Paul Fournel’s Anquetil, Alone is part biography, part hagiography, part limpid, poetic treatise and part a prose meditation on one of the greatest ever cyclists; the first to win 5 Tours de France and the first to win the Tour and Vuelta in the same year.
Fournel traces Anquetil’s life through a series of lyrical vignettes, told partly in Anquetil’s voice and partly in Fournel’s voice, as he grows up and admires the great man from afar.
Anquetil was nothing if not his own man – a rider who made no secret of the fact that he rode for money, who was unrepentant about his drug use – ‘Do you think we can do this on pain aqua (bread and water)’ he once famously asked, and a rider who was happy to take money to throw races if it suited him.
His private life was equally unconventional – his great love Janine left her Doctor husband to be with Anquetil who then brought up her children as his own. And when he retired from cycling and fancied a child of his own, and Janine being too old, he had a child with Janine’s daughter, Annie – his own step-daughter – and thereafter lived in a happy menage-a-trois until it all fell apart, at which point he took up with the wife off his step-son. (Curiously, the great Coppi also had an affair with a Doctor’s wife which scandalised the Italian nation and led to their ex-communication from the Catholic Church – what is it about Doctor’s wives and cyclists?)
And when Anquetil retired – at the age of 35 – he hung up his bikes and never rode again. Instead he became Lord of his Normandy manor house and threw massive parties for his many friends and hangers-on. He died in 1987, too young at 53 from stomach cancer.
Fournel recounts a wonderful story of how Anquetil, having won a time trial in Italy – the Grand Prix of Lugano – six times on the trot was offered money by the organisers not to take part. He agreed. They then changed their minds and offered him money to ride after all but asked him to let an Italian win. So he went to Ercole Baldini and said, if you give me your appearance money I’ll let you win. And Baldini said fine. So then Anquetil rode, and of course he won (because he always won time trials) and got paid 4 times for his trouble. It couldn’t happen now, could it?
Fournel also recounts Anquetil’s great rivalry with Raymond Poulidor – the eternal second who was nonetheless adored by the French public, far more than Anquetil himself was. When Anquetil was dying Poulidor went to visit him. Anquetil said ‘Poor Raymond, so I’m going ahead of you. Yet again, you’re going to come second.’
Fournel – author of that other great cycling book – Need for the Bike – has written a wonderful but too short book. The translation by Nick Caistor is superb and captures the wonderful rhythms and lyricism of Fournel’s prose.