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Raymond Poulidor was a rider of the people. Photo:...

Poulidor, the last of the black-and-white heroes

The French nearly-man is among the last of the legends when black-and-white photography documented cycling's golden era.

The passing of Raymond Poulidor marks the end of an era.

Obituaries and tributes remember a man as the eternal runner-up. At 83, he was a cycling workingman’s hero who never won the big one. A French favorite who personified panache but had the bad luck of racing first against Jacques Anquetil and later Eddy Merckx. Today’s younger fans might know him little more than Mathieu van der Poel’s grandfather or the aging star who was trotted out every summer to attend the VIPs in the Tour de France start village.

Poulidor was much more than that. The sum of the man — both on and off the bike — can only be measured by the people who loved him and who knew him. And if Wednesday’s outpouring is any indication, Poulidor was a giant.

Photo: AFP

For many cycling fans, Poulidor is remembered in the photos and video clips of his time. Though his career arced across the dawning of the television age, when real-time live TV images and glossy color photography defined the era, in many ways, Poulidor is the last of cycling’s “black-and-white” heroes.

He was among the last of cycling’s greats who remain hidden behind the distance of time and the limitations of mass communication of his day. We don’t know what his voice sounds like. We’ve barely seen videos of his successes and failures.

Instead, we know him and will remember him via the iconic photographs documenting his exploits.

The great photography of the Poulidor era was still largely in black-and-white format. No medium better captures the stark, raw emotions, and pain and elation that cycling provokes than black-and-white photography. During his racing career, color photography and live color TV broadcasts would soon dominate the Tour de France landscape, but Poulidor lived and thrived in that golden era of the late 1940s into the early 1960s when the cycling gods appeared as gladiators fighting in an arena.

The racing stars of the Poulidor generation were larger than life figures. You either stood on the side of the road to catch a glimpse, or read about the race in the morning papers. There was no YouTube, no Twitter. And the great photographers of their time captured the epic battles and bitter defeats that will out-live their too brief time in the peloton.

What are the most memorable moments in cycling history? Most of them are captured in black and white.

It’s images like Ferdi Kübler, crying in desperation after a puncture in the 1950 Tour de France. Or Luis Ocaña, grimacing in pain after tumbling off the Col de Menté in 1971. There’s an exhausted Federico Bahamontes — the oldest living Tour winner at 91 — staring blankly toward some unknown horizon that only he can see. Any raw, gritty photo of Fausto Coppi intimately captures the racer and the man, always elegant, eternally cool. Even in the most gripping moments of the Kodachrome era, the riders are sometimes best documented when photographers reverted to black and white. The most enduring images of Bernard Hinault are him racing through the snow at Liège-Bastogne-Liège or him punching strikers during the 1984 Paris-Nice, all in the unforgiving yet nuanced details of black-and-white photography.

And though black-and-white photography still exists along the edges of Instagram, today’s media landscape is real-time, largely captured by a camera that also makes phone calls. In this new millennium, everyone is a photographer, everyone an actor. In contrast to today’s 24-7, plugged-in world, the Poulidor era was a different time and place.

Poulidor’s athletic career is best remembered in these snapshots and snippets that documented both the drama and the mundane of the peloton.

Poulidor raced before helmets and sunglasses masked the riders, allowing photographers and fans alike to revel in the raw, unbridled emotions that only professional cycling can deliver.

How do we know and remember Poulidor? Just look at the scrapbook of his racing career. With his swarthy complexion and determined jawline, Poulidor in his prime was like a movie star in a Fellini film. There’s Poulidor with a bloodied nose in 1968 from a crash in Albi. Or him signing autographs for smiling French housewives. The eternal hope, the eternal fighter.

One of the most striking images of the Poulidor era, and perhaps among the most in cycling history, is him and archrival Jacques Anquetil battling shoulder-to-shoulder, leaning into each in their epic duel on the Puy du Dome in the 1964 Tour. Anquetil would win that July for the last time, with Poulidor ending up second in the first of his two runner-up podium spots. That duel marked both men; the former would become the first to win five Tours, the latter would never once wear the yellow jersey. Both would become legends.

 

It was in these pitched battles — accentuated by his emphatic never-give-up grit — that endeared “Pouli,” and later “Poupou,” into the hearts of French fans. “Poupoularité” was how a clever L’Equipe headline writer would play it. By the time Anquetil rode into the sunset, a young Eddy Merckx would barnstorm into the peloton, dominating in the closing years of Poulidor’s career. Bad luck indeed, but who else fought toe-to-toe with two of cycling’s biggest champions? A fighter to the end, Poulidor would earn his eighth Tour podium in his final chance at the “grande boucle” with third in 1976.

Poulidor took it all in stride. He famously said, “If I had won the Tour, no one would have remembered me.” On another occasion, when a scribe pointed out the crashes, the punctures, the illnesses and bad luck that seemed to haunt him, Poulidor countered, “I’m the luckiest man in the world. No race is as hard or as long as a day working in the fields.”

Poulidor will live on, both in our collective imaginations, and in the legs of his blessed grandson. The Tour de France and Poulidor are linked for the ages. He gave us nearly two decades on the bike, and then serenely presided over the VIP village, politely and patiently posing for every photo from every French kid who asked.

Poulidor is nearly the last of cycling’s black-and-white heroes. He’ll remain eternal, forever shaped by the images that documented cycling’s golden era.