Finally in Yellow
The Tour de France honoured Raymond Poulidor a few decades ago by scheduling a stage finish in his home village of Saint Léonard de Noblat in the southwestern Limousin region. Or was it a stage start? It’s hard to remember now because the village was so unremarkable: just some humble homes, nothing to catch the eye.
That glimpse of la France profonde, deep France, summed up Poulidor, who was buried there this month after his death at 83. Plain and straightforward Poupou, as he hated to be called. (He’d flinch if anybody but a fan addressed him that way.) Always obliging Poupu, if you needed a quote about the old days or a memory of being sandwiched between Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx.
Did I know Poulidor? Of course. Everybody knew Poulidor. His business was to be known: For decades he was a goodwill ambassador for the Crédit Lyonnais (now LCL) bank, the forever sponsor of the Tour de France’s yellow jersey.
Wearing a yellow shirt, Poulidor was a fixture at each stage, signing autographs, posing for photographs, chatting with fans, waving from his car as he followed the race. He understood his compulsion, an old man yearning for the adoration he enjoyed as a young man, a son of peasant farmers.
In an interview from 2011 that the French sports newspaper l’Équipe reprinted at his death, he said, “I’m an old man who is afraid that no one recognises me anymore. That’s my big obsession. I have the fear of not being recognised in the street. The day I feel old and unappreciated will be my death.”
So he kept showing his face. As l’Équipe noted, he once clocked 748,000 kilometres in his car as he crisscrossed France to appear at minor events and book signings of a biography in supermarkets, bookshops and anywhere else when someone paid for his car’s gas.
“With the three books that have been written about me since 2004, I could do book signings every day,” he said. “Every day I still get mail, four or five letters a day.”
The great joke, celebrated by everyone, was that for all the yellow he wore daily, he had never—not for one day in his 21-year career as a rider—worn it in the Tour de France.
Astounding, isn’t it? Not once.
“The Eternal Second” he was nicknamed for his Tour finishes in 1964, 1965 and 1974 as he compiled 12 finishes in 14 starts and none below 19th.
Overall, he recorded about 150 victories, including the Vuelta in 1964, Milan-San Remo in 1961, the Flèche Wallonne in 1963 and seven Tour stages. He won Paris-Nice in 1972 and 1973, the Critérium du Dauphiné in 1966 and 1969 and was French national champion in 1961.
He rode for France at 15 world championships, winning none, second once, third three times.
One of Poulidor’s best chances of winning the Tour came in 1968, when he was in a break before crashing with a race motorbike. With a broken nose and head injuries, he had to abandon.
“I was unlucky, but the bike gave me more than it cost me,” he once said. “Crashes and punctures are part of the law of the sport. But we have to take into account the gains. Without the bike, my horizon would have been limited to the hedge of a field in the Limousin.”