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Excellent account of a true great.
on 30 June 2008
Having read widely on cycling, I am rather ashamed to admit I knew virtually nothing about Jacques Anquetil, other than that he won the Tour five times and had a rivalry with Raymond Poulidor. I was, therefore, pleased to see someone had written a biography of the man, and what a worthwhile subject he has proven to be.
Rather sickeningly, Anquetil was, from the very beginning of his career, brilliant. From the age of seventeen, he was winning time trials (his forte) by huge margins against experienced rivals, and, indeed, never lost in the (then) prestigious Grand Prix des Nations, winning it nine times out of nine.
He became "le patron", but without the bullying aggression of Hinault - he stamped his authority by simply riding away from everyone else. However, as Howard suggests, this may well have been through amphetamine use. Howard does not directly link any of his wins to doping but there are several races in which Anquetil began way off the pace (often due to a previous night of excess) only to catch up with a breakaway group and then ride past them to a solo victory.
Perhaps the most astonishing of all was his Dauphine Libere/Bordeaux-Paris (a 557km one-day race) double. The Bordeaux-Paris race began only seven hours after, and six hundred kilometres from, the finish of the Dauphine. Having had no sleep, Anquetil began Bordeaux-Paris exhausted. He was virtually asleep in the saddle for the first part of the race while he was pushed along by Jean Stablinski and Vin Denson either side of him (this section is also worth reading for an amusing anecdote involving Denson, a trapped nerve, and an impressive record of his own). Anquetil is about to abandon, but motivated by an insult to his manhood (and, one presumes, several illicit substances), he restarts and wins in a breakaway with Stablinski and Tom Simpson. While we might baulk at how he achieved this, it is worth noting that he gave all his prize money (as did Stablinski) to Denson for his huge part in this success.
It is also worth remembering that doping was not illegal at the time and Anquetil readily admitted it, often to his detriment. He wrote several articles for a French newspaper, including two entitled "Yes, I've Taken Drugs" and "Yes, I've Bought Riders". The outcome of this was that he was banned from the national and world championships as well as seeing lucrative invitations to criteriums dry-up. It seems that spitting in the soup was as bad then for Anquetil as it has remained for the likes of Jorg Jaksche today.
This was a problem as it seems Anquetil was primarily motivated by money. A close second was his motivation to thrash Poulidor at every opportunity. Anquetil raged, perhaps justifiably, that Poulidor was not a rival as he beat him so often. However, as Poulidor was the darling of the French press, he usually got more coverage than him regardless of the result - much to Anquetil's chagrin. Beating Poulidor on his own merits deserves respect - helping others to beat Poulidor when he knew he couldn't win himself shows a less savoury side to Anquetil's character, though they became great friends in later years.
Also unsavoury was Anquetil's complicated love-life: stealing his doctor's wife; having a child with his step-daughter; and having an affair with his step-son's wife all suggest Anquetil was nothing short of despicable. However, you never feel quite able to castigate him for all of this as the women involved speak with such love and affection for the man. It also seems that the doctor's wife actively encouraged her daughter to sleep with Anquetil so that he could have the child he wanted (she was unable to have any more children herself) and the step-son was already in love with another woman when Anquetil began the affair with his wife.
Howard has written an excellent, and ambivalent (as all good biographies should be), account of Jacques Anquetil's life. It is well researched with lots of contemporary accounts of his achievements and many interviews with those who knew him well.
Highly recommended and gives William Fotheringham something to aim for with his Coppi book due next year.