt.

18:50 – The door is closed. Chocks away. Anquetil smiles and waves through the window. The plane taxis to the end of the runway, where the roar of the engines continues to grow.

18:56 – Take-off, and before long the plane is lost in the setting sun.

18:58 – Rostollan returns alone to the team car. By the time he’s back in Avignon, Anquetil will already be in Bordeaux from where he will set off again in the middle of the night – this time on his bike.

The story of the second half of this famous double is best told by one of its leading players, Vin Denson, who along with the ever-faithful Jean Stablinski had been selected as Anquetil’s teammate for the ‘Derby of the Road’. While Anquetil had been racing the Dauphiné, Denson and Stablinski had been training in Bordeaux: ‘Stab and I had been down there training, riding maybe 20 to 30 minutes on our own, then picking up the Dernys for maybe 80 to 90 kilometres. We’d been doing this for a week, living off lovely fillet steaks – the fat of the land, so to speak. We’d been having a good time for a week. While he was flogging himself, we were in bed eating grapes or something.’

It wasn’t grapes Anquetil was after when he finally made it to the hotel in Bordeaux, although his craving still bore no relation to the recommendations of any training manual. ‘We met him in the hall,’ Denson recalls, ‘and the first thing he said was, “I’m absolutely knackered.” The next thing he said was, “Can you get one of the waiters to get me some glazed cherries?” They were in wine or eau de vie, I think. At first, he just wanted half a kilo of them – he didn’t want anything else – but in the end they talked him into eating a main course, so he ordered kidneys in red wine. Then he went to bed to try to sleep, but he said that he couldn’t. He just lay there with his eyes closed for a couple of hours. We’d slept in the day, of course, Stab and I, and by the time of the presentation of the riders at the track we began trying to humour him. He did seem a bit tired.’

Things were about to get much worse: ‘By 3 or 4 a.m., Jacques kept saying, “I’m absolutely knackered. I’m about to fall asleep.” I said, “Don’t think it’s because of the Dauphiné, because I feel like that, too.” I didn’t, of course. I lied to him, thinking if he falls asleep, I’m gonna lose my wallet. So, I’m pushing him, and he’s leaning on Stablinski. Stab’s got one arm round his shoulder, and I’m the other side, pushing on his saddle in the dark.’

The effort involved for Anquetil to stay awake and for Denson and Stablinski to keep him going was only tolerable because of the relatively sedate nature of the first few hours of the race. ‘The first bit’s just like club-run speed at 20 miles per hour,’ Denson continues, ‘so it was just a question of keeping him moving. But it was only the end of May, so it was still quite a cold night, and it was raining. We all had on arm warmers and leg warmers and ski hats. They weren’t Lycra, like today, though – it was all woollen stuff, on this damp drizzly night. We kept going like this until 7 a.m. when we got to the place with the mobile toilets and some food set out.’

According to Géminiani, it was at this point that Anquetil came closest to cracking. In fact, Anquetil actually got into the team car and told his mechanic to pack away his bike, as he wasn’t going any further. Until, after having bawled him out to no avail, Géminiani once again found the mots justes, that is: ‘I should never have put my trust in such a big girl. You’re nothing but a big girl, Jacques. A big girl and no more.’ Even in such a diminished state, the alpha male in Anquetil couldn’t let this insult pass. With an even greater desire to show the world what he was made of, Anquetil resumed the race.

Denson, meanwhile, had missed the near abandon of his leader, as he was one of the first to leave the pit stop, fulfilling his role of responding to early attacks by other riders. In fact, he was to spend very little of the rest of the race with Anquetil. Yet his own experiences reveal just what a gruelling event Bordeaux–Paris was, even without the added inconveniences of sleep deprivation and having ridden a nine-day stage race in the Alps as preparation: ‘There was a gentlemen’s agreement that you all got changed and went to the loo and no one attacked, but Raymond Delisle, I think it was, in Tom Simpson’s team, jumped away. For weeks on end, he’d been practising getting changed on his bike, so that when he stopped all he had to do was put his shorts on. I’d just about come out of the loos, and I suddenly spotted him go. Of course, it was my job to pull everyone back, so I jumped onto my bike, but the soigneur had only just put the gunge [to prevent chafing] in my shorts, and I got bits of gravel from my feet into them and into the gunge.’

