Raymond Poulidor, a French cyclist who never won the Tour de France but became celebrated as a folk hero for his repeated near misses, died on Nov. 13 in a hospital outside Limoges, France. He was 83.
His death, in the town of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, where he lived, was confirmed by Crédit Lyonnais, the bank and insurance company he represented at the Tour in retirement. No cause was given.
Poulidor, who became universally known as the “eternal second,” was on the podium as a second- or third-place finisher for eight out of the 14 Tours he entered. Not only did he never win; he also never wore the Tour leader’s yellow jersey for even a single day, a feat achieved by numerous far less accomplished riders.
What some athletes might view as failure, however, only enhanced Poulidor’s status among French cycling fans, who have a soft spot for underdogs. For decades after Poulidor retired at the advanced age (for cyclists) of 41, “Poupoularité” remained strong. He became the unofficial patriarch of the Tour.
Fans cheered the minivan, emblazoned with his portrait, that carried him each day between the start and finish as vigorously as they cheered any of the current stars passing by on their bikes. He often drew bigger crowds of autograph seekers than competitors.
Poulidor had plenty of success outside the Tour. He recorded 189 wins during his 17-year career. They included the Vuelta a España, Spain’s three-week stage race; the Paris-Nice stage race, which was long the season opener; the French national championship; and various prestigious one-day races.
But a combination of stronger rivals, an excessively cautious approach and just plain bad luck thwarted his ambitions at the Tour, the world’s most important cycling race. His misfortune included having a career that overlapped two unusually strong riders: Jacques Anquetil of France and the Belgian Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the greatest cyclist in history.
In 1964, after a famous duel with Anquetil during which the two men bumped elbows on the climb of the Puy de Dôme, a lava dome in the Massif Central in Southern France, Poulidor came within 14 seconds of leading the Tour. But before the finish in Paris, Anquetil managed to expand his lead over Poulidor to 55 seconds to secure the overall win.
Four years later he seemed well placed to finally win until the 15th stage to Albi, when a motorcyclist in the race caravan swerved to avoid spectators and crashed into Poulidor’s rear wheel, knocking him to the ground. His face and body covered in blood, Poulidor still finished the stage, losing only a little more than a minute. But his injuries, which included a broken nose, forced him to abandon the Tour.
Poulidor was often undermined by a cautious riding style that caused him to miss opportunities, apparently out of fear that he might lose positions he had gained. Modest and unassuming, he was far from a win-at-all-costs athlete. After placing third to Merckx in 1969, he said, “Perhaps if I had pushed a little harder I could have finished second.” (Roger Pingeon of France was the second-place finisher.)
In his rivalry with Anquetil, one of the most famous riders in cycling history, Poulidor won the popularity contest. While both men came from farms, Anquetil had a suave and urbane manner and a fondness for publicity stunts. His wins came largely through his exceptional ability at time trials, solo races against the stopwatch. Poulidor was shy, abstemious and frugal, making him the cycling hero of rural France.
At a time when fans and the cycling press conferred nicknames for stars, Poulidor became Poupou, while Anquetil was Maître Jacques.
“He would have preferred to be called Pouli, as he was early on, but he came to accept his absurd nursery nickname as a compliment,” Geoffrey Nicholson wrote in “The Great Bike Race” (1977). “Nobody ever devised an affectionate diminutive of Anquetil’s name.”
Raymond Poulidor was born on April 15, 1936, in Masbaraud-Mérignat, in the Creuse department of central France. His parents, Martial and Maria (Montlaron) Poulidor, worked as sharecroppers on a farm that is now the grounds of a hotel and restaurant.
Accounts of how Poulidor got his start in cycling vary. In one version, he was inspired by a cycling magazine given to him by a teacher and took up the sport with two of his brothers when he was 16, but initially didn’t tell his impoverished parents. In another version, he began racing on his mother’s rudimentary bicycle when he was 14 before a local shop gave him something better suited to competition.
After serving with the French Army for 28 months in North Africa, Poulidor became a professional cyclist at 24. Throughout his career, somewhat unusually, he remained with his first team, which was sponsored by Mercier, a French bicycle maker that eventually introduced a line of bikes bearing Poulidor’s name. The company gradually faded away about a decade ago.
Poulidor was generally stronger in the mountains than Anquetil but unable to match him against the clock. Merckx, however, surpassed both men in each discipline.
In 1960, the year he became a pro, Poulidor married Gisèle Bardet, who worked in the post office in Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat. She survives him, as do their daughters, Isabelle and Corinne, and two grandsons, David and Mathieu Van der Poel, who are both professional cyclists. Mathieu is the current world champion in cyclocross, road cycling’s off-season offshoot.
Poulidor did not follow through on a vow to leave the cycling world behind when he retired in 1977. Instead he reappeared 43 more times at the Tour de France, either as a broadcast commentator or as a celebrity acting on behalf of race sponsors. One of those was Crédit Lyonnais, the sponsor of the yellow jersey, which he never got to wear.
In a 2018 interview published after his death by L’Équipe, a French sports newspaper owned by the same corporation as the Tour de France organization, Poulidor said that, even though his celebrity was “beyond my comprehension,” he feared being forgotten.
“The day that I stop traveling, meeting people,” he said, “it’s my death.”