Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape: The Remarkable Life of Jacques Anquetil, the First Five-Times Winner of the Tour de France Paperback – Aug 22 2011
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Setting aside his personal life for the moment, let’s not forget how great a cyclist Anquetil really was. He was the first of the five time Tour de France winners, and he could arguably have won more. He won the Giro d’Italia twice and the Vuelta a Espana once. He once owned the hour record, won one of the classic “Monuments” races, and on and on.
I hadn’t known about his unorthodox attitudes toward training. He trained intensively for only short periods of time. He seemed inattentive to needs for rest or a healthy diet, maybe even flaunting disdain for such things. He seemed actually to thrive on doing all the wrong things to his body — drinking, eating rich foods, cutting his sleep short even in preparation for and during stage races. That he still won was either a testament to his overwhelming natural ability, his insuperable will to win, or maybe just a real finger in the eye of accepted wisdom.
The book details his rivalries — there were more than just his most famous duels with Raymond Poulidor. Louison Bobet was there at the beginning of Anquetil’s career, and even Eddy Merckx at the end. Along the way, there were Charly Gaul, Arnaldo Pambianco, Rudi Altig, and many more. The stories of these rivalries and the play of Anquetil’s ego within them, sometimes very fragile and sometimes impregnable, are the focus of Howard’s account of Anquetil’s racing career.
Then there’s the personal life. Howard threads Anquetil’s personal life through his racing career, but he only focuses on the downright bizarre toward the end of the book. He doesn’t pull back or offer excuses for the strange turns of Anquetil’s love life — his long relationship with and marriage to Jeanine (who had been his doctor’s wife when the relationship first began), his relationship with his daughter-in-law Annie, his fathering of a daughter, Sophie, with Annie, and, just to top the whole thing off, his relationship with his stepson’s wife, Dominique.
Howard sticks to reporting. He doesn’t try to explain or excuse, beyond what’s offered by some of Anquetil’s friends and family. The facts paint a pretty bizarre picture.
I’ve read biographies in recent years of flawed heroes in cycling and elsewhere — Steve Jobs, Neil Young, Lance Armstrong, Mickey Mantle. All of them were or are people with serious flaws, some more serious than others. I would never argue that we should not admire their greatness, but their greatness cannot exonerate them for their shortcomings and transgressions, either.
It’s tempting to read Howard’s book as two stories — one of a great cyclist and the other of, at best, a very strange personal life. But it’s one person and one life. That’s the realization we have to leave with. Nobody is so one dimensional as we sometimes think our heroes and villains are.