It’s tempting to say Denson’s eyes were watering as he recalled the prospect of cycling another 300 or so kilometres in such a state, but this would do him a disservice. If his eyes were at all moist, it was due to the infectious, ribald sense of humour that becomes evident when the tale is recounted and which no doubt went some way to making such an excruciating situation seem tolerable at the time.

Grit in his shorts was merely the beginning of Denson’s tribulations, however. ‘After such a quick start, I hadn’t managed to finish off my pee. I quickly had to jump on my bike to pull him back and make it smooth for Anquetil, to make it like a stepping stone for him, but I was bursting for a pee. Luckily, it was just one guy, but when we got caught, François Mahé, I think it was, attacked, and I had to go again. So, I went with him, and he took me miles up the bloody road. It must have been 80 or 100 kilometres that I sat on him.’

In other words, another couple of hours having to resist the call of nature, a form of purgatory exacerbated by the peculiar nature of the event, run as it was behind motorbikes: ‘Because you’re behind the Derny, you put on a longer handlebar extension so that you’re closer to it for less wind resistance. I don’t know if it was that, making me sit more on the tip of my saddle than normal and that I had trapped a nerve, or simply because I hadn’t peed and had held it for so long, but I had pains like cramp across the bottom of my stomach, and then they started going down my legs. Luckily, I knew there was a group catching us, so I said to my Derny driver, when they were only one minute down, “I’m gonna stop to pee.” He said, “No one stops in Bordeaux–Paris,” and I said, “Just watch me.” There were radio and television reporters from France, Holland and Luxembourg, and TV cameras, and I was trying to pee against a tree but just couldn’t. So, I had to get back on my bike, as Anquetil was coming down the road. I then had to work to pull Mahé back again, and [Tom] Simpson started attacking, and we had to take it in turns to cover him.’

Finally, Simpson broke free of the majority of the bunch, taking only Anquetil and Stablinski with him: ‘I was left with the other guys, and I had to stay with them, but then I decided I’d have to stop. As soon as Anquetil and the rest had got two minutes up the road, I said to my Derny rider, “Tell Géminiani I’ve got to stop to have a pee.” So, I stopped behind another tree, but I still couldn’t pee. However, the soigneur had a brainwave. He pulled my shorts down, poured hot coffee on a sponge and put it on my balls. As soon as he put it on – phew, the relief. I must have trapped a nerve or something. Some journalist was there with a watch, and he said I peed for 38 seconds.’

Oblivious to the specifics of Denson’s suffering on his behalf – but not his general commitment to the cause – Anquetil was by now feeling better and better. Taking advantage of their numerical superiority to take it in turns to attack Simpson, Anquetil and his Ford France teammate Stablinski eventually wore down the Englishman’s resistance. Inevitably, it was Anquetil who launched the decisive move on the Côte de Picardie with eight kilometres remaining, riding inexorably away to a famous victory. At the finish in the Parc des Princes, he was 57 seconds clear. Stablinski made it first and second for Ford France by outsprinting Simpson, and a short while later Denson won the prize for fastest lap of the track to add to his victory in the two earlier sprints to give Ford France a clean sweep. The team and Anquetil were delighted with Denson’s contribution. ‘Anquetil gave me all his prize money, he was so pleased,’ he remembers, ‘and Stab did as well on this occasion, which was unusual for him, but he was having a good year and on good money. Then I got a special bonus from Ford France, like we all did, and a nice letter, so I think that day was my biggest earner ever, well over £1,000. That’s not bad in 1965.’

The money may have been shared, but the glory was all Anquetil’s. In Bordeaux–Paris, he had ridden five hundred and fifty-seven kilometres in fifteen hours two minutes three seconds at an average of 37.007 kilometres per hour. That made for a total of two thousand five hundred kilometres and two exceptional victories in ten days. L’Équipe called Anquetil’s achievement the most ‘outrageous’ ever and commented, ‘The panache shown by Anquetil throughout his double attempt makes him worthy of being considered the greatest rouleur of all time.’ Cycling devoted its entire front page to commemorating his success under the headline ‘Incredible Anquetil’, adding two more pages of analysis, commentary and editorial. Alan Gayfer, the magazine’s editor, wrote:

Salute, this morning, the greatest cyclist that the world has ever seen, Jacques Anquetil. This marvellous man, who is so gentle in speech and manner, so calm and fastidious in his person, has once more proved that he can break all rules. Whatever Jacques sets out to do, he will do, that is certain, and we must sympathise with Tom Simpson in finding Jacques there in the way of a second Bordeaux–Paris success for him. To we, who live in Britain, this Norman is particularly dear, for he appeals to all sides of our sport: time trial, road or track, and his mode of living has obviously far more to do with the hard-living and riding cyclist of British tradition than with the monk-like atmosphere we are sometimes encouraged to adopt.

