The Eternal Seconds

Words: Suze Clemitson / Images: Cor Vos

What does it mean to come second? To cross the finish line after 3,000 km knowing that you’re first loser and second is nowhere? That your name is already effaced from the record along with that of every domestique who never had a hope of pulling on the yellow jersey?


Cycling is a cruel sport but it’s never inhumane. It remembers and treasures its noble failures. It celebrates the last man home and venerates the specialists, the sprint kings and the mountain goats and the balls-out attackers. ‘First loser’ is so much American bullshit when applied to the sport of cycling, where the romantic myth of the ‘eternal second’ continues to flourish like Elvis after he got the boot from the Grand Ole Opry.

Adrie van der Poel in 1987 

Joop Zoetemelk had the misfortune to open his career riding against Merckx and end it against Hinault. Bookended by the Cannibal and the Badger, Zoetemelk grabbed his single Tour victory at the last gasp when Hinault’s knee troubles forced him out of the 1980 Tour. But six second places in cycling’s crowning glory spoke of a rider for whom losing was no disgrace.

Eugène Christophe, Jean Alavoine, Jan Ullrich – the Eternal Second storyline has sold well through the years. And perhaps none have embraced the idea of success in failure so happily, or cannily, as Raymond Poulidor – the rider to whom the quintessentially French nickname ‘PouPou’ has stuck through the years like shit on his cycling shoe.

If you brake, you don’t win – Mario Cipollini

While the man himself much preferred ‘Pouli’, he was the public’s and the media’s creation. Win or lose he was PouPou, the most famous of the Eternal Seconds – though in truth he was more acquainted with the third step of the podium, finishing third at the Tour five times.

But that’s nitpicking – ignore the omnipresent French race and Poulidor has the kind of palmarès many riders would die for: he was French Champion, won Milan-San Remo (1961), La Flèche Wallonne, Grand Prix des Nations (1963), Vuelta a España, Critérium International (1964), Critérium International, Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré (1966), Critérium International (1968), Setmana Catalana (1971), Paris-Nice, Critérium International (1972), Paris-Nice, Midi-Libre (1973) and picked up 11 Grand Tour stage wins – seven in France, the rest in Spain. In all, Poulidor racked up 189 professional victories. Not too shabby, not shabby at all.

Yet, though he stood on the podium of the Tour de France eight times, bookending his career with third places in his first Tour and his last – behind Eddy Merckx at the age of 40 – he never once pulled on the yellow jersey. The golden fleece was not destined for his Herculean shoulders.

Poulidor was born in the Creuse, the empty rural heartland of the French hexagon, in 1936. He grew up a horny-handed son of the poor, tough soil who would later claim that no race was ever as hard as bringing in the harvest.

“I was never too ambitious,” he told RTS. “I was always content with fourth or fifth place. The important thing is to have a long career, not to win plenty of races in three or four years and then totally disappear.”

There was something authentic about him, rough and crude as gold – the Bartali to Anquetil’s Coppi. And like the great Italian riders who split their country asunder in the 1940s and 1950s, the Frenchmen divided public opinion neatly down the middle. As Pierre Chany once remarked, “If he’d been Italian, Anquetil would have enjoyed enormous popularity, they’d have thrown flowers at his feet.”

The closest thing the peloton had to a true intellectual, the Norman was perceived as cold and calculating. Poulidor had none of the svelte pedalling style or elegant precision of Maître Jacques. Instead there was a brute efficiency in the way he wrestled his bike to the line, like a peasant taking a pig to market.

There are many stories about Pouli – he bought races, he sold races, selling more than he bought and further enhancing the legend of the Eternal Second – he was a card sharp and a canny investor with a secret property empire. Towards the end of his life, when Anquetil and Poulidor had worn out their old enmity, they’d play poker deep into the night. Poulidor was unbeatable.

He was never the ‘noble savage’ of the public imagination though he was happy enough – or astute enough – to embrace the role and the popularity it bought him with the French public. The fact that his debut at the Tour de France coincided with the race being regularly televised is part and parcel of the PouPou myth, allowing him to cultivate and refine his proletarian ‘peasant’ persona.

