Even before the posterior of the last cyclist had disappeared from the environs of Nancy, headed for the Meuse and the Forest of Ardennes to the north, the results of this year's 22-day Tour had been preordained by the French press. The matter was summed up by L'Equipe, the sporting daily which, along with Le Parisien Liber�, sponsors the race. L'Equipe headlined: ANQUETIL'S SIXTH GREAT YEAR or POULIDOR'S FIRST? There were 128 other racers in the Tour, but there was no doubt in any Frenchman's mind that the race would be between the two French farmers' sons, one of them Anquetil, the Babe Ruth of cycling, the other Poulidor, a Jimmy Stewart type who never seems to win but charms everybody while losing.
Jacques Anquetil, a blond and handsome Norman with a chic wife and several million dollars, had last appeared in the Tour of 1964, when he had rattled off his fifth win, the last four consecutively, an accomplishment roughly equivalent to leading the major leagues in batting, home runs and RBIs four years in a row. Only 55 seconds behind the superstar Anquetil in that 1964 race, the closest in history, had come the hapless Raymond Poulidor, the poor-but-earnest racer with the sloping, sad eyes and the shy, friendly smile. All of France knew how to evaluate and handicap the two: Poulidor was the stronger, particularly in the high mountain passes, but his sweet innocence was no match for the cunning, intellectual Anquetil, who utilized his domestiques with consummate cleverness to thwart Poulidor at every opportunity.
Nonetheless, Jacques was now an aging 32, two years older than the hungry Poulidor. Maybe this Tour would mark the first victory for the perennial loser, rewarding him for the stolid indefatigability with which the Frenchman in the street easily identified. You could get an argument on behalf of either cyclist; in fact, such arguments were hard to avoid, especially after the two stars had begun to quarrel between themselves. Their original strategy for the first half of the Tour had been to cycle together, providing pacemaking and windcutting assistance, thus breaking the wills and spirits of the competition. Then, with the German, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and Italian riders disposed of, the Frenchmen Poulidor and Anquetil would duel it out to the finish for the glory of France and their sponsors. The only problem was that the two began feuding on an early leg after Poulidor was knocked from his bike by one of the official cars that dart around the Tour like foxhounds. Announced Poulidor as he limped across the finish line of the stage: "Anquetil saw me fall, and the moment I fell he really started going. Do you think this is a loyal sporting attitude?"
The Tour wound northward and then westward, passing through the coal and grime and steel country of France, into a snippet of Belgium, back to France through the nostalgic town of Armenti�res, along the windswept beaches on the Channel coast, through cities like Dunkerque and Dieppe and then southward down the Atlantic coast, with Anquetil and Poulidor spatting like two old washerwomen all the way. A German, Rudy Altig, held onto the maillot jaune for almost half the Tour, and then an Italian took over. It was not until the 11th leg that a Frenchman pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time, and then it was not Anquetil or Poulidor, but a virtual unknown, a domestique named Jean-Claude Lebaube. The two great stars of the Tour were seven minutes behind.
I made the mistake of bringing the matter up indirectly in the Welcome Bar, a little spa delightfully named in Franglais and perched back off the hot streets in the Place St. Georges in the ancient town of Toulouse. All I said was, "That was an interesting stage today, wasn't it?" There were six people in the bar at the time: four men, including the bartender, and two middle-aged women. Within 15 minutes of my opening remark there were at least 20 people in the bar, attracted by the shouting and screaming, and all of them joining in.
"I will bet anybody in the house a bottle of champagne against Anquetil!" shouted D�d�, the bartender, thus offering a ferocious underlay, as is the custom of French bartenders. Several accepted the bet. A woman said that Anquetil was the best racer because "he has sensitivity," and another answered, "So does a jellyfish!"
"Poulidor hurt Anquetil's feelings with that crack today," said a woman with a Pinocchio nose. "He should be ashamed of himself. That Poulidor, he is nothing but a packet of muscles. He should go and tend his cows!"
I thought of an instant way to quiet the trouble I had started. I proposed a toast to Charles de Gaulle. "No, thanks," said the woman with the long nose.
"Why not?" I asked.
"If you paid my taxes, you'd know why not!"