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The Affair of the Quiet Assassin.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

 

Jacques Anquetil

He was an assassin; a murderer of dreams. And because of that, they hated him.

His name was Jacques Anquetil, the first man to win the Tour de France five times, and this is his story- or at least part of it. It is a story worth knowing since it has more to do with modern cycling than many of you may imagine. It is a strange story of a man persecuted for his honesty and candor, and because he refused to lower himself to the level of a showmen dressed as an athlete. Anquetil suffered from the stigma of being non-sensational, being good at what he did, and being a little too honest about all of it. This was in the days before media coaches and internet and “Just Do It” commercials.

It was 1957. France continued to recover from the war of wars. Their national identity was frail and scared. As a nation, they clung to their icons for healing power. The Tour de France, Le Tour, was one of those icons that exerted a soothing effect on the national ego. As a metaphor for the struggle that was the Nazi invasion of France the Tour defined one man’s desperate struggle against overwhelming opponents: Mountains, time trials, foul weather and the frail nature of human endurance. The French could enjoy the pastoral setting of Le Tour from the roadside and on black and white TV’s, hoping for a French victor to rise above impossible odds in some flamboyant struggle- a cycling metaphor for France’s national struggle in the war.

Anquetil, as I’ve said, won Le Tour five times. It was not his victories the French held in contempt, it was his methods and his demeanor. The organizers had envisioned a clash of gladiators in the natural arena on the field of honor, but Anquetil reduced it to a computation. Just as an assassin engages his target with calculating detachment from a distance, Anquetil would only strike when the odds favored him and his adversaries could be singled out. He refused to contest the race man to man in the mountain passes or on the roads between the battlefields of France. Instead, he administered a somewhat anonymous Coupe de Grace during the time trials, he would euthanize his opponents with the stop watch. And like a man who takes life through a rifle scope from a mile away, Anquetil was feared and despised, and he never got his hands bloody.

His opponents would try all means of countermeasures: They tried to lose him on dangerous descents; they attacked him with volley after volley of accelerations. Entire teams- and then combines of teams- leveled their best rouleurs against Anquetil and his lieutenants. Anquetil would sometimes falter under these fusillades of massed aggression, but alone against the watch he was resplendent and unbeatable. He picked his battles. Like a lone sniper against a legion of soldiers, he would simply fade into obscurity during the mass stages, but stalk his adversary with ruthless cunning during the time trials. In the mountains Anquetil would not square off against his opponents mano-a-mano, but against the cruel, sterile judgment of the stopwatch there was no quarter, no drama and no where to hide.

It was when each man faced the stopwatch alone that Anquetil would strike. With the cool detachment of a surgeon he would amputate seconds from their lead- just enough to contain the damage- no more. It was all too antiseptic for the French public, and they assailed the assassin with criticism.

Anquetil earned the rancor of France because of his reserve and nonchalance. He never outwardly exhibited panache, never won with a flurry or a salute. It was all quiet, all calculated. After one event Anquetil won by a scant five seconds a reporter asked him what he thought of his thin margin. He coolly replied, “It was four seconds too much.”

It was his candor that fostered the French disdain for Anquetil. He was open about his motives; they were entirely mercenary. Anquetil asserted repeatedly that he only raced for money, and only raced hard enough to win- no more. In fact, Anquetil’s dynasty only toppled when threatened by an adversary with an entirely different motive, the monster Eddie Merckx. For Merckx, winning had little to do with money but everything to do with pride. Anquetil was not subject to the temptations of ego. He simply punched a clock like a dock worker. Merckx, on the other hand, took every attack, every challenge on the bike as a personal affront. Anquetil could not have cared less as long as the checks cashed.

