IN SPITE OF ALL the upheaval and risk, Anquetil wasn’t unduly concerned by the prospect of abandoning his first career: ‘I had my club jersey, and at night I dreamed about my first winner’s bouquet and also, to be quite honest, about the “Miss . . .” who would hand it out.’ In his own book, he admits that he wasn’t always a winner, at least at that stage of his life, when it came to girls.
This youthful, somewhat naive assessment of the possible glamour associated with cycling captures one of the sport’s most powerful appeals. Anquetil’s teammate Guy Ignolin was a member of the supporting cast rather than one of the leading lights. He was someone who would never earn enough from cycling to not have to work after he retired from the sport. Yet even for him there was more than just the reflected glory of being alongside a star and a deferral of the need to get a proper job. Now retired after a second career as the owner of a bar, he remembers the hard work and the hours spent travelling but says to paint a picture of a gruelling and unglamorous treadmill is not always accurate: ‘Apart from one Tour of Spain, where the hotels were a bit iffy, there was nothing to complain about, certainly when I was with Jacques. In fact, we mostly stayed in nice establishments that I couldn’t have afforded to stay in otherwise.’
Brian Robinson, Anquetil’s English contemporary, has similarly fond memories: ‘We went on a tour of criteriums in Spain. I don’t know what year it was, but there was [Federico] Bahamontes, Darrigade, Anquetil and me – just the four of us. It was early days in Spain then, and we were riding around football fields against a load of locals. It was a lot of fun. We took it as a holiday, actually, as it was so easy, and we stayed in the best hotels. It was great – best week’s holiday I’ve had. Certainly, Anquetil would have champagne breakfasts and that sort of thing. What else happened, we don’t know, but Jeanine was there . . .
‘We used to ride for no more than an hour round those football stadiums. It was no effort at all really. Just a question of nudging them out of the way, if you like. You’d get the occasional one who got really fired up – “I want to beat Anquetil” – so then you had to group together and tame them, you know, but the programme was always designed in favour of the stars.’
Back among the strawberries, Anquetil’s aspirations may not yet have been so grand, but the cycling bug had certainly caught hold. His mother told Joly he would be glued to the radio for the final part of each stage while the Tour was on, although he always caught up on the work not completed in the interim. This contrasts to some extent with Anquetil’s oft repeated insistence that he had no real passion for racing his bike – that he was not one of those people who derived pleasure simply from riding. Indeed, before he took up cycling in earnest with AC Sottevillais, his daughter records how he used to tell her that he mocked his friends mercilessly for their affection for a sport that thus far had brought them no greater reward than ‘chocolate medals’. Asked by Sophie if he hadn’t loved the sport that made him who he was, his answer was equivocal:
‘Not for one second and entirely, for my whole life. The bike is a terrible thing that drives you to make excessive efforts, inhuman efforts. It takes a racing cyclist to understand what it means to hurt yourself on a bike. Apart from that, everything else about cycling is wonderful: the friendships, the tactics, the ambience, the glory.’
The glory for himself, for his friends and family, and for France was not disagreeable either, he added.
But he also went on to add that had he had the good fortune at 20 to have been the beneficiary of a rich American uncle who had left him a vast estate, or had he won the jackpot on the lottery, he would have given up cycling there and then. Or, says his daughter, he at least said he would.
There was no American uncle, however, so sooner or later Anquetil had to embark on his first season as a bike racer. The first race was on 8 April 1951 in Le Havre and was hardly a portent of things to come. In fact, it’s not without some amusement that Dieulois recalls his friend’s debut outing: ‘His first race was in Le Havre, and I won it. Jacques finished in the peloton, and I won the sprint to take an early lead in the season-long maillot des jeunes, a points competition organised by the local Paris-Normandienewspaper. But he was really miffed after the finish. There was no photo finish in those days, of course, just a judge who read out the numbers as the riders passed, but he had no luck and the judge missed him, and his number wasn’t called out as he crossed the line. He wasn’t a happy chap.’
