I am wedded to the middle of the road; I ride its crown. I cut none of its bends fine, the small economies of their slight rise and fall – such a course I leave to cheap-jacks and misers.
I retrace the pure, the exact line plotted by the surveyor. The road glides beneath my abdomen. I know it by heart. I learnt it from the touch under my wheels.
Beyond that house, of which I catch a glimpse, the road will turn to the left and begin to climb. The whole width of it belongs to me and down it I trace the finest line possible. The narrowest of tyres have been inflated to ten kilos and I fly over my pathway of air.
I love beautiful fine-grained roads, broad and beautifully designed, roads on which you can apply all your power. Sweeping flat curves, gentle undulations, hills where you can settle in and then build your effort – the côte de Picardie, the côte de Châteaufort – long plateaux amid fields of wheat combed by the wind.
Lower the chest further, raising the eyes only enough to note where the horizon is, more than actually seeing it, cleaving the air with the beak of my nose.
52×15, 52×14, 52×13. The road glides beneath my stomach like an endless black ribbon. It is my true home, my kingdom. I inhabit the road. My houses, my chateaux are overnight stops.
I take part in a sport of pelotons, and my real life is played out in solitude, against the clock. Only the race against the clock tells the truth.
The wind is a hard substance in which I bury myself, my back rounded, my nose in the centre of the handlebars, arms stuck to my sides. A motionless egg with cranks.
Even in the worst moments when the clenching of my whole body becomes intolerable, I concentrate on not adjusting this position by so much as an inch. My back screams.
Speaking to journalists, I repeat my secret: start flat out, finish flat out and, in between, take an instant to catch breath, a pinch of rest, a few kilometres to relax the pressure and recruit the strength before the final acceleration. Naturally, that’s not what I do but I tell anyone who wants to hear it that it is.
Inevitably, my rivals all end up trying it. Perhaps he’s right? Maybe that’s where the secret of his power lies? They ease off on the pedals briefly and every time it’s as good as won for me.
While they’re slowing down, I am at full gas from start to finish. I cease to be human; I am a machine, a robot in flight. I mount the attack. It’s not a bike any more – it’s an anvil.
My arms are forks, my thighs are pistons. I am free.
I’m in pain. In my neck, my shoulders, the small of my back and then the hell of my buttocks and my thighs.
You have to bear up against the burning, the knots, the biting that every pedal stroke renews, support the lead that every 15 minutes of racing adds to the muscles.
Keep the mind clear to ensure that movement remains integral, pushing, pulling, lifting, crushing, without ever forgetting to maintain the circle, the perfect circle. Making the true pedal stroke, raising the ankle.
Driving the biggest gear you can, as fast as you can and not letting go. Not listening to the body and the brain which together say that this has to stop right now.
Persuading yourself, to the contrary, that if you feel as bad as this, the others cannot possibly hold out.
I stockpile reserves of pain. In training, behind the derny, behind Janine’s Mercedes, or even in front of it, when she is pushing me at 60kph, I go faster than in a race, faster than myself. Pain fills my training.
My trainers have no right to slow down, their responsibility is to draw me into places where only I go, places of suffering which I alone know. Even if I plead with them, they must not. Grit the teeth, hold on, no pats on the back, ever.
On the day of the race, when I am, at last, left to myself and I’m suffering like a dog, I know that in my deepest being I am acquainted with yet more terrible pain.
This gives me a minuscule margin which allows me to hurt myself more than other riders. The longer the course, the more suffering I inflict on the others and that appeases my own suffering.
Behind me, on the bumpers of the Hotchkiss, my name is written so that the public can recognise me. In black lettering on a white ground: ANQUETIL.
My name pursues and drives me forward. I am chasing myself. I flee from myself.
Far off, at the end of the straight line, the car ahead has moved to one side and I’ve caught sight of the rider who set off three minutes in front of me.
I spotted his jersey.
My stare is fixed in his back like a harpoon and now I have him. He is going to pull me by the elastic which has just stretched out between us.
I know that I’m going to catch him. He left three minutes before me and already he’s there.
The road curves round here, the bend conceals him from me, the car hides him from me but I’m not letting him go again. He’s going to drag me up to him. This is the moment.
In the next few minutes, I won’t feel the pain in my legs any more, I won’t pose myself any more questions. I am in the suction. I’ve already gained a good kilometre per hour.
Soon, two. At the end of the next straight, my eyes will be planted on his shoulders and he’ll tug me still further forward. To take full advantage of his power, my acceleration must be progressive.
I allow him the right side of the road; I shall pass him on the left, flat out, with not a glance at him, my eyes glued to the road, without shifting so much as a millimetre in my saddle.
I’m going to overtake him at a speed which will leave him without hope.
Inevitably, he’ll turn his head to the left, throw me an anxious look.
Already three minutes lost. Nothing in me must move but my legs. He doesn’t count. Perhaps he’ll admire the Caravelle, too?
He’ll feel no more than the waft of the wind. My wind. I will not turn my head, I must not catch his eyes. He does not exist. Only the road in front of me exists, the road I take full down the centre. My place.
I pass him.
From here on he’s behind me. He’s pulled me on and now he has to push me. I must use his strength once again.
Pretending to frighten myself (“He’s hanging on… He’s going to get back,” remembering how Albert Bouvet held me off briefly on the côte de Bullion) I press a little harder still to distance him, then feel the elastic snapping and imagine him sinking into the depths of the road, alone, emptied of self.
And then I concentrate solely now on the man who set off six minutes ahead, my eyes already looking for him at the end of the straight line.
In this moment of intense solitude, I am stronger than all the other men.
This gift that I cultivate, this work, are my marque, my glory, my fortune, my chateaux and my prison.
When I am not battling, alone, against the clock and the wind,I pass my time thinking up means of escape.
I am a man on the run. I have only to feel myself imprisoned by a wall to want to leap over it immediately.
It’s an ingrained reflex. Cigarettes are forbidden, I smoke. I’m not allowed out in the evenings, I go out.
Flirting is off limits, I flirt. Cycling is not my sport. I didn’t choose it, the bicycle chose me. I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It will pay the price.
Jacques Anquetil (January 8, 1934 – November 18, 1987)