The winners take it all

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Their names remain in the winning list, while the second or the third ones, are usually forgot.

That is not true, though, for the heart of the people. The fans don’t always “love” the winners. They admire the winners, they like the winners. But “love” is a different sentiment.

Take cycling, for instance. In such a glorious sport, in which a rigid hierarchic system prevents any surprise, there are bunches of “losers” that enjoy, even today, an immense love from the fans, and are often more fondly remembered than many winners are.

In order to win, in fact, you have to be merciless, smart, take the right decisions in the right moments. The great winners in cycling build strong relationships in the group, and use their charisma to gain allies in the critical phases of the race.

The great losers are also very talented riders, who lack the necessary winning spirit to get ahead of all. They ride with the heart, try grand enterprises, waste their strength, while the winners focus on the end and only think about arriving before the others.

As much as the winners calculate, the losers risk. As the winners build relationships in the group, the losers fight against everyone, keeping their integrity first. As the great winners dominate with their eyes, the losers grin and spit, fighting mainly against themselves.

The losers, after all, are very much like each of us. They look like us, they feel our struggles and in their defeated eyes, we recognize ourselves. They lose, but, exactly like us, the day after they stand up again, not caring what issue they may have, looking like the Charlie Chaplins of the world, that the strong can beat but never subdue.

Nobody embodied this concept like Raymond Poulidor, the ever second at the Tour de France. Born near Limoges, in Aquitaine, in the heart of France, Raymond was a sturdy little son of farmers, used to working in the fields since the age of 14, when he left school to help his parents in harvesting.

Nothing like his rivalry with Jacques Anquetil, represents the intricate relationship between a winner and a loser. Jacques, the blond talented Normand, who emerged in his youth to dominate the cycling world, was a homme du mond, a womanizer, an elegant cyclist who won thanks to his talent and to his politics in the group.

Raymond walked a more complicated path. He won races in his youth, but he could train after working 15 hours in the field during the harvesting season. He caught this first train at 19, when he joined the army for the compulsory service, and came back to full-time cycling only in 1960. In the same year, he began his professional career.

Antonin Magne, twice winner of the Tour the France in the 30s and 1936 World Champion, hired him in his team, convinced that Raymond was a good competitor for Jacques Anquetil, and he proved to be right.

In 1961 Raymond won the Milano-Sanremo, even today the one-day classic that opens the season. He punctured at the beginning but came back. He left his fellow attackers on the last uphill and won by three seconds on Rick Van Looy.

Raymond ran 14 Tours de France between 1962 and 1976, earning the podium 8 times: 3 times second and 5 times third. In all of these Tours, he did not wear the yellow jersey, not even one day. This made his career not only extraordinary, but the archetype of all the possible careers of the second placed in the world.

Pou-pou was more than a loser, or a second, in his relationship with the Tour de France. He was a lover, of a married woman, who never dared to show herself in open air with him. He ran the Tour, he dug in the Tour, he built a lasting legacy and the love of the fans overwhelmed him, but he never wore that cursed jersey.

He had his chances though. In the 1964 Puy-de-Dome ascent, Jimenez and Bahamontes arrived first and second, earning the generous minute awarded to the first and 30 seconds to the second, leaving him and Anquetil to fight for a third spot, in one of the hottest days of the Tour. They climbed elbow to elbow, until Raymond took some advantage and left Jacques, passed also by Vittorio Adorni, who arrived 5th. Raymond earnt 40 seconds before his nemesis, but Anquetil won the time stage and retained his last tour.

Anquetil entered the descending side of his career, and this seemed to open the door for Raymond to dominate in the second half of the sixties. Nevertheless, in 1965 a young Italian rider, Felice Gimondi, appeared from nowhere to lead his team, given also the ousting of the captain Vittorio Adorni, to the victory. In 1966 Anquetil brought his teammate Lucien Aimar to earn the yellow jersey, just to deny it to Poulidor. In 1967 it was the time of Roger Pingeot and in 1968 of Jan Janssen.

Raymond suffered injuries in these years and was not at his best. Then, in 1969, the Eddy Merckx era began. Eddy marked a generation, winning 5 Tours, 5 Giro and 1 Vuelta. Raymond tried to oppose himself, but Eddy was simply the strongest.

Poulidor fought with his incredible spirit. He also won a lot of races. The Vuelta (Tour of Spain), in 1966. Dauphinè, Criteriums, one-day races. The fans loved him and supported his endless struggle to touch that yellow.

It is incredible to see how many years Raymond Poulidor ran. In 1976, in his last Tour, at 40, he came second. The crowd felt that his tentative to win the yellow jersey had reached the end. A dream was falling apart, but everybody realized that pursuing it had been the value of the career of this man.