Legend has it that Anquetil had promised himself only three races to achieve a victory before giving up cycling. Whether or not this is true, it took him until his fourth attempt – the 70-mile Grand Prix Maurice Latour on 3 May – to bring home the winner’s bouquet, following a fourth place and a third in the intervening races. As well as winning a racing frame, Anquetil succeeded in getting his name in the paper, not just in the results, but also in the write-up, even though he was rather damned with faint praise: ‘Everything considered, apart from young Anquetil, we find it difficult to see who deserves special mention.’ The desire to receive a kiss from a local beauty queen was less immediately realised, however. Instead, his prize was presented by the august figure of Mme Maurice Latour, the decidedly middle-aged wife of the former champion rider and cycle-shop owner in Rouen in whose honour the race was staged.
By the end of his first year, Anquetil would have racked up enough victories – most of them on his own, several minutes ahead of the field – to have become a first-category rider had he not been under 18. (It should be noted that although his opponents were restricted by category, they were not restricted by age, so his direct rivals were often older, in theory stronger and in practice more experienced.) There are two that stand out. First was his victory in the Normandy team time-trial championships in July 1951 with, among others, Dieulois. ‘We set off as five, and the time was given to the first three to finish,’ recalls Dieulois. ‘We were up against the big clubs, such as Caen, Le Havre, Cherbourg, and we were young, nobody knew us, so we weren’t favourites. But to general surprise, we won it, against all categories, and it made quite an impression on the press.’ The team beat AS Cherbourg into second place by nearly two minutes, with Etoile Sportive Caennais third.
In Paris-Normandie, under the full-page headline ‘Triumph of Youth in Caen’, it read, ‘Three kids: Anquetil, Dieulois and Levasseur (58 years old in total) win the title of Normandy team time-trial champions for AC Sottevillais.’ If their combined ages adding up to only 58 isn’t impressive enough, it should be noted that Levasseur was 24, meaning Dieulois and Anquetil were both just 17 at the time – and this in a race open to all categories.
The next staging post was in Anquetil’s first official individual time trial, held as the conclusion of the season-long maillot des jeunes competition. As a result of his leading the competition after the penultimate leg, he set off last of the top fifteen riders in the standings, preceded by four minutes by Dieulois. One version of the story has it that Anquetil was vexed by the prospect of overtaking his teammate and friend, and slowed down for five or six miles so as to remain behind him. Eventually, however, he had little choice but to pass him, going on to win both the race and the overall competition.
Dieulois demurs when asked about Anquetil’s reticence, but is happy to acknowledge his superiority: ‘It was his first open time trial – he’d won one at the club over a much shorter distance – but he dominated the race. I don’t know by how much he won, but he won easily.’ In fact, he covered the 51-mile course at an average of more than 25.25 miles per hour. After the race, local journalists were already making comparisons with Fausto Coppi, still the sport’s undisputed star, and Anquetil himself was intrigued by the legendary ‘Il Campionissimo’. However, when he was told by the assembled hacks that Coppi was famous for observing a strict diet, among other things, Anquetil was decidedly nonplussed. ‘That’s a shame, as I do like chips so much.’ Even if chips are hardly haute cuisine, the seeds of his later reputation as a legendary gourmand and bon viveur, not to say provocateur, when it came to demonstrating what he could consume not just prior to but also during races were thus sown.
‘That was typical Jacques,’ acknowledges Dieulois. ‘If he saw a racer he wanted to impress or intimidate, above all when it was someone who made a lot of fuss about the virtues of being serious and not eating or drinking too much, Jacques would always exaggerate. He showed that he could both eat and drink, and then win a race the next day – that he had a stomach that allowed him to do that sort of thing.
‘But all this came with age. It was much simpler when we were younger. With Jacques, we both liked the bike, but at a certain point we both liked to switch off and enjoy going out and doing other things, to enjoy being young. We had fun, meeting up with friends and going out to the cinema, or going to the local bar and playing cards or dice and then eating together. We drank a bit and said “I can drink a bit more than you”, like all young people do. But this was in the winter during the off-season. When training started again on 1 January, we were serious.’
