Tributes flooded in last week for Raymond Poulidor, the universally loved cyclist who died aged 83 Wednesday but will forever be remembered as the greatest French rider never to win the Tour de France.
His astonishing career spanning more than a quarter of a century earned him widespread esteem and a string of magnificent victories, including the 1964 Tour of Spain.
But he will always be remembered for the races he failed to win.
From 1964 to 1976 Poulidor finished second in the Tour de France on three occasions and third five times in an era dominated by Eddy Merckx.
So famous was his repeated failure to clinch the Tour that the phrase “to do a Poulidor” passed into the French language, synonymous with coming an unlucky second.
Leading the tributes, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “His exploits, his panache, his courage will remain engraved in our memories.
“‘Poupou’, forever the yellow jersey in the hearts of the French people.”
Poulidor, who was still doing promotional work at the 2019 Tour, had been hospitalized since early October.
His wife Gisele told AFP “he left us this morning” from their home in western France on Wednesday, prompting a surge of national mourning across France.
Despite his Tour de France disappointments, Poulidor ranks among France’s cycling greats and is seen as a humble hard worker loved by the people who earned every one of his many triumphs.
His long-time rival Merckx told AFP “a great friend has left us”.
“During my career we were rivals but afterwards we often spent time together. We holidayed together. It’s a big loss.”
– Born champion –
Born on April 15, 1936 in Masbarraud-Merignat, a small rural village in central France, just a few miles from where he died, Poulidor left school at 14 to work on the family farm.
Known as Poupou, he began riding, and winning, inter-village cycle races with his prize-money going to help the family.
He served in the army during his national service, taking part in the war in Algeria, and only committed himself to professional cycling in 1960 at the age of 24 when he joined Mercier, a team he stayed with throughout his career.
He won the 1961 Milan-San Remo and that was the start of two major rivalries, first with Jacques Anquetil and then with Merckx.
In his first tour in 1962 he finished third behind Anquetil and the Belgian rider Joseph Planckaert, the first of his eight podiums.
Two years later saw an epic battle with Anquetil who dominated the time trials but struggled to stay with Poulidor, who was an excellent climber, in the mountains.
On stage 20, after a shoulder-to-shoulder battle on Puy de Dome, Poulidor dropped Anquetil, who was wearing the yellow jersey, but not by enough.
Anquetil went on to win the Tour by just 55 seconds which was, at that point, the narrowest in the Tour’s history.
The following year Poulidor was runner-up to the Italian Felice Gimondi. He had to wait until 1974, when he was 38, to get so close again, this time losing out to Merckx who won his fifth and final Tour.
His final podium came in 1976 at the age of 40, a year before he retired.
“The yellow jersey is a regret for my supporters,” he said. “But for me, it wouldn’t make me richer or happier.”
– Cycling fan –
Poulidor clinched 189 wins during his career from 1960-1977. High points included wins in the Tour of Spain, the Dauphine twice, and the Paris-Nice twice.
For the remaining four decades of his life he retained his links with cycling through public relations and as a consultant.
He was often seen surrounded by admirers and signing autographs at the start of Tour de France stages.
“I hate it when I am not recognised in the street,” said Poulidor who was doing promotional work at the 2019 Tour de France.
His racing genes rubbed off on grandsons David van der Poel and Mathieu van der Poel, who won his first classic this year at the Tour of Flanders.
Current professional riders also joined the tributes.
“He was the link between cycling and its origins among the people,” said Romain Bardet, second in the Tour de France in 2016 and third the following year.
“He represented the real face of cycling, a popular and accessible sport.”
Julian Alaphilippe, who wore the yellow jersey for 14 stages in this year’s Tour de France paid a fond farewell to an all-time great.
“Happy to have crossed your path. Goodbye Raymond, goodbye Champion,” he tweeted.