What does the second place in sports mean? Is this the first loser or is it a great success? Should you be happy or disappointed that someone else was better? Nobody has asked such questions more often than Raymond Poulidor. He was the eternal second in cycling, and that's what made him the darling of the masses in France.
Sometimes the loser is more loved than the winner - set the case, you see the second place as a losing place. In France, even the word of the Poulidor effect was invented - it occurs when the loser is more sympathetic than the winner. The winner was Jacques Anquetil, the loser Raymond Poulidor.
One has to imagine this: Poulidor was on the podium eight times at the end of the Tour de France in Paris in the sixties and seventies, most recently with a fabulous 40 years in his last racing year of 1976. But he was never at the top. He has been third in the Tour three times and third in the Tour five times. And he has not spent a single day of his career in the leader's yellow jersey. At world championships, he struggled six times in the top ten. His greatest success in 1974 was, of course, the vice-world championship.
He had no chance against Anquetil and Merckx
Poulidor had the misfortune to cycle in a time in which two of the greatest were his competitors: compatriot Anquetil had at the end of five Tour de France successes under his belt. And as if that was not enough, a certain Eddie Merckx entered the scene at the end of the sixties. The Belgian, who then drove everything in the ground. Merckx called them awesome and a bit intimidated "the cannibals", Poulidor was affectionately called "Poupou". That says a lot.
Poulidor was always close - perhaps next in tour year 1964, when Anquetil and he seemed to dominate the tour. Anquetil was already a superstar in France at the time, he had already triumphed four times in the Great Loop, and above all he made no secret of his abilities: he was overbearing, bulky, not very popular among his teammates, none to touch - but untouchable by his successes.
In 1964, however, the 30-year-old was already in the fall of his career, the future seemed to belong to Poulidor, although only two years younger, but full of energy. In 1962 on his first tour Poulidor was already on the podium, now he wanted to know. Both Frenchmen toiled side by side up the Puy de Dome in Massif Central. Anquetil was actually at the end of his strength, Poulidor would have had to attack only early, then the race would have been decided. But as a clever old man Anquetil did not let his rival know what ailing condition he was. Poulidor attacked just before the finish, too short, that was enough for the stage victory, but not for more. Anquetil saved the overall victory to Paris.
One could identify with Poupou
Now it is not as if Poulidor always followed. In his career he collected a total of 195 race wins, he won the Tour of Spain, Milan-San Remo or Paris-Nice. Even with seven stages of the tour he was the first in the finish. But to crown such a career belongs as a Frenchman a victory in the Tour de France. Anquetil did that, Bernard Hinault, Louison Bobet or Laurent Fignon. Poulidor appears in no list of winners.
In France, they loved him, Anquetil was too cool for them, too thick-skulled, but many could identify with Poupou. One more try, one more try, one more tour - and again it was not a big win. That's the way it is sometimes in life, everyone knows that. The French suffered, the French felt.
At age 83, Raymond Poulidor died on Wednesday. The cycling tradition in the family lives on. His son-in-law is the former Dutch professional cyclist Adrie van der Poel, his grandson Mathieu van der Poel is one of the biggest cycling hopes of Oranje. Both have not as many merits as Poulidor - and yet at least his son-in-law has something ahead of him: he already wore the yellow jersey on the tour. While Poulidor instead "the yellow jersey forever in the hearts of the French" wears, as President Emmanuel Macron had announced on Wednesday.
"Maybe I was missing the last ambition, even if I have always given everything," Poulidor once said: "But I also liked that everyone liked me." Maybe that's the much bigger success.