The ‘Eternal Second’ – Getting into the history books without being a winner

I recently read an article, by someone who obviously knew nothing about cycling, that claimed the green points jersey of the Tour de France was one of the quote ‘Worst Sports Trophies to receive’ on the grounds that if you won it, you had failed to reach the big prize, and had failed. Apparently the writer had failed to distinguish between the differences in those seeking to win the classifications when he wrote ‘Just three yellow jersey winners have also won green’, but it got me thinking, firstly about how wrong he was about green being a failure, a secondly (and this isn’t a pun) about how the worst trophy in cycling, aside from the rubbish ASO cogs I’ve highlighted before, is the silver medal.

Second place, first loser, best of the rest, call it what you will, second is by far the worst place to finish, no matter what the purveyors of the ‘4th place’ rule will say. Second means you were beaten only by one man – in a 200 rider cycle race, you are in the top one percent, but even that has not been enough. But worst of all, second means your name will not be recorded in the history books, and your memory will cease to be remembered following your demise (cheery bit of melancholy for you there). Win the Tour once, and you’re assured a spot in the halls of fame for years to come, unless, apparently your name is Lance Armstrong, but you could come second for five years and never win, and no one would know. It’s a well worn cliche, but no one cares much about second place, and so the winner takes it all. How many of you could name the second place finishers at the Monuments for the last 5 years for instance? Even for just the last year?

Cycling however has a bit of a habit for throwing up men who, certainly not intentionally, develop the tag of being an ‘eternal second’, a tag first applied to Raymond Poulidor, the man who split France alongside Jacques Anquetil, with a ‘Poulidor Complex’ coming to be a term for a hard life, as the farmer’s son struggled against the exuberance of Anquetil before coming up against Merckx as well. This has often been the problem for those who are the ‘Eternal seconds’ – their careers intertwine with another, greater rider, who often transcends generations, leaving the man in second to dream that if only his great adversary was in another era, he would be the dominant rider. For every Merckx there is always a Poulidor or a Schleck beneath them, and it’s these guys, the underdogs, who capture the hearts of the fans. Here’s a selection of the great ‘seconds.’

Raymond Poulidor

2nd Places: 3, Tour de France (5x 3rd places), 1, Worlds (3x3rd places), 1, Vuelta a Espana

The original ‘eternal second’ oddly enough didn’t come second that often, and certainly not the most of any grand Tour rider: he could list Paris-Nice, Milan San-Remo, the Dauphine and the Vuleta as well as 7 Tour Stage wins on his palmares, but like Laurent Fignon, who is remembered for losing the Tour by 8 seconds, despite winning it twice, Poulidor will be remembered for his failure to topple Anquetil and Merckx, who held him back from the yellow jersey he cruelly never wore, even if he did get on the podium aged 40. Poulidor however has a terrific legend thanks to the social impact of his battles with ‘Jacques’, and if nothing else, he was part of the arguably best Tour de France photo ever, as seen here:

Leif Hoste

2nd Places: 3 (Tour of Flanders)

Not a grand Tour rider, but Hoste, now 35, has the ignominious honour of being second three times at Flanders, to three different people: Stefan Wesseman, Tom Boonen and Alessandro Ballan. The latter was the cruellest, as Ballan only just pipped Hoste in a tight sprint, whilst the one with 2006 vintage Boonen was always a foregone conclusion. Hoste won’t be winning Flanders, but it’s a shame a man with such clear talent, being Belgian time trial champion thrice and with top 10s at Roubaix wont be remembered as a Flanders winner.

Andy Schleck

2nd Places: 2 (Tour de France), 1 (Giro d’Italia)

Of course, Schleck has technically won the Tour, but it’s the word ‘technically’ that’s the problem – he inherited the win after Alberto Contador was disqualified in 2010 for his clenbuterol positive, so in real terms, he has finished on the podium three times. Schleck has Liege Bastonge Liege on his palmares, but after a disastrous 2012, will need to add a win of some kind to his winnings unless he wants to become the modern ‘eternal second’. Beating Contador will also be the making of him (something many would argue he did in 2010, having lost only by the time lost to his ‘chain-gate’ incident), as someone is going to have to do it at somepoint – Contador has won every Grand Tour he as entered with the exception of the 2005 and 2011 Tours (and the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro I guess), and Schleck has always seemed to be his closest challenger. With a more suitable course in 2013, Schleck will hope to carry yellow to Paris for real.

With Contador as his shadow.

Andreas Kloden

2nd Places: 2 (Tour de France)

Kloden has always been one of my favourite riders, and for similar reasons to why ‘eternal seconds’ are often admired – because he’s not only been the underdog in the big races, but within his own team. Kloden has been second twice, once as German champion in 2004 where he somehow managed to lose a sprint from miles ahead against a charging Armstrong, before being moved up to second when Floyd Landis was stripped of his title in 2006, with the irony being that Pereiro had had a positive for salbutamol, the asthma medication, which is fair enough until Pettachi got stage wins stripped for a similar test at the Giro. Kloden has always seemingly toiled in the service of others, from German compatriot Ullrich, through to Vinokourov at Astana and then to Armstrong at RadioShack and now the Schlecks again. Yes, so he’s had various doping allegations against him, but he’s still classy, so he deserves a place in history.

