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ANGERS, France (AFP) — He may never have won the greatest bicycle race in the world, but every day is a celebration of Raymond Poulidor at the Tour de France.
France’s favorite cycling son was the eternal bridesmaid during his career, finishing second three times and third five times at the Tour. He never even wore the coveted race leader’s yellow jersey for a single day.
Now 80, Poulidor is still an ever-present figure on the Tour from start to finish, and he’s not planning on spending his summer in any other way, anytime soon.
“It’s my life,” he said of the Tour. “The day I stop doing this will be the day I die. I won’t be coming to the Tour with a walking stick.”
Having competed at 14 editions of the Grand Boucle and then been a media consultant for many more years, Poulidor’s role is now that of a sponsors’ darling.
His name evokes so much love and affection in France that it is worth its weight in gold to any sponsor lucky enough to welcome him to its hospitality tent.
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He’s now wracked up 54 Tour appearances in all his various roles, and this year he’s been seen wondering around the Tour village at the start and finish of stages in a yellow polo shirt, courtesy of French bank LCL.
“Whenever I’m at the Tour I get younger,” Poulidor said. “I’m surrounded by 20-year-old youngsters. I become a diapason, I become their age.”
On Wednesday, the opportunity arose for Tour organizers to celebrate Poulidor’s 80th birthday with a cake and candles in his hometown of Saint Leonard de Noblat — although he was actually born in April — 16.5 kilometers into the fifth stage, albeit a short while before the peloton passed through.
“Cycling, the Tour de France, gave me everything. It enriched me intellectually in an incredible way,” Poulidor said.
“I had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the biggest personalities in high society and also the road sweeper, they’re all fans in the same way.”
He may be retired now, but Poulidor still manages to rake in the silver making appearances at book fairs to sign autographs in his four books.
“My popularity is still intact, it’s even huge, inexplicable!” he added.
“At Avranches, I sold 140 books in four hours. They’d never seen that before!”
Wednesday’s celebration of Poulidor’s birthday was also a chance to remember one of his classic battles with chief rival Jacques Anquetil — the unloved one — in the Limousine region in 1964.
Poulidor won the stage up to the top of the Puy de Dome in the Massif Central region following a titanic battle with Anquetil. But he didn’t manage to gain enough time on his great rival to snatch the yellow jersey, and Anquetil went on to claim his record fifth Tour victory in Paris.
Reflecting nostalgically on his career, Poulidor said many things had changed since, but not necessarily for the worse.
“It’s not the same as what we knew, but every year you see more and more fans,” he said, noting that there were more in his day.
“What’s amazing is the atmosphere. The Tour is open to everyone.”
The Tour’s doors will always be open to Poulidor as long as he lives, and as long as he can still climb on his bike — although he doesn’t do that much anymore.
He hasn’t ridden properly for 10 years, except for “500 meters a day to go and buy the newspaper.”