The rivalry between Anquetil and Poulidor is a study in dichotomy – bourgeois v paysan, science v nature, 5th Republic triumphalism v 4th Republic underdoggedness, ‘la France qui gagne’ vs 'la France fataliste'. Their supposed rivalry was built on these foundations, and the rider you supported said something about your relationship to nationality, tradition, expectation – much as Coppi and Bartali’s rivalry had become symbolic of the divergent strands in modernising Italy.

The real Poulidor was reputed to be unpopular in the peloton for his bad temper and selfish tactics, while Anquetil was thought of as a paragon of courteousness and fair play. The story goes that, when a popular French magazine published an article exposing the Poulidor ‘myth’, the poor reaction forced them rapidly to return to the stereotypes of the ‘bad’ Anquetil and the ‘good’ Poulidor.

PouPou was the perfect champion for a France profonde left behind by the uncertainty and pace of change. He remains vastly popular today, still fronting ad campaigns in July, still creating an uproar as he tours the roads of France in an official car. Whether he truly lacked the killer instinct or simply fell in love with the myth of the plucky underdog and no longer needed or wanted to win the biggest prize, he seemed happy to have traded the yellow jersey for the prolonged adoration of the French public – and his nailed-on reputation as a national treasure. But you wonder if Poulidor would trade all that goodwill and popularity and every victory, bought or sold, for just one day in the fabled yellow fleece.

Silver, that felt like losing. Silver, that felt like an injustice – Thijs Zonneveld

Paysan Poulidor rode it like a flahute, sticking his barrel chest in the wind and stamping on the pedals. Through crashes that left his face a mask of blood Poulidor attacked with unbreakable determination. A southern son of the soil making like a Belgian hardman, unaware perhaps of the blague behind the words.

Adrie van der Poel thrilled by another second place at the 1991 CX Worlds

Derived either from a colloquial name for angelica, a sturdy stemmed plant with a delicate head, or the Dutch flaauwte meaning ‘weakness’ or ‘failure’, flahute started out as a term of friendly abuse in the French press after the second world war. The Franco-Belgian rivalry may be overstated – think of it like the kind of love-hate relationship Canada and the USA enjoy – but the fractured fault line that runs through the kingdom and separates French-speaking Wallonia from Flemish-speaking Flanders is as hard-edged now as when it was forged in the first century BC. It is embodied in every regional flag that flies over the bergs of Flanders and the cobbles of the trouée d’Arenberg.

The flahute is a uniquely Northern European creation, as removed from the foppishness of the French and Swiss playboys like Anquetil and Koblet as it’s possible to get. Born from a long tradition of Belgian hardmen, who dominated the roads of France after the Great War, the life of the flahute – who races harder the harder the race gets – is filled with cow shit and poor rewards. Like the French baroudeur there are guts and rarely glory, but the flahute never gives a toss.

Joop Zoetemelk out training with his son

Flahutes are born in the mud, rain and koppen of Flanders and christened on the unrelenting pavé of the Hell of the North. But it was a Dutchman, Theo de Rooij who summed it up best – when asked about Paris-Roubaix, that most flahute of races, he replied, "It's a shitty race! We ride like animals, we don't even have the time to take a piss so we piss in our shorts – it's a pile of shit." Asked if he would come back and ride again, however, "Of course, it's the most beautiful race in the world."

Classics riders spend one Sunday a year in hell. In the off season, cyclo-cross offers riders options to hone their bike handling skills, develop great conditioning, and face obstacles that make the cobbles look like the smooth scales on a lizard’s back. In 1902 the first ever National Cyclo-cross Championships were held in France. Organised by Daniel Gousseau, a French soldier who regularly rode his bike across rutted farm tracks to keep fit, the earliest cyclo-cross races were a codification of the sport of cyclo-steeplechase, where riders would literally make a beeline for the nearest church spire, navigating any obstacles in their path as best they could.

Raymond Poulidor

Road cyclists soon embraced this ideal combination of cardiovascular fitness, challenging bike handling and portage sections to restore the circulation to frozen limbs. Géo Lefèvre, the real mastermind behind the Tour de France, was also influential in getting the fledgling sport off the ground. But its popularity as the ideal winter training for the road was sealed when Octave Lapize – French cyclo-cross champion in 1907, considered the unofficial World Championships of the discipline – won the Tour in 1910 and said he owed it all to riding ‘cross.

