Paris-Nice, episode 80: Raymond Poulidor

February 23 rd 2022 - 12:00

Poulidor from the south face (V/X)

Since 1933, Paris–Nice has been the first major event of the season for the stars gunning for glory in stage races. The balance of power on the Promenade des Anglais or the Col d'Èze, depending on the season, gives us our first glimpse of where each Tour de France favourite stands. To mark the 80th edition, is looking back on how the Race to the Sun shaped the careers of ten riders who shared a special bond with the event.

Raymond Poulidor never got to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, but he did win Paris–Nice in style by beating the phenomenal Eddy Merckx in 1972 and 1973.

Denied (time and again) by "Maître Jacques"…

Poulidor was a special kind of record collector. He still holds the one for the most podium finishes in the Tour de France, but a more obscure fact is that he also holds the record for the most participations in Paris–Nice, which he started (and finished) 18 times. After turning pro relatively late, in 1960, under Antonin Magne, a young Poulidor helps team leader Robert Cazala to a podium spot in Nice (third) and finishes his first race in Mercier colours in a solid 22nd place.

The following season, he has his first real encounter with his future nemesis, Jacques Anquetil, but he is still no match for the Norman and has to settle for ninth as Anquetil takes a comfortable win. However, three days later, he bursts onto the scene with a triumph in Milan–San Remo. Over the next few years, his campaigns on the French Riviera echo his succession of near-misses and almost-weres in the Tour, with two particularly striking examples. In 1966, Poulidor can almost touch victory with the tips of his fingers after outgunning Anquetil in a time trial around the Corsican town of L'Île-Rousse on the eve of the finish, but the Norman breaks him with a creeping barrage of attacks in the closing stage to Nice and takes the race for the fifth time.

Three years later, in 1969, Poulidor is ideally positioned to vault over Eddy Merckx in the first time trial held on the slopes of the Col d'Èze, but another heartbreak is just around the corner. At the top of the climb, "Poupou" again finds himself second overall, sandwiched between the two men who continue to haunt his nightmares, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. An entire career encapsulated in a 9.5 km climb!

…but stronger than the "Cannibal"

In contrast with the Tour, Paris–Nice lets the sunshine into Poulidor's life. Merckx enters the 1972 edition at the height of his career and trades his rainbow stripes for the white jersey after the prologue, in which Poulidor comes in… drum roll… second. Locked in an epic week-long duel with the Belgian, "Poupou" faces a 16-second deficit going into the decisive Col d'Èze time trial. He soars from the bottom of the climb to the summit to put 22 seconds into Eddy and take the Race to the Sun with 6 seconds to spare! Poulidor has finally broken the curse. It is also the first ever win for the brand-new Gan–Mercier outfit, run by Louis Caput and managed by his brother in arms Claude Sudres.

When the time comes for Poulidor to defend his title, the challenger is none other than Merckx. Feeling confident about his form, he lets the Belgian light the fireworks while betting the farm on the closing time trial to the Col d'Èze. At the top, the closest-run edition in the history of the race goes to Poulidor, who in a delicious twist of irony, beats Zoetemelk by 4 seconds and Merckx by 12. Coming at age 37, it is one of the last and most sensational triumphs of his career.

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