There were four French cycling heroes to emerge in the latter half of the last century. They were Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor, and Bernard Hinault.
Three won the Tour de France multiple times; however, Raymond Poulidor never won, or for that matter never wore the race leader's Yellow Jersey during any of the Tours.
He did place second in 1964, 1965, and 1974; and placed third in 1962, 1966, 1969, 1972, and 1976. He entered the Tour de France 14 times and finished 12 times; he was consistently in the top ten.
He had a longer career than is usual for a professional cyclist. His first major victory was in the classic Milan-San Remo in 1961. His third place in the Tour in 1976, came at age 40.
His inability to win the Tour de France won him the nick-name in the press as the "Eternal Second." However in spite of this he was immensely popular with the French public, and was more often than not known affectionately as "Pou Pou."
During the first part of his career, Poulidor had to race against Jacques Anquetil, and although the former could get the better of Anquetil on the bigger climbs, he lacked Anquetil's tactical ability, especially in the discipline of the time-trial. Poulidor’s riding style was aggressive and attacking, whereas Anquetil would control the race in the climbing stages, then win in the time trial.
There was always intense rivalry between these two riders. (Pictured together, left.) Anquetil was the top French rider of his day, and it always irked him that Poulidor was in many ways more popular with the French public, and was often given more favorable coverage in the French press.
For example in 1965, when Poulidor was perceived to have received more credit for dropping Anquetil the previous year on the Puy-de-Dôme than Anquetil had received for winning the whole Tour.
Long after their retirement, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor would finally become friends. Anquetil died of stomach cancer in 1987, and the day before he died, he told Poulidor, “Once again my friend you will be second to me.”
In the latter half of his career after Anquetil had retired, Poulidor could still not win the Tour de France. He was then up against Eddy Merckx, considered by most to be the greatest cyclist ever. He does hold one record, in that he finished in the top three in the Tour de France no fewer than eight times. No one has done that before or since.
Today Raymond Poulidor is still immensely popular with the French people; see above as he signed autographs in October 2006. (Picture by Thierry Malaval.)
When asked in a national survey in 1991, which man they would like to invite for a Christmas dinner, a French audience overwhelmingly answered Raymond Poulidor, beating out famous movie stars.
What could be the reason for such popularity? He came from peasant stock, from the farming midlands of France. He speaks with a regional accent; in other words, he is a "Working Class Hero."
There is something about a person who attains success in life, but they retain their "down-to-earth" qualities that the ordinary man on the street can relate to. Think of the continuing popularity of rock stars like Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young; they have that same working class persona.
Or maybe Raymond Poulidor’s popularity was in the fact that he never did win the big one, but at the same time never gave up trying. The world will always admire such spirit, that of the underdog.