Today the sport is ruled by the UCI and must follow strict guidelines for race length and course layout. Gone are the death drop descents of the trou du diable or the wartime races up and down the steps to Sacré-Coeur in Paris. In their place a professional sport that is probably the fastest growing discipline in cycling. Dynamic, exciting and with just a whiff of danger modern ‘cross is fast-paced and thrilling, a visceral shot of adrenaline that lasts for about an hour on a course that should be 80% rideable but with a selection of manmade obstacles including barriers and staircases to test handling ability, stamina and flat running speed.

Jean Robic would become the first official ‘cross champion in 1950, but the French domination of the sport wouldn’t last. Tailor made for the flahutes, cyclo-cross was soon under the control of the Belgians. Eric De Vlaeminck was champion every year except one between 1966-73, being forced to withdraw in 1967 as the result of a crash. Only Marianne Vos has as many titles.

Everybody Loves Raymond

But every cycling discipline must have its eternal second. Like PouPou at the Tour de France, a tall and slender Dutchman with flowing blonde locks and cheekbones you could strop a razor on unwillingly took the mantle for cyclocross with five second place finishes and two thirds in the years from 1985-1999 . His name was Adrianus Aloysius Jacobus ‘Adrie’ van der Poel.

Life is like a ten-speed bike. Most of us have gears we never use – Charles M. Schulz

For cycling advocates, the Netherlands is at the heart of a cycling culture that cuts across gender and class and age. It’s a nirvana, the envy of the world. But it wasn’t always so – it took the sustained pressure of protests like Stop de Kindermoord in the 1970s to create the peaceful, bicycle-lined streets of modern Amsterdam.

The Netherlands was slow to catch cycling fever, but when it did it was quick to embrace the convenience and utilitarianism of mass bicycle transportation. From the 1900s onwards, trips by bicycle soared, peaking at over 80% in the 1940s. By contrast, in Manchester the number was closer to 30% and already entering a long decline to settle at less than 10% by 1995. Where Manchester invested in public transport and aggressively pursued car-friendly transport policies, Amsterdam and a host of other European cities embraced the bike with an enthusiasm that the British Isles never quite matched.

On 5 September, 1944 the BBC announced that the Allies had crossed the Dutch border. Legend has it that on Mad Tuesday, the Germans took every bike they could get their hands on in order to get the hell out before the troops arrived. In fact the Germans had been requisitioning Dutch bikes since July 1942 when it was declared that Jews could no longer own a bicycle. Every clunker and single speed was sent to be melted down for the war effort. For years afterwards, whenever Germany met Holland at football the cry would go up, ‘give me back my bike!’

Theo Middelkamp


But despite the sheer number of bodies on bikes, the history of professional Dutch cycling is startlingly brief. In a country where la petite reine reigns supreme, there was no real culture of bike racing. When Mien van Bree declared herself Dutch Champion in 1934 she was racing in Belgium because women’s cycling was practically outlawed in her home country. Even when she stood on the top step of the podium as world champion four years later, she would never have the same recognition in her homeland. Dutch women, tutted the authorities, simply didn’t race bicycles.

It was Piet Moeskops, five times the sprint champion of the world throughout the 1920s who recognised the talent of the girl who tore through his hometown of Loosduinen on her bike. On the road, however, the Dutch had to wait for a road race champion until 1947 when Theo Middlekamp took the title in Reims after having come so close a year earlier. Despite being the first Dutch rider to take a stage win at the 1936 Tour de France when he crested the Col du Galibier – having never ridden up a mountain in his life – Middlekamp spent most of his career racing in Flanders where there were real riches to be made.

Cycling in Belgium has always been close to a religion. Strike that, is a religion. In Flanders it’s a full-blown mania, an obsession that burns fever-bright throughout the winter and spring. Sharing a common language and a porous border it’s always been easy for Dutch riders to slip into the heartland of the flahute. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Dutch have excelled at the Ronde van Vlaanderen – that war of attrition disguised as a bike race that plays out across the bergs and koppen of Flanders every Easter.