In happier times with Der Kaiser

Claudio Chiappucci

2nd Places: 2 (Tour de France, 1x3rd place), 2 (Giro d’Italia, 1 x3rd place), 1 Worlds

Chiappuci is famed for winning the King of the Mountains at the Tour twice, as well as three stages, plus the Giro KOM three times. But Chiapucci was also second in grand Tours 4 times behind men such as Greg Lemond, Miguel Indurain and Franco Chiocciolli. He did admit using EPO before retracting the statement, but with Milan San-Remo and San Sebastian on his palmares, he oddly hasn’t been filed into the ‘eternal second’ club, which is odd given he has managed it quite alot. It goes to show that going for King of the Mountains is more worthwhile then the French tactic of going for a middling top 10 at the Tour.

Eugene Christophe

2nd places: 0, (1x3rd place, Tour de France)

You’ll note that Christophe didn’t actually ever finish second at the Tour, yet he has gone down in the collective memory as one of the ‘eternal seconds’ regardless due to his one particular near miss. For Christophe is the man immortalized in legend as the one whose forks broke on the Tourmalet on 1913, forcing him to hike to a forge and mend his bike, before incurring a time penalty for allowing a boy to pump the bellows (riders were not allowed assistance). Cruely, this was whilst he was in the lead, and worse, the incident was repeated in 1919, again whilst he was in the lead, at the cobbles of Valenciennes. Christophe is accepted to be the first wearer of the yellow jersey however (Although Belgian Phillippe Thys claims he was awarded one in 1913) which is some consolation and a guardsmen of a place in the record books, although he’d probably have signed them all away to be on the winners roster.

There are also men who are ‘eternal seconds’ who managed to break the chain of placings and take the win they so desperately needed to define their careers:

Jan Ullrich

2nd Places: 5, Tour de France, 1, Olympics time trial

Major wins: 1997 Tour de France, 1999 Vuelta a Espana, 2000 Olympics Road Race, 1999+2001 Worlds TT.

Ullrich is the man with the second most second places in Tour history with 5, to three different riders – Bjarne Riis, who he was on the same team as, Marco Pantani, and the to Lance Armstrong. The wunderkid, as he was termed, was beloved by fans for his chubby face and partying, which gave him an everyman feel against the destructive and driven Armstrong. Ullrich was an incredible Tour rider however – he never finished less then 4th in the Tour, and had it not been for his 52nd place in the 2001 Giro, the only one of the Italian tours he rode, 4th would be his lowest GT position. Unfortunately, he never could quite beat Lance, although he got within a minute (before time bonuses) in 2003. Still, der Kaiser has the last laugh – somehow he hasn’t had his title stripped, so he has more then Lance.

Behind Lance again, but in 3rd, for a change.

Cadel Evans

2nd Places: 2, Tour de France

Major wins: 2011 Tour de France, 2009 Worlds RR, 2010 Fleche Wallone, 2011 Tirreno Adriatico

Evans, an ex mountain biker, has had an odd career, moving from the ‘galacticos’ of T-Mobile when they signed everybody through to the Davitamon/Silence-Lotto set up, progressing nicely from 8th in his first Tour to 4th the year after, then 2nd, leaving his geometric rate of ascent to be surely crowned with a win in 2008, with Contador not invited. Unfortunately, the favourite tag meant everyone ganged up on him, especially CSC on Alpe d’Huez, and the effects of this and a crash left him too tired to overhaul Sastre in the time trial. Two years in the lower 20s followed, and Evans was written off as having missed his chance, before a crafty and emotional win at the Worlds and a move to BMC invigorated his career. Whilst the first year was a busy one, with a broken elbow ruining his Tour after he had taken yellow again, but in 2011 he became the oldest Post-War winner and was finally and clearly the strongest rider. The first Aussie winner, Evans is finally free of the pressure and can always add ‘Tour de France champion’ to his name.

Carlos Sastre

2nd Places: 2, Vuelta a Espana, 1 Giro d’Italia

Major wins: 2008 Tour de France

Sastre is one of the most under rated riders of the decade, especially considering he finished in the top ten of a grand tour an amazing 15 times, 6 of those being on the podium. Always seemingly undervalued behind others like Ivan Basso and the Schlecks, it was odd that his greatest triumph, the 2008 Tour, was a result of team tactics where he was to attack at the foot of the Alpe, be chased down, and lead to an attack by then yellow jersey and team mate Frank Schleck. Instead, Sastre stormed away to a 1minute 24 second win that enabled him to win the race. Ironically, his performances as leader of Cervelo were worse then when he was domestique de luxe, but as a clean winner, Sastre won’t mind.

Luis Ocana

2nd Places:  3, Vuelta a Espana

Major wins: 1973 Tour de France, 1970 Vuelta a Espana

Ocana is another rider famous for not winning when he actually won – his crash in the 1971 Tour, where he was defeating Merckx and in yellow, is infamous for his tears. He failed to finish various Tours, before finally coming good in 1973 when, with Merckx absent, he finally won, before, admittedly, losing the rematch the year after.

Joop Zoetemelk

2nd Places:  6, Tour de France

Major wins: 1980 Tour de France, 1979 Vuelta a Espana, 1985 Worlds

Zoetemelk has the most 2nd places of any rider, having had a career that overlapped with Merckx and Hinault. Like Ocana, he was arguably lucky Hinault had to withdraw with knee problems in 1980, but Zoetemelk beat what was in front on him to become one of only two Dutch winners.

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