It did not matter that Raymond never got the yellow jersey. The farm boy from Aquitaine remained a simple man, who invested the money of his victories in buying cows and improving his farm. Always married to the same woman, Raymond still lives in the same village where he was born, enjoying the slow life of the countryside and the season of agricultural life.

Probably Raymond lacked a bit of ambition. He was a shy person, in public, a daydreamer, as Antonin Magne told him. Had he got more ambition, had the fire of victory burnt deep in himself, the lack of Tour victories or even of a day with the yellow jersey, would have destroyed him, like it happened to other riders who could not withstand their defeats. Pantani, Ocana, self-destroyed themselves. Gianni Bugno, simply gave up cycling and cut off that world from his life.

Anquetil died at 58 of cancer and, it was discovered afterwards, lived a tormented sentimental life.

Unlike Raymond, Claudio Chiappucci wore the yellow jersey for some days, but lost it in the last stages of the 1990 Tour to Greg Lemond.

Claudio had entered a group of escapers that reached a quarter of an hour advantage and was the last one of them to give up the lead of the race. But he did it in a spectacular, wild way.

It was the day of the Col du Portet d’Aspin and Tourmalet. Claudio escaped almost immediately, sending and electric charge all through the group for this absolutely crazy decision.

His lack of experience, a naiveté, did not make him get allies in the group and his team was not able to support him. On the last uphill, the group caught him and Renan Pensec sprang the action. Claudio followed him, making a terrible strategic error. Greg Lemond attacked then and his destiny seemed done.

But Claudio is a resilient man, even today, and he simply did not give up. He came up struggling, alone, in the heat. Greg pedaled elegantly to a sure yellow jersey, but Chiappucci was able to get to the arrival and keep the jersey for one more day, before Lemond won the time stage.

Lemond won the Tour. Do the people remember him? Yesnthey do. But do they love him Of all the winner who seem to get eternal glory by boringly putting their names on the winning list, there is a second who earns the love and respect of the people.

Cycling would be a boring sport, without the dreamers who seek the impossible, and Claudio was like this, as it became clear on July 18 1992, at the Sestriere stage of the Tour de France.

Miguel Indurain had won the 1991 Tour, imposing a new style. A big man, apparently the wrong body to resist high on the mountains, Miguel used very short gears to resist on the Alps and keep a distance from the climbers, which allowed him to pass them in the time stages.

Was that boring!

Claudio, with one of the intuitions that made his fortune and his misfortune alike, found himself ahead on the first mountain, the Saisies. He made his usual downhill, and, against his manager’s advice, decided to go on.

It seemed it was no more THAT cycling. The cycling of the great enterprises, of courage, of a divine tentative to challenge fortune. Claudio, though, IS that kind of man.

He decided to go on, and began a personal fight against himself, against the cycling establishment, against Indurain and Bugno. He climbed three mountains, then, before the Sestriere uphill, found he was not hungry. His body told him he could not eat any more. Boifava, his director, gave him a tin of cocke, his stomach opened and he could start feeding himself again.

Somebody says he restarted his offense because he was told that Gianni Bugno, his great Italian enemy, was attacking. But it does not matter.

What matters is that the whole country learnt that Claudio was doing something great and everybody wanted to see him. A million people crowded the roads of Sestriere and the way was literally invisible. A frenzy ran through the bodies stuck to one another in a sunny and hot day. Claudio recalls that when he got to the outskirts of Sestriere he heard a BOOM from the crowd, something primitive, something wild, an orgasm of joy for a gesture deemed impossible in modern cycling.

Nothing is similar to the emotion of a great enterprise. When the heart of the athlete defies all the expectations, when his genius takes hold of him and he can only follow, can only adhere to what is inside him.

Talking about that day, Claudio remembers how two of his team arrived after the maximum delay allowed and he lost two important teammates, thus losing the chance to better run the rest of the Tour.

But at the same time, who cares? Who cares about the victories? Who cares about the yellow jerseys, won after long, boring battles of seconds? Who really cares, if there is the love of millions who admired you because you tried, because you gave 110% every day you were on the bicycle?

Who cares to be rich, but lonely, and forgotten, when everybody remembers the day you made a great thing?

You will not be on the top ten list, but those lists exist only for the pleasure of journalists. You are in the heart of the people, who do not forget you.

That is why that day in Sestriere, one of the most moved men, was a small sturdy Aquitainian, who saw in the fight of this small Italian man the reflection of his own struggles. In a world that will always try to keep the Poulidors and the Chiappuccis away from glory, leaving the spotlight for the Anquetils and the Indurains.

But that cannot decide, that same world of sports, who the people will love.
And that love is more lasting than any victory.

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