Only two riders have ever ridden to victory in the Tour of Flanders and worn the rainbow stripes of world cyclo-cross champion. One is ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’, Roger de Vlaeminck, and the other is Adrie van der Poel, who finally pulled on the world champion’s jersey at the age of 36 in Montreuil, France.

Both men are still involved in cyclo-cross – de Vlaeminck, whose brother Eric was to ‘cross what Roger was to the Classics, has coached teams in his native Belgium, while van der Poel spends every race day during the season driving his camper van to watch sons David and Mathieu conquer the mud.

Success isn't permanent and failure isn't fatal; it's the courage to continue that counts – Mike Ditka

Adrie van der Poel was born in Hoogerheide in 1959, now the beating heart of cyclo-cross in the Netherlands where the race named in his honour – the GP Adrie van der Poel – plays out every January. Turning pro at the age of 22 with the DAF Trucks team, it was soon apparent that the lanky Dutchman had talent as he opened his account with wins at Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné.

Van Aert and van der Poel at Superprestige in Zonhoven 2016

Van der Poel’s thirteen-year career on the road is peppered with more than decent victories. He took back-to-back stage wins at the Tour de France in 1986 and 1987 and even went one better than his future father-in-law and wore the yellow jersey for a day.

The 1980s were glory days for Dutch cycling with Jan Raas and Hennie Kuiper taking back to back victories in Paris-Roubaix with similar success on the hallowed roads of Flanders as Raas, Kuiper, Johann Lammerts and van der Poel all threw their arms aloft in victory at the Ronde. Van der Poel beat Sean Kelly in a thrilling four-man sprint and pumped his arms in triumph – Kelly would never win the Ronde, the only Monument missing from his palmarès, and he would never come closer than in the 1986 race. As the Irishman would say later, “it was one of the most horrible races to ride, but one of the greatest to win.”

Brilliant victories in Championnat de Zurich (1982), Clásica de San Sebastián (1985), Paris-Tours (1987) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (1988) speak to van der Poel’s roadman sprinting chops, while wins at the Etoile de Bessèges and the Herald Sun Tour in 1988 showed his versatility in short stage races. His last great victory came over the 30 or so vicious little bergs of the Amstel Gold Race in 1990, where he shot out of the peloton and snatched victory by a tyre’s breadth from the rest of the peloton. It capped nearly two decades of almost continual success by Dutch riders in their most important race, with Jan Raas nailing five victories between 1977 and 1982.

Van Aert leads van der Poel at Azencross in Loenhout 2015

But everything van der Poel achieved on the road was just a warm-up. Always a fan of ‘cross training in the off season, almost incidentally the Dutch hardman had racked up five Dutch national champion’s jerseys in the mud and hurt of cyclo-cross. Capable of a prodigious training load, van der Poel dedicated himself to the pursuit of the world title. He came as close as he was ever going to on the road when well beaten by Greg LeMond in his pomp and the Stars and Stripes in 1983, but cyclo-cross was a very different beast indeed.

Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill – Fausto Coppi

Adrie van der Poel’s second career began in earnest in 1992. There were still good performances on the road – a second place in the Tour of Britain that year, top five finishes at Paris-Tours and Paris-Roubaix in 1993 and 1994, a top ten in Amstel Gold – but van der Poel had turned his fierce and intense concentration and focus to the one prize that had eluded him.

1996. The cyclo-cross worlds are held on a fiendish twisting course in Montreuil, France. Van der Poel is 36, his best days on the road behind him, his reputation as the eternal second of cyclo-cross surely destined to remain intact. The hot favourite is the Italian Luca Bramati, Superprestige and World Cup winner. Dutch team manager Jan Raas has been banging together the heads of van der Poel and his Rabobank teammate Richard Groenendaal, who are both desperate to win the rainbow stripes.

Adrie finally cracks it in 1996

Van der Poel bided his time, discreetly shadowing every move the Italians made. Finally, as the bell clanged for the last lap, he started to make his move. Leaping over the barriers like a tangerine fawn, van der Poel let his long levers inch him inexorably clear over the closing kilometre – 4, 5, 6 seconds with only Bramati for company.