Serious for Jacques didn’t mean giving up his culinary preferences, nor resisting the temptation to stay up late, but it did mean regular gym attendance. There was, however, an ulterior motive for this apparently uncharacteristic keenness: the frequent attendance at the same gym of his current squeeze. It’s not without an awareness of the irony of the situation that Anquetil recalled with pride in En brûlant les étapes a medal given to him by Boucher in acknowledgement of his exemplary attendance record. ‘[I was] the only bloke on the pull in the whole of France who got a medal for his persistence,’ he wrote.
The success of the unlikely combination of strawberry picking, relaxation in the off-season and serious training whatever the motivation – was clear for all to see. ‘You rapidly knew he’d be good,’ Dieulois recalls. ‘Not when he won the first race, perhaps, but after he’d won several, and he’d won them solo. He always arrived on his own – he was a cut above. He’d become thinner in the cheeks, but he had grown as well. He’d grown bigger than me. He’d really changed from being an adolescent to a young man.’ Indeed, his first racing licence, signed at the very end of 1950 in anticipation of the season to come, has him down as measuring 1.71 metres and weighing 63.5 kilograms (nearly ten stones for not much more than five feet seven inches) hardly the same physique as his dad (built like a brick privy, by all accounts) but a long way from the frail, skinny youth we are sometimes led to imagine.
This new physical maturity, combined with the experience accrued in his first year of cycling, paid considerable dividends in his second season in 1952. ‘He quickly understood that the best way to earn a living from cycling was to win,’ is how Dieulois puts it. He also recalls that Anquetil’s dad frequently reminded his son that ‘all I know about cycling is the winner’s bouquet’.
First, on 26 May, came the championship of Normandy and an early lesson in the sometimes harsh realities of being a marked man. Surrounded by five members of the Caen team, Anquetil was some five and a half minutes down on the lead group with just under fifty miles of the race remaining. On seeing his trainer Boucher at the roadside, he decided this was the moment to abandon. Needless to say, this was not part of the Boucher master plan, and Anquetil was given the requisite extra encouragement to continue: ‘You’ve no right to abandon.’ According to Joly, Anquetil then added to the impression that he was about to abandon by loosening his toe-straps. In doing so, he also loosened the noose placed around his neck by the Caen team and, catching them unawares, set off in pursuit of the leaders. He not only succeeded in making up the deficit but then went straight past to win, on his own, by three minutes.
Boucher told Joly in En brûlant les étapes:
‘For me, Anquetil the champion was born then, after 18 months of apprenticeship. On his own, in less than forty miles, he made up eight and a half minutes. At only 18 and a half years old, Jacques Anquetil had become amateur champion of Normandy and had qualified for the French national championships that would be held on 12 July in Carcassonne. It was the beginning of an exceptional career.’
The rest of the year was certainly pretty exceptional. He won the 51-and-a-half-mile Grand Prix de France time trial, effectively an amateur Grand Prix des Nations, by an astonishing 12 minutes (after which his height and weight were recorded as 1.73 metres and 68 kilograms – nearly an inch taller and more than half a stone heavier than 18 months previously). Then, after finishing third overall in the qualifying races for the forthcoming Olympic Games, his first appearance at a national level, he became the youngest-ever French national champion by winning in Carcassonne, beating one of the favourites for the Olympic crown on the way. This victory was not without another crucial intervention from Boucher, however, to galvanise Anquetil and to help compensate for his apparent willingness to accept seemingly imminent defeat, an attitude that would blight his later pursuit of one-day races. Boucher, prevented from following the race, had to hide himself at the roadside at the crucial point in order to be able to leap out and tell his pupil to give it his all – an instruction executed with Anquetil’s customary efficiency.
