Barry Hoban Remembers Raymond Poulidor

‘Poupou’ Remembered: Britain’s Barry Hoban rode alongside the late Raymond Poulidor for many years, so who better for Ed Hood to ask all about the French hero ‘Poupou’. From 1972 to Poulidor’s retirement in 1977 the Frenchman and the Yorkshireman battled together in the Tours and Classics – Barry remembers.

A bit of a sing-song!

Yes, I saw Raymond Poulidor race a time or two back in the 70’s; latterly I saw his yellow polo shirt-ed avuncular figure in the Tour village many times; I’ve read hundreds of column inches about him over the years and I have good reference books which feature him, in my archive. But I never shared a room with him on a stage race, ate at the same table or trained and raced with him – I was never his, ‘partner in crime’. Barry Hoban was. England’s eight times Tour de France stage winner and Merckx-beating Gent-Wevelgem winner kindly gave me his insights into the man he had as a team mate for a decade and more.

Hoban wins in Wevelgem’74

I started with the biggest question first: “Was Raymond Poulidor capable of winning the Tour de France?”
Barry Hoban:
Yes, of course! He could climb well – it’s not everyone who could beat Merckx in a mountain time trial as Raymond did in Paris-Nice – and he could time trial on a technical parcours, he won the Grand Prix des Nations, which was the equivalent of the World Time Trial Championship back then. But he lacked what I’d call ‘cycling intelligence’ – that’s nothing to do with schooling or knowledge, it’s about having a feel, an instinct for what’s happening in a race. Look at Jean Stablinski, he wasn’t a great sprinter, climber or time trial rider but he won a lot of races, including The Worlds because he could read a race, he was crafty and had that instinct for what was going on.

If you don’t have that then you need someone in the team car who does. Our manager in the 60’s was Antonin Magne; he’d been a great rider in the 30’s winning the Tour de France twice and The Worlds; he thought he was a great manager – but he wasn’t. He wasn’t in synch with how cycling was in that era and often didn’t make the right decisions, he just wasn’t astute enough. It’s my belief that if Raymond had someone like Rapha Geminiani (a strong rider in his day, French Champion and Tour de France podium finisher – and Jacques Anquetil’s team boss, ed.) or Raymond Louviot in the car during his best years then he could have won the Tour.

Poulidor and Hoban at GAN

PEZ: Then the contention that Poulidor was tactically inept is valid?
He wasn’t crafty, he needed someone to tell him what to do; the experienced guys in our team would have to tell him to watch his positioning in the peloton – whereas Merckx was sharp, always in the top 15, where you have to be. But for all that, remember we’re talking about a guy who won the Vuelta, Milan-Sanremo, Flèche Wallonne, the Dauphine twice, Paris-Nice twice, the Criterium International five times and was eight times on the podium at the Tour with 14 years between the first and last appearance – that’s remarkable longevity, unmatched that I can think of. The top riders’ eras last maybe seven or eight years – Raymond was competitive through two eras, those of Anquetil and Merckx.

Hoban and a young Merckx

PEZ: You’re saying that his strengths were as a climber and time trial rider but he had a good record in Paris-Roubaix?
These days a rider like him would never go near that race, even back then, look at Anquetil, he only rode it once, just to see what it was like. But the trouble back then was that teams were much smaller and you had to ride everything – riders in that era, De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Gimondi, they rode everything, from Het Volk (now Het Nieuwsblad) right through to the Tour of Lombardy; there wasn’t the specialisation there is now with ‘cobbled classics riders’ and ‘Ardennes classics riders’ – Tom Boonen never rode Liege-Bastogne-Liege. . .

A puncture for Poulidor in Paris-Roubaix

And sometimes it was pretty ‘last gasp’ – not like today where riders’ programmes are mapped out for them weeks in advance. I can recall getting a phone call at home in Belgium at 08:00 am from Magne telling me that he was a man short for the Four Days of Dunkirk and could I be in Dunkirk for the 11:00 am start?

Poulidor with Fagor

PEZ: When you joined Mercier BP Hutchinson in 1964, he was already a ‘big’ rider with wins in the French National Championships and Milan-Sanremo – did he take you under his wing?
No, he was still learning himself, it was the older riders in the team who helped and advised me. Some riders are like that and some aren’t, some riders grow and learn quickly and pass that knowledge on – when I was a more experienced rider I advised the new guys and passed on information to up and coming guys like Gerrie Knetemann, Cees Bal and Sven-Ake Nilsson.

Start of another race

PEZ: In my obituary for him I quoted from a source which maintained that Poulidor was on better contract fees than Anquetil on the criterium circuit – would you agree?
No, very unlikely. There were two rider agents, Daniel Dousett who had Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Roger Rivière, André Darrigade, Rudi Altig and Tom Simpson. Then there was Roger Piel who had Raymond, me and most of the Mercier team – but Dousset was the main man. (In 2007, respected cycling historian, Le Woodland wrote of the two men: “The difference between Dousset and Piel, other than their lack and abundance of charm respectively, was that Dousset became the godfather that he looked. With many of the greatest riders under contract his world went beyond securing criterium contracts and negotiating team salaries. He had the power to dictate who would ride in which team, which teams would ride which races. It was Dousset who decided teams for the Dauphiné Libéré and the Baracchi Trophy, which he could do by simply refusing to engage his riders if he didn’t care to.” ed.)

Poulidor and Anquetil – Who got the money?

Given that, I think it’s highly unlikely that Raymond would be on better contracts than Jacques.
But that’s not to say Raymond wasn’t shrewd, you have to remember he came from humble origins, once he told me a story; His brother and him were larking about in the house and broke their bedroom window, their dad said; “you know that glass is expensive so we’ll have to wait until spring before we get it repaired.” So Raymond and his brother had to live with the wind whistling through a broken window all through a cold Auvergne winter – he knew the value of a franc.

Raymond invested his winnings wisely, he bought land on the outskirts of Limoges and had shops and apartments built on it. As Limoges expanded so his development became part of the city and increased in value.

Poulidor and Thevenet at the Tour

PEZ: It’s been said that the Tour parcours were weighted for Anquetil rather than Poulidor when their rivalry was at its height?
Of course, Goddet and Lévitan, the Tour organisers wanted a French winner and everyone knew about Anquetil’s talents against the watch – so there were long time trials to suit him and few mountain top finishes which weren’t his forte. Had there been more mountain top finishes, then it would have been better for Raymond, but Bahamontes would probably have won more Tours in that event.

Rik van Looy – The man who beat Poulidor for the rainbow jersey

PEZ: When I used to see him at the Tour he seemed a friendly, approachable man?
In the early days he was an introvert, he wouldn’t say ‘boo!’ to a goose but in his latter days he became extrovert. After he retired from racing there was a range of Raymond Poulidor ‘sports’ bikes marketed. If a super market bought say 150 of them then Raymond would go along and present the range – and he’d turned into a salesman; “this is just the right bike for you, sir!”

Puncture for Hoban

PEZ: Did you keep in touch?
Of course! After Jacques died, then when Roger Pingeon then Felice Gimondi passed I used to joke with him; ‘the peloton is getting smaller, Raymond – we may have to go to the front!’ But of course, now he’s gone too. . .

‘Good-bye Poupou’

# With thanks again to Barry for his time and insights. #

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,800 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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