More important even than the unanimous approval of the press was that of the fans, however. ‘The welcome which the public at the Parc des Princes reserved for its hero of the day was without precedent,’ noted Cycling. ‘Never in all the time I have been following cycle racing can I remember the Parc shaking so much to the shouts as on Sunday afternoon during his last lap of the track.’ Anquetil himself let slip his usual mask of indifference, the report added: ‘When he got off his bike, he was marked by his efforts, but he was much more marked by emotion.’ Later, he even admitted to being moved to tears, although not until safely ensconced in his car with Jeanine: ‘It was the first time since the beginning of my career that I’d cried. And I’m not ashamed to say it, as there and then I was overcome by joy. I was overwhelmed by the public reaction, and I felt as though I’d done something important.’

The significance of this admission was not lost on his friend, the journalist Pierre Chany, as he recalled in Pierre Chany, L’homme aux 50 Tours de France: ‘The greats – Merckx, Bobet, Coppi – they cried because they had panache. They cried when they’d gone beyond their limits. It’s not by chance that you never saw Anquetil cry – he was a functional racer.’ Reminded that Anquetil had cried after Bordeaux–Paris, Chany maintained that this proved his point: ‘It’s true, but he cried away from the crowd, and we’d never have known about it if Jeanine hadn’t told us. He cried precisely because this time he’d taken risks, something he never normally did in a stage race.’

After this incredible success, Anquetil felt entirely vindicated in his decision not to race the Tour, even if Poulidor desired his presence. When Poulidor ended up losing to Tour debutant Felice Gimondi, it became clear that his motivation to beat Anquetil was at least the equal of Anquetil’s motivation to not let Poulidor beat him. ‘All I wanted was for him to be there. The Tour was never the same without Jacques,’ he explained.

Meanwhile, Anquetil was explaining Poulidor’s failings and the intricacies of the race to readers of none other than L’Humanité, the weekly newspaper of the French Communist Party. According to Jeanine, this alliance was an unlikely one. ‘He was not interested in politics, but he was Gaullist,’ she recalls. ‘He knew big Charles. So we were Gaullist. At the moment, he’d be pro-discipline, pro-work. His temperament was to work to earn money. He rode his bike to make money.’ Yet for once his motivation appears not to have been purely financial. L’Humanité was ideologically and practically limited in the rates it could pay. Instead, Anquetil’s benefit from the arrangement came in the form of the access the paper provided to the ‘masses’, those who attended bike races in person rather than read about them in the office, those who had now begun to show some affection for him. If he wouldn’t ride in front of them that year, at the height of his popularity, at least he could continue to cultivate their affinity.

Buoyed, perhaps, by his own success and the failure of his great rival, Anquetil then embarked on a successful end-of-season campaign. He went to the Isle of Man cycling festival and won the Manx Premier Trophy by half a wheel from Eddy Merckx, and then won the Critérium des As and the Grand Prix Forli. He also became the first person to win the Grand Prix des Nations, the Grand Prix de Lugano and the Baracchi Trophy in the same year, winning the Baracchi Trophy with the ever faithful Jean Stablinski.

In the Grand Prix des Nations, on a new, shortened course of only 73.5 kilometres, Anquetil set a record average of 46.793 kilometres per hour, prompting another flattering L’Équipe headline: ‘Without Rivals’. Given that Poulidor and that year’s Tour winner Gimondi were both riding, and were both beaten by more than three minutes, this was indeed impressive. The paper congratulated him on having the courage to face up to these new pretenders, then concluded that he was ‘more imperious, more determined and also more generous than ever’. In spite of another article elsewhere in the paper under the headline ‘A Season with Neither Yellow nor Pink Jerseys’, cycling’s dominant male had lived to ride another year.

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