The record-holder for the number of finishes on the Tour de France podium – with eight to his credit during a professional career that extended from 1960 to 1977, but most famously never the winner nor even the race leader of his national tour – Raymond Poulidor died at the age of 83. He was a hugely popular and emblematic figure in France, to the extent that his name entered the popular lexicon and was applied to business leaders, politicians and other prominent figures who didn’t quite make it to the top and so were considered ‘the Poulidor’ of their profession (a tag once given to François Mitterrand before he finally became the country’s president in 1981).
Having covered the Tour de France in most years since the mid-1990s, my path often crossed Raymond Poulidor’s at the race, usually at the stand of yellow jersey sponsor Crédit Lyonnais (now rebranded as LCL) in the start village, where journalists can pick up a copy of L’Équipe each morning. In his role as the French bank’s Tour ambassador, Poulidor, decked out in a canary yellow polo shirt, would be always be nearby, sitting at a table signing postcards for star-struck fans young and old, or meeting local dignitaries, who were equally enraptured by the legendary rider who had become an iconic figure in French life since his retirement from racing in the mid-1970s.
Genial and avuncular, Poulidor was the favourite grandparent that you always loved to visit, his smile radiant and becoming more so when he received a compliment that he’d probably heard tens of thousands of times before. I last experienced this glowing benevolence during the 2018 Tour de France, when I went to LCL stand to interview the bank’s CEO, Michel Mathieu, as part of my research for my book, The Yellow Jersey.
After we chatted, Mathieu insisted that I meet Poulidor. Inevitably, we discussed the twist of fortune that had led to Poulidor becoming the public face of the maillot jaune that he had famously never worn as a rider. I couldn’t discern the slightest hint of regret in Poupou’s features. Indeed, as he regularly repeated in interviews, he insisted that cycling had brought him so much, explaining that a good deal of his fame and fortune stemmed from the fact that he’d never pulled on the yellow jersey.
Yet, despite Poulidor’s long-standing association with the Tour and the yellow jersey, in more recent years I came to associate him with my “local” race in the Pyrenean department of Ariège, the Ronde de l’Isard. One of the leading events on the men’s under-23 calendar, the race was one of many that Poulidor attended every year as the honorary guest.
At stage starts, he would be found sitting at a trestle table with a pile of autobiographies ready to sell and sign. Out on the road, he would travel just ahead of the race, his car stopping at sprints and mountain summits where he would instantly attract a gaggle of fans. On the close-to-freezing summit of the Col d’Agnes in 2019, I was among them, my young kids rather non-plussed at the excitement generated by this beaming, silver-haired gent, his features always ruddy with exposure to the elements.
The image that most sticks in my mind of Poulidor, though, was from the finale of the 2017 Ronde de l’Isard in Saint-Girons. Local rider Pavel Sivakov had just led his rivals a merry dance through the Pyrénées Ariégeoises, among them Team Wiggins leader James Knox, who had led in the sprint for second. As the riders waited for the prize-giving ceremony to take place, Knox spotted Poulidor at his trestle table close to the podium and took the seat alongside him. They swapped a few words and then both sat smiling, the young pretender and the legendary champion, brought together on a backstreet of a small French town. Bike racing encapsulated in one image.