Anquetil was also open about using performance enhancing drugs. He did not hide the fact, and once said, “… it is impossible to win on mineral water alone.” He defended the rider’s privilege to use what “medicines” he needed to “treat” himself. After setting the hour record, one of several record setting rides, he refused a drug test on grounds that it was not dignified or professional. His record was disallowed and he was banished from the French National Cycling Team, never to be reinstated. The affair resulted in fisticuffs between his manager and French officials and may have changed the face of cycling forever. Anquetil tried to make what was happening the accepted norm, or at least, to not conceal it. The other top professionals saw him crucified in the press for it, and they took note. The use of performance enhancing drugs became a professional confidentiality.

Much has been written about who the original “innovator”, the first rider to cleverly employ technology as a weapon against his opponents, was. Some suggest it was the American, LeMond, who used carbon fiber frames, aerodynamic handlebars, plastic sunglasses and even cyclocomputers to consolidate his victories. Some say that Hinault and Merckx were the ultimate technicians. But it was Anquetil who preceded them all, and in a way, suffered the torments of a man who won the race in a most unpopular way thus paving the way for a new era of riders who all employed technology to fortify their natural talents- one way or another. In a way, drugs or not, there must be respect for Anquetil’s openness. He did not make commercials or declare his “innocence”. He was pragmatic about what he did, and made no bones about it. He could have changed the sport for the better. But instead, others saw what happened to him and it changed for the worse.

To Jacques Anquetil, no piece of minutiae was too small. In time trial stages he occasionally raced without handlebar wrap to save weight. His wool race uniforms were tailored especially tight in some vague acknowledgement of aerodynamics. He employed enormous cranks- in one instance a special one hundred eighty-eight millimeter crank- to maximize pedaling leverage. His pedaling style was oddly toes-down, a precursor to the powerful mashing styles of Merckx, Hinault and LeMond. He would use special tires encased in silk and said to reduce rolling resistance. No detail was left unattended to.

Along with his methods Anquetil had the misfortune of history against him. Three decades before a precise, calculating adversary had run rampant across France and conquered with an antiseptic detachment. Anquetil was a little too blonde, a little too antiseptic, and a little too… superior. This nearly Aryan countenance did not sit well with the French. It may have worked in Anquetil’s favor on the race course, but he was no darling to the fans. Instead, the French revered the somewhat bumbling, often victim of Anquetil’s precision, the decidedly less dashing Raymond “Pooh-pooh” Poulidor.

Poulidor was deified by the French as the hapless victim of Anquetil’s cold calculation. He has been remembered as the “eternal second” and his palmares reads as a weird list of seconds and thirds, most them behind Anquetil. The rivalry extended to the very moment of Anquetil’s death in 1987. In a bizarre episode Poulidor was visiting Anquetil on his death bed. During the visit Anquetil proclaimed to Pooh-pooh, “You see Raymond, I shall beat you once again…” Anquetil succumbed the next day- passing into the afterlife before Poulidor. Anquetil would finish second only to the stomach cancer that claimed him.

Another aspect of Anquetil’s methods that galled the French was his social habits. Anquetil cut a dashing figure off the bike. His slim build and gaunt face combined with his quiet demeanor made him an enigmatic figure. He was said to play cards and drink alcohol. While other cyclists maintained a strict regimen Anquetil was a playboy, dining on lamb and drinking champagne during the race season. He made it look too easy, and he didn't’t hide the fact. The women swooned.

Anquetil retired from cycling in 1969 during the ascendancy of Eddy Merckx, another story altogether. He became a pastoral character as a farmer and husband. His approach to retirement was the same as cycling, simple, open, honest and unremarkable.

Anquetil is a notable character in the long list of characters in cycling not because of the tragic poetry of his victims or the precision and calculation of his victories. He is notable because of his innovations in attitude, technology, tactics and preparation. His story is an important one since it contrasts so starkly against an attitude of accommodation, pageantry and window dressing that has consumed modern cycling. We could have learned a lot from Anquetil or made better choices with what we did learn. The problem was (or is), an assassin seldom makes a good example and honesty is so often subordinated to sensation.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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