Apart from the privilege of wearing the tricolour jersey of national champion, his victory in Carcassonne also propelled Anquetil into the French team for the Olympic Games in Helsinki. He’d gone from young strawberry picker, having scarcely left his native Normandy other than to see relatives near the Belgian border, to international athlete in the space of a year and a half. Although caught up in some selectorial politics as a result of not being from a fashionable club, he was far from overawed by the experience. He was, however, disappointed by his 12th place in the Olympic road race on 3 August, despite being the best-placed French rider and winning a bronze medal in the team competition. This reveals how quickly his own expectations had developed to match his new status. After all, by the end of the year, at the amateur world championships, he would be rubbing shoulders with Rik Van Looy and Charly Gaul, other future stars of cycling’s golden era.
After the successes of 1952, Anquetil decided there was little more on offer to him as an amateur, so for the 1953 season he took out a licence as an independent, the now defunct category intended to provide a bridge between amateur and full-professional status. The principal aim of this move, it should be no surprise, was to earn more money. It would also provide an entry into local professional races, although this is something Anquetil rather uncharacteristically deferred, under Boucher’s watchful eye, until the August of that year. In the meantime, he won the Normandy championship for independents before finally taking the plunge with the professionals at the Tour de la Manche, a local three-day stage race designed for those with aspirations of greater things.
Against the massed ranks of such serious rivals, Anquetil wasted no time in demonstrating his extraordinary abilities. On the very first stage, he finished second, on his own and only 24 seconds adrift, to none other than a young Jean Stablinski – the same Stablinski who would not only become an inseparable friend and invaluable teammate but also a multiple Tour de France stage winner and world champion. No disgrace there, then, but even better was to come the next day in the 24-mile time-trial stage. Anquetil won by nearly two minutes, putting two minutes fifty seconds into Stablinski and taking the leader’s jersey in the process. (Later in his career, Stablinski would proudly declare that he was ageing well: ‘Anquetil still only takes a minute out of me every ten kilometres.’)
This effrontery was all the excuse the professionals needed to gang up on Anquetil during the last stage the next day. For the 115 miles to Cherbourg, he was subjected to the kind of working over only experienced once in a career before you either capitulate or assert your dominance. It was a close-run thing. ‘I’ve never been a drama queen, but if I’d made a fuss to the press, I would have had the crowd in tears. I had to put up with everything,’ Anquetil later wrote. By ‘everything’ he meant illicit assistance between ostensibly rival teams, being cut up by other riders, delays in receiving assistance and eventually being forced off into a ditch.
Cue an unlikely hero – an unheralded independent from Nantes called Maurice Pelé, whom Anquetil had unwittingly brought down with him as he fell. The result was what he would later describe as the only present anyone ever gave him during a race. ‘It breaks my heart to see what they’re doing to you, so I’m going to help,’ said Pelé. Between them, they caught up with the bunch and overall victory was assured, much to the consternation of Antonin Magne, directeur sportif of the second-placed rider, Attilio Redolfi. (This was the same Magne who would later perform this very role for Raymond Poulidor at the height of his rivalry with Anquetil.)
‘So, Attilio, you’re losing to debutants now?’ Magne said. Redolfi’s response was measured: ‘Mr Magne, I would suggest you get in touch with this boy’s father in order to sign him up, for what this young Anquetil has done is quite something. We were all working together, trying to bring him back on the first stage, but we couldn’t get close.’
Greatness was beckoning, but it took one more feat and one more example of Anquetil’s growing awareness of his own value before the 19 year old could really make the breakthrough. The first was his victory in the time trial that concluded the season-long maillot des as, another competition organised by Paris-Normandie. He won by nearly nine minutes and covered the 76.8-mile course at an average of almost 26.3 miles per hour, prompting one commentator to suggest that such a speed was only possible because the Norman kilometre was in fact only made up of nine hundred metres. The second was his invitation to appear in one of France’s most prestigious criteriums, the Circuit de l’Aulne at Chateaulin. Prevented, he maintained, from beating that year’s Tour de France winner Louison Bobet only by being held back in the final sprint, the race was more significant for Anquetil’s successful negotiations for appearance money. Offered 15,000 francs, he insisted on, and received, 25,000 francs, the equivalent of £25, more than twice as much in one night as he would have received in one month working as an apprentice metalworker. Both on a sporting and a financial level, Anquetil had clearly made the right career choice.