‘I am a machine, an escaped robot. I attack.’ – Anquetil Alone

“I didn’t choose it; the bike chose me. I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It’s going to pay for it.” An extract from Cycling Book of the Year nomination Anquetil Alone by Paul Fournel

Anquetil enjoyed the blessing of the winds. His pointed nose and face like a fine blade sliced the road open for him, and his whole body flowed behind it, cutting through the mistrals, piercing the winter breezes and the summer storms. 

He seemed to be diaphanous, almost ill, with a slender build that was half a Van Looy, a third of Rudi Altig. His profile was like one on a medal, and when you saw him looking so slight you would never have imagined he had such a barrel chest, a barrel hiding the gunpowder of the most explosive engine, or that his legs and lower back were made of latex. 

The way he pedalled was a lie. It spoke of ease and grace, like a bird taking off or a dancer in a sport of lumberjacks, riders who crushed the pedals, gluttons for hard work, masculinity in all shapes and sizes. Anquetil pedalled blond, with supple ankles; he pedalled on points, back bent, arms at right angles, head straining forwards.

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No man was ever better suited than him to riding a bike, never was the harnessing of man and machine so harmonious. He was made to be seen alone on the road, silhouetted against the blue sky; nothing about him suggested the peloton, the crowd and the strength of being united. He was cycling beauty, out on its own.

“For a long while I thought of him as a sorcerer who has found the Great Secret”, Cyrille Guimard said of him. From his first turn of the pedal, he exchanged the legendary toughness of the ‘galley slaves of the road’ for an unprecedented kind of violence, something that looked elegant but was secretly brutal, and from which his opponents were going to suffer, without being able to imitate him. It should be added that Anquetil doesn’t grimace, bare his teeth, jerk his head as he struggles. He is hard to read. He simply turns pale, his face is imperceptibly sunken, his eyes turn light grey. At the hardest moments of a race, when he’s going at 50kph, you would think he was consumptive. 

* * *

I was ten years old. I was small, brown-haired and tubby. He was big, blond and slender, and I wanted to be him. I wanted his bike, his allure, his nonchalance, his elegance. I had found my model and my opposite wrapped into one. Both of these were impossible to achieve, which meant I had a long way to go.  

* * * 

For Anquetil, the essential takes place in solitude. He doesn’t like mass races, he doesn’t like to show off. His opponents are there to be beaten; they aren’t there to get to know or to play games with. His team-mates are there to work hard to make him win and to earn their own livelihoods. Nothing more. There are things he does alone and things that he alone does. In both cases, solitude is his kingdom. This solitude is not simply a way of considering what cycling is about, it’s an overall way of life, the defining characteristic of his soul, whether that has been sold to God or the Devil. 

ANQUETIL: I’m wedded to the crown of the road, at its highest point, I don’t cut across at the bends, saving myself having to descend and climb back all the time. I leave that line to the cheapskates, the penny-pinchers. I retrace the road-builder’s design and his pure line, choose the part that vehicles have worn smooth, leaving the edges to flints, shards of glass, dust. The road glides beneath my stomach. I’ve learned all about it on the rim of my wheels. I know that after this house it will turn left and start to climb, I know this stand of trees below will protect me from the wind for a moment. The whole width of the road is mine, and I trace the cleanest path along it that I can. The narrowest tubulars have been inflated to 10 bars, and I’m flying on my path of air.

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I love fine-grained roads, broad, well-designed ones where you can give it all you’ve got, the wide, flat bends, gentle ups and downs… the climbs where you can start and then build your effort without losing speed. Picardy, Châteaufort, the long level stretches across the wheat fields of Chevreuse combed by the wind. Lower your chest still further, barely raise the eyes to spot the horizon rather than actually look at it, split open the air with the bridge of the nose. 52×15, 52×14, 52×13. The road glides beneath my stomach like an endless black ribbon. I live on the road. My houses, my châteaux are stopovers. 

The wind is solid matter I plunge into, rounded back, nose pointed at the centre of the handlebars, arms stuck to my sides. An immobile egg fitted with connecting rods. Even at the most difficult moments, when my body is so taut it becomes unbearable, I force myself not to change my posture an inch. My back is crying out but I pull even harder on the pedals. Simply to raise my head for an instant to relieve the pain in the nape of my neck would cost me seconds. In any position, nothing is dearer than disorder. Skiers have taught me that.

I never tire of telling journalists my secret: in a time-trial you have to start flat out, finish flat out, and in between take a moment to catch your breath, snatch some rest, a few kilometres where the pressure is lowered and strength is rebuilt before the final sprint. Of course, I never do that, but I tell anyone willing to listen that’s what I do. My rivals all end up trying the same. ‘Maybe he’s right. Maybe that’s the secret of his strength.’ They lift off the pedal for an instant, and that always gives me the edge. While they’re slowing down, I go flat out from start to finish. I am a machine, an escaped robot. I attack. I have fork-arms, connecting-rod thighs. I’m free. 

* * *

ANQUETIL: Riding in the peloton demoralises me. I don’t know all these people around me; there’s danger everywhere, I feel trapped. I hate my trainers who want me to lead from the front, I hate Darrigade. He’s always the one who slips to the rear where I’m gently pedaling along and brings me back into line with news from the front of the race:

‘Come on, wake up, you have to move up.’

‘Leave me alone, I’m going over my accounts.’

‘You can do them tonight. There’s trouble up in front. Get on my wheel.’

And he pulls me up through the peloton. I slip in behind him and don’t let him get a wheel away from me. To climb up through the peloton isn’t easy: everybody wants to keep their place at the front so that they’ll be in a good position when things speed up, and nobody sees any reason to let those from behind get past them. There’s no way you can force your way through the middle: there are too many riders, danger and ill will are everywhere. Dédé takes me along the sides, where the mass of riders is more fluid, and you can even go on the inside, push your way through. There’s no one like Dédé. The sprinters know how to ‘rub’, as they say in the peloton, and slip into mouse holes. And anyway, this is Monsieur Darrigade who’s pulling Monsieur Anquetil. Which means that for some of the peloton at least it’s worth making a bit of room.

The fact is, I don’t like the riders in the pack. I can’t even put a name to the faces of many of my colleagues. During the Tour I spotted one who was making breakaways the whole time and was getting on my nerves. I asked Dédé who he was, and he told me it was Adriaenssens: “A nasty customer. You have to keep your eye on him always. You must have been aware of him for a while now.” In fact, thinking about it, I only really like the peloton when it’s a long way behind.

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At moments of great solitude, I’m stronger than all other men. This gift I nourish, the work I accumulate, these are my trademark, my glory, my fortune, my chateaux and my prison. When I’m not struggling alone against the clock and the wind, I pass the time inventing ways to escape.

I only have to feel that a wall is keeping me prisoner to want to jump over it. It’s a reflex. If cigarettes are banned, I smoke. If we’re not to go out at night, I go out. If flirting is outlawed, I flirt. Cycling is not my sport. I didn’t choose it; the bike chose me. I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It’s going to pay for it.

This edited extract from Anquetil, Alone by Paul Fournel, published by Profile Books, appeared in Rouleur 17.8

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