Raymond Poulidor was the most popular French professional cyclist of the 20th century. When asked which man they would like to invite for a Christmas dinner, in a 1991 survey a French audience massively answered Raymond Poulidor, beating famous movie stars like Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo on the spot.
He never won the Tour de France. He never even wore the yellow jersey!
In fourteen Tours he only won seven stages. Yet there wasn't a cyclist who was as popular as monsieur Poupou. The silent, modest sportsman from Limoges managed to become second or third too many times between 1962 and 1976. Still he holds one record. He ended up in Paris in the top 3 on eight occasions, which no-one ever did before or after him. The last time, in 1976, he was forty years old already when he managed to reach third spot again.
Part of his popularity lies in the fact that he was always himself. In good shape or in bad, he used to ride his own race, not interfering with others, but not helping them either. Each man to himself, although he did gain much popularity by helping his fellow countryman Roger Pingeon defend his yellow jersey in the Alps in 1967. The ironic result was that the audience at the finish line at the Champs Élysées were more enthousiastic about Poulidor than they were about Tour winner Pingeon.
In 1968 he started as favourite, again, but a motorist hit him and his facial wounds made him retire. The whole French nation suffered with him while Dutchman Jan Janssen won that year's Tour.
Poupou was a great climber and a fine timetrialist, while his excellent physical condition made him a perfect cyclist for stage races. But looking back, he probably did not have the motivation to be a top cyclist, and on the other side he just missed that bit of luck everyone needs at some time in his career. Sometimes it looked like he was satisfied being the best Frenchman, instead of the best of everyone.
For years Raymond Poulidor was one of the most popular French men, thanks to his modesty and heartily smile. The fact that as a cyclist he was mostly dominated by fellow Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and later on Belgian Eddy Merckx, subscribed to his aura of the 'French underdog'. When Anquetil died, Poulidor remarked: "Jacques won and I got the applause".
He was knighted in 1972, and from 1976 he himself looked back on his career with satisfaction. At least in 1964 he should have won the Tour, when in the Alps he started his attack on Anquetil too late and missed victory by 55 seconds. But to Poupou it hardly mattered. He's a very happy grandfather now.