Friday, April 18, 2008

Allez, Pou-Pou! Go Raymond Poulidor!

Written for Winning Magazine after a trip to Holland and Belgium.

There are so many memories: the lovely Dutch towns, the bike races, the chocolate, the red-light alleyways in Amsterdam... . But you know all about that stuff. Shame on you about the alleys.

You know how cold and rainy the Benelux countries can be and how hard the racing is and how tough the racers must be. I don't know what I could add to that knowledge that would mean very much.

You might enjoy hearing, though, about a lucky meeting I had with a few men I'd heard about for years. I had lunch, in the south of Holland, with several reporters from a major Flemish daily newspaper. Those gentlemen had covered bicycle racing season after season; in fact, they had seen so many races they felt little urgency to follow the Amstel Gold Race closely.

They preferred sitting in roadside cafes, drinking aperitifs and Dutch beer, telling bike racing stories to starry-eyed visitors like myself. Over strong coffee we talked about U.S. cyclists in the U.S., U.S. cyclists in Europe, Mr. Reagan, Libya and Amstel Gold contender Joop Zoetemelk.

Zoetemelk was fortunate enough to win last year's world championships, but, as someone remarked, he has finished second SO many times.

Talk of Zoetemelk led to talk of Raymond Poulidor, who almost never won but was always "there". Surely, most of you remember stories about Poulidor. He rode in the slender shadow of Jacques Anquetil in his early career, and later in the broader shadow of Eddy Merckx.

Pou-Pou, as he was called, rode Tours de France until he was 40, finishing second time after time.

"Never once, never once, did Poulidor wear the yellow jersey of leadership in the Tour," said the veteran reporter. "Never was he a leader on the road, not even for a short period during a stage, so that he could be said to be in yellow. Think of that: the man placed well in Tour after Tour but was denied even minor victory."

The Belgian newspaperman shook his head as he thought about Poulidor. He explained that fans perceived the French racer as a thoroughly human but unlucky man, forced by timing to strive against virtual immortals.

The people embraced Poulidor, loved him. The men who beat him again and again were indeed heroes of sport; fans held them in awe, respected their class. Fans adored Poulidor.

Anquetil parlayed time trialing ability and tactical skill into five Tour de France victories. He won the French race of truth, the Grand Prix de Nations, again and again. Excitement shot through European crowds when he pedaled by.

Poulidor, in defeat, drove them wild.

Eddy Merckx could open a 50-meter gap on 10 cooperating men and hold that distance until the men had exhausted themselves and given up. He could win a mountain stage, a time trial prologue or a field sprint. He rode away from Poulidor and everyone else at every race worth mentioning.

Today, fans gather around Merckx to ask for autographs. They mob Poulidor.

The newsman told me that he'd been in a crowd at a Tour stage a few years after both Merckx and Poulidor had retired. New "grands" had replaced them in the headlines. The fans that day stirred as Fignon, Hinault, Kelly and the others rode by.

Then, in the entourage following the race, someone spotted Poulidor, barely visible in a car.

"It is Pou-Pou in the car!," he yelled. "Pou-Pou, Pou-Pou," the fans chanted. "Pou-Pou, Pou-Pou."

The veteran sports reporter shook his head again.

"The men who beat Poulidor," he said, "were like machines. They were so gifted. Their victories were often without drama, except perhaps the waiting to see how badly they would demolish their opponents.

"It was difficult for the enthusiast to identify with Eddy Merckx, the cannibal, who could crush mere supermen at will. It was hard to imagine what it was like to be Jacques Anquetil, the master tactician, a man who won economically, almost surgically.

"Ah, but Poulidor," he said, "who suffered for all to see in vain pursuit on the cols, who was there for the finish but just a little too slow, who could roll almost well enough to break away... .

"There's a pain in being second," he went on, "that we can all sense. To be as close to victory as one can be, without having it, as close to fulfillment.

"Second is the worst place. Worse than third or fifth or eleventh. Think about it. Poulidor had years of 'almost' and years of adulation. The adulation shows no sign of waning. Was it worth it? You decide," the reporter said.

Ah, Pou-Pou, I thought. Allez, Pou-Pou.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Just started reading Krabbé's "The Rider" for a second time. The first time I was so in involved I didn't take time to research unfamiliar terms, I just wanted to finish the story. Thanks for sharing about Poulidor, it sheds light on Krabbé's protagonist.