By Francois Thomazeau, Reuters
Long before France won the soccer World Cup in 1998, French sports fans loved nothing more than a magnificent loser.
On Tuesday, the Tour de France honored just such a man – Raymond Poulidor, one of France’s most popular sportsmen, who became known as the eternal runner-up – when the ninth stage started from the 68-year-old’s home village of St Leonard de Noblat.
Forty years ago, Poulidor beat Jacques Anquetil in an epic stage battle to the top of the Puy de Dome that split the population watching on France’s only television channel and the many fans who had gathered on the extinct volcano’s hot slopes.
Despite his victory that day, Poulidor’s winning margin was not enough to claim the leader’s yellow jersey, which he missed out on by just 14 seconds. He eventually finished second overall behind Anquetil, but the Puy de Dome drama established him as a legend in France.
Anquetil won five Tours out of the eight he rode between 1957 and 1965, while in Poulidor’s 14 Tours, between 1962 and 1976, he never once wore the yellow jersey.
Poupou, as he affectionately became known, was second on three occasions and finished third five times.
“Poulidor has almost become a noun, meaning second,” Poulidor told reporters. “There is a Poulidor of politics, a Poulidor of boxing. Of course I have regrets, I think I deserved to win it, really. But I’m not losing sleep over it.”
While the Tour de France eluded him, Poulidor did win 189 races in his career, including the prestigious Vuelta a España, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné Libéré.
Other riders have been Tour de France runners-up more often than him, including Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, who has come second six times, and German Jan Ullrich, five times a runner-up.
“But I’m better than those two in that respect because unlike them, I never won the Tour,” he joked.
Zoetemelk won in 1980 and Ullrich in 1997.
Poulidor said he had often been unlucky in the Tour.
He claimed it was not his failure to beat Anquetil by a better margin in the Puy de Dome that cost him the 1964 victory, but a crash near the stage finish in Toulouse caused by a mechanic who had tried to change his wheel.
In 1968, with Anquetil absent, Poulidor had looked almost certain to clinch victory but again crashed after a collision with a motorcycle.
Poulidor, however, refuses to blame his failure to win the Tour on those crashes and says it was the strength of his rivals that prevented him from achieving his goal.
“I finished second behind three generations of riders, Anquetil, Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx,” said Poulidor.
Italy’s Gimondi, who won in 1965, and Merckx, a five-times winner between 1969 and 1974, were in attendance for his party in St Leonard. Anquetil died of cancer in 1987.