When we remember Jacques Anquetil we tend to say the legendary Frenchman was in the twilight of his career by 1966. In many respects that’s true because, at 32, he’d ride the Tour de France for a final time (and not finish) and nearly all of his major victories were behind him. But despite having won the Tour five times, the Giro twice and the Vuelta once, Anquetil needed to keep racing. In the ’60s, prize money and appearance fees made up most of a star cyclist’s income, not his somewhat meager salary. And Anquetil needed the cash because he was purchasing a spacious château in his native Normandy to entertain guests with lavish meals, fine wines and all-night games of poker.
Though the public saw him as a rider who won races too clinically, his popularity was improving after his dramatic victory over folk hero Raymond Poulidor at the 1964 Tour. And it multiplied the following year when he skipped the Tour to score a remarkable double victory—dominating the eight-day Dauphiné Libéré and 12 hours later starting (and winning) Bordeaux-Paris, the hugely popular 600-kilometer French classic. So what could he do as a repeat in 1966?
First up was Paris-Nice, a race he’d already won four times—usually by riding defensively in the road stages before winning the time trial. Anquetil was not the dominant time trialist anymore, so he prepared for the French stage race by riding (and winning) Italy’s Tour of Sardinia. But Anquetil still lost the time trial at Paris-Nice on a hilly course in Corsica to his nemesis, Poulidor. Needing to overcome a half-minute deficit on the final stage, Anquetil used the hilly terrain of Provence to attack Poulidor again and again until he got clear and raced into Nice more than a minute clear. This new victory put Anquetil on the front pages of newspapers all over Europe, increased his popularity and prestige—and kept him as the sport’s highest-paid athlete.
Because of his early successes in the grand tours and the era’s many prestigious time trials (he won the Grand Prix des Nations, the virtual world TT championship, for the ninth time in 1966!), Anquetil had no need to take the spring classics seriously. He raced some, but rarely showed top form, though he did score a narrow victory in a lesser race, Ghent-Wevelgem, in 1964. Remembering that win, his directeur sportif Raymond Louviot persuaded Anquetil to line up for the more prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège on May 2, 1966.
It was a day of heat-wave temperatures that severely depleted the field, with two-thirds of the starters quitting. Anquetil could have joined them, but he loved hot weather and with a gambler’s instinct and 55 kilometers still to race he jumped clear of the peloton on the climb to Rouquette. He closed a minute’s gap on two breakaways, dropped them on the Mont Theux “wall” and time-trialed the final 47 kilometers to win by almost five minutes.
Eddy Merckx, who placed eighth that day, 5:24 down, later said: “Although I wasn’t able to compare myself to the Super-Anquetil in stage races, I did see a great Anquetil at work in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. There was a whole level of difference between him and us, even though I had the impression we were riding well behind.”
Two weeks later, Anquetil started the Giro as a top favorite. But when two flat tires caused him to lose three minutes on the opening day, he rode in support of Spanish teammate Julio Jiménez and later favored the victory of Italy’s Gianni Motta over Felice Gimondi—the upstart who threatened the French superstar’s top-dog status. Anquetil, who finished that Giro in third, raced in similar vein at the Tour by favoring the chances of young French teammate (and eventual winner) Lucien Aimar, a plan that stymied Poulidor—who ended up in third, while Anquetil, battling a virus, pulled out three days from the end.
The Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry continued at the worlds—where Anquetil was content to outsprint Poulidor for second place and watch Germany’s Rudi Altig win—and at the season-ending Lombardia—where they contested the final six-man sprint, right behind Gimondi and Merckx. But Anquetil earned the Super Prestige Pernod as the world’s No. 1 pro for the 1966 season—which proved an Indian summer for Maître Jacques, not the expected twilight.