Into the final 300m and the Dutchman is first into the final corner. He senses Pontoni closing, knows that his 36-year-old legs are giving away years to the Italian duo. “I was scared stiff. I took the risk of leading out the final sprint,” van der Poel said later. He gives his trademark look back over the shoulder once at 50 metres, twice at 25 metres. The Italians can’t touch him and he pumps his longs arms with sheer joy as he crosses the finish line. On the podium, Bramati cannot hide his intense disappointment as the Dutch national anthem plays.

It was as if the dam broke for the Dutchman and the results flooded in. Over the following winter he was unstoppable, winning a total of fourteen races and scooping the World Cup and the Superprestige competition into the bargain. Success continued through the ‘97-98 season with nine more victories, but by then there was a new kid on the block. Sven Nys would dominate the world of cyclo-cross through the 2000s and ‘10s winning the Superprestige an incredible 13 times. The man – the boy – who broke Nys’s string of victories was a 19-year-old prodigy called Mathieu van der Poel.

Every strike brings me closer to the next home run – Babe Ruth

Corinne Poulidor’s mother Maria always told her not to marry a cyclist. And in her defence, when they met on the dance floor at a disco in Martinique, Corinne had no idea that the tall quiet stranger with the wide-set pale clear eyes that mirrored her own was a rider like her dad. By the time she found out, she says, it was too late and she was in love.

Zoetemelk struggles to keep up with Hinault

Corinne van der Poel is the daughter, wife and mother of champions. On her 22nd birthday she crossed the border into Belgium and committed herself to a life among the bikes. It was an escape of sorts – from a father she rarely saw yet who could open doors whenever he was around, from the bullying and jealousy at school. She was lonely, but she committed herself to the washing and the cooking and the tension of a life on the roadside. She rides herself, a hundred kilometres sometimes, but only with friends.

Funny and feisty she is the temperamental opposite of Adrie, who is quieter, more serious and introverted. Corinne says of her youngest son:

“Mathieu is extrovert, has my character, likes to laugh too. He is relaxed and he also releases things quickly. If he is unlucky during a ‘cross, it does not last long or he’s not down for long.”

She worries more about David, his inconsistency. She tries to keep every victory in perspective, for David’s sake.

Mathieu van der Poel is a thoroughbred, the blood of champions flowing through his veins. He may just be the most talented rider on a bike today. David takes after his father and carries the stockiness of the Poulidors on his frame. Physically, Mathieu resembles his father, his skills around a cyclo-cross course just as silky and nimble, his passion as intense and his focus as laser sharp. And time after time he has thrown those same long slender arms above his head in victory, including the race in Hoogerheide that carries his father’s name.

Temperamentally, as Corinne says, he takes after his mother – both love to laugh and dance their arses off, Mathieu in his underpants in the camper van his dad drives every Sunday. But when the race is on he is pure papy, winning extravagantly and with a panache that is true Poulidor. Papy follows his petit vedette on the internet or stands in the crowd like any other proud granddad except that he usually gets to embrace the winner, race after race after race. Mathieu’s 2012-13 cyclo-cross campaign was utterly flawless, his palmarès a long unbroken string of thirty out of thirty first places. Does he have his grandfather’s genes to thank for his success? Maybe, agrees the young star, “but I still have to pedal!” He sprints like his father, but when he climbs there’s the pugnacious spirit of PouPou in his ascendancy. He dreams of winning Paris-Roubaix one day – a race that is not yet part of the Poulidor-van der Poel palmarès.

A cyclist who doesn’t know how to lose can’t become a champion – Laurent Fignon

Like his grandfather with Anquetil, Mathieu van der Poel already has a beautiful rivalry – rather than an urbane Frenchman, his is with Belgian, Wout van Aert. No quarter is given when they race but they’re the best of frenemies, sweet gifted lads who have the ability to light up the mud and the roads for years to come. It’s fair to say there’ll be no complexe Poulidor for Mathieu van der Poel – his palmarès at 23 are already too rich and full for feeling second-best.

When Mathieu van der Poel stands on the start line does he feel the tug of history? The elusive glint of gold that eluded his papy? Or does he use his fearlessness to remain sans complexe? That’s where you see his father’s calculating brain and race smarts in him – the man who looked once at 50 metres, twice at 25 metres before finally becoming the champion who already knew how to lose.



This feature first appeared in Conquista 19.