The outpouring of emotions following Raymond Poulidor's death have highlighted how much the Frenchman was loved for being an 'eternal second' and for being humble during the rest of his life as he travelled around France and faithfully attend virtually every edition of the Tour de France after he retired in 1977.
Poulidor alway remained a man of the people and approachable despite his huge public status and that only endeared him even more with people of every class and every generation.
French newspaper L'Equipe dedicated Thursday's front page and 16 pages to Poulidor, remembering Poupoularité – how his name became synonymous with finishing second, his famous duels with Jacques Anquetil and then Eddy Merckx, and especially his love for meeting people – his way of holding onto his love for life and cycling.
L'Equipe described Poulidor's memories as a bottomless musette and reprinted an especially moving interview from 2011 when he turned 75 and other moments from his life.
"I'm an old man who is afraid that no one recognises me anymore," Poulidor admitted.
"That's my big obsession. I have the fear of not being recognised in the street. The day I feel old and unappreciated will be my death. That's just the way I am."
Poulidor confirmed he used to receive hundreds of fan letters a day during the peak of fame. He once clocked up 748,000km in one of his Mercedes as he crisscrossed France to appear at minor events and book signings of his biography in supermarkets, bookshops and anywhere when someone covered the cost of the fuel for his car.
"I keep myself busy; with the three books that have been written about me since 2004, I could do book signings every day," he said. "Every day I still get mail, four or five letters, and many from Germany. I do not know why.
"I once received a letter about a lady whose last desire was to have her coffin lined with pictures of Poulidor. It's all very moving."
Poulidor's rivalry with Anquetil is legendary. In public they were enemies but he revealed that was an intimate sense of respect and even friendship between them.
"It's hard not to have tears in my eyes while I think about it. Jacques phoned me a few days before his death [on November 18, 1987]: 'You realise, you're really out of luck, you'll still be second,' he said.
"Once, during an interview with Paris Match, he said: 'I prefer to live to just 50 years but to have lived fully.' But he didn't say that when he was dying because life is beautiful and has to be lived."
Never a cannibal
Poulidor raced against Eddy Merckx in the second half of his career. As with Anquetil, he was often beaten by the Belgian, especially at the Tour de France, but he was happy not to be a cannibal.
"Never, never, never," he said emphasising each syllable, when asked if he ever awoke determined to 'eat' or destroy his rivals.
"I wasn't a winner, I wasn't a killer. I'll tell you why: I was a peasant's son, we worked the land, the poor land of the Creuse, an unrelenting land, but we were never unhappy. We never had money in our pocket but we ate meat every day. Then, overnight, I turned professional and I had everything I wanted: I had a mechanic who took care of my bike, I ate well, I slept well and I had a small monthly salary."
The French media recalled, perhaps somewhat cruelly, how Poulidor was famous for being financially astute and very careful about how he spent his money.
He was an able negotiator when it came to his contracts but avoided buying races or support from other riders. However, there was a silver lining: fame as the eternal second allowed him to earn a good salary and better fees on the lucrative post-Tour de France circuit in August.
"I'm careful with my money because I know how to count," Poulidor suggested, admitting he was happy to play along with the sentiment.
"At the end of the year, if you had spent more than you'd won, it wasn't worth it. What's the point of paying for a race to win it?" he asked.
"I know the value of money. I was a guy who never had a dime in his pocket until he was 20."
A final, moving anecdote also revealed why he always smiled at life and considered himself lucky, despite never winning the Tour de France or even wearing the yellow jersey for a day.
"When I was five, I fell from a cherry tree and my parents thought I was going to die; they even brought the priest to bless me. But I ask for toast with butter and sugar and, miraculously, I recovered. So when I hear people say, 'Raymond Poulidor was unlucky,' it just makes me smile..."
Poupou 💛Voici la une de L'Équipe de ce jeudi 14 novembre en hommage à Raymond Poulidor. pic.twitter.com/peNZeDqa3UNovember 13, 2019
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