"You will never make me take back what I have already said about Paris-Roubaix. It's a big nonsense!"
Bernard Hinault, quoted immediately after winning the 1981 Paris–Roubaix.
Off the bike Bernard Hinault is a charming man. No doubting that. In his role at the Tour de France and similar major races he meets and greets sponsors, riders, journalists and special guests, always smiling and gracious. Nice guy, Bernard.
On the bike he still has only one character – the minute he swings his leg over the cross-bar his persona reverts. Bernard Hinault is still Le Patron, not exactly the all consuming race-dominating Badger he once was, but he's still a super fit alpha-dog of a man these days... It's hard not to be intimidated.
To become a fan of cycling in the early '80s was to immerse yourself in the world of Bernard Hinault. He was the man you see, Le Patron. His famous victories were outshone by his ability to stand proud at the head of affairs and speak out for the riders or wade into striking farmers preventing he and his riding colleagues from doing 'their work'. Fair do's really, can't argue with that. Even if you have the sympathy for the underdog, a race is a race and stopping it isn't cricket, in France at any rate.
Strangely I was never a 'fan' of the Badger. Being an avid follower of the fall guy or the scrapper, I was never drawn to his relentless domination of bike races, nothing personal – I just wanted to cheer on the less-championed. And anyways my distinguished colleague, Graeme Fife, did a marvellous job of getting into the Badger in issue 19 of Rouleur, so I shouldn't go on too much, but needless to say Bernard Hinault is a legend and rolling into Erre in the heart of France's hellish north, to line up alongside him to ride a section of Paris–Roubaix is kind of cool. What am I saying? This is going to be amazing.
Before I go on, please watch this. It is 1981, the year that the Badger won. He was in arguably one of the most perfectly formed Paris–Roubaix breakaways in history. Previous winners Francesco Moser, Roger De Vlaeminck and Marc Demeyer were joined by eventual 1983 winner Hennie Kuiper, who was fresh from victory at that year's edition of the Tour of Flanders. The only weak link was Guido van Calster, who, nonetheless, was no slouch across the stones and, anyway, who cares with that name?
So make no mistake, this was a snazzy break. Resplendent in his rainbow bands, Hinault crashed out of the action in the final kilometres. For most this would spell disaster and yet he furiously remounted, blasting his way back on and riding straight to the front of the break.
The look on his breakaway companions' faces when he makes contact says it all. In that moment Hinault clinched victory, the rest just knew it. It was the only time he would win the race but it demonstrated his key qualities; indefatigable, brutish and hugely self assured.
Of the main protagonists missing that day was one fall guy the rest of the cycling world adored: Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle. Now here's a man I massively admire. If you want to see a rider with panache, who oozed style, look no further. Duclos was cool. One of the finest rouleur-baroudeurs the sport has ever seen.
Famed for partying as hard as he rode, he was the smiling antidote to Hinault's grumpy dominance - a crowd pleaser, the likes of which we have rarely seen since. I have a problem each time we are introduced though, I get a bit tongue-tied and can barely get past hello... And here is the man himself at the start of the journalists' recce of the stones to be ridden in April, telling us what to expect. I am all ears.
There are many things you need to know about riding cobblestones, although here perhaps isn't the space to start. I thought I had it down, but riding behind Hinault pretty much shows it all. It's an education. Push a big gear, stay seated and fast, don't switch suddenly, hold the bars firmly but not too firmly.
Following his wheel goes further to explain the all-important positioning – stay in the centre of the road, on the crown of the stones as the edges subside and get really messed up towards the ditches. If you can move to the dirt (in February this is essentially mud) make it smooth and get out of the gutter well ahead of any obstacles.
Keep your head up, concentrate. Never look away from the road ahead. Moving up the line is unspeakably hard, so if a gap opens ahead it's nigh-on impossible to get back on. Picking a line through and around the rider in front is like putting your head above the parapet (fitting, seeing as we are in the middle of a rather large 'no mans land') as picking a line over the rougher sections of cobbles is bonkers.
Accelerating is necessary, too, and uses a lot more power and effort than you'd think. Before long your legs and lungs are burning and you've only done one sector... there's 12 more to come today.
The sector at Mons en Pevele is downhill, but don't stop pedalling as the bouncing upsets your balance and pedalling helps keep it. Mountain biking skills are handy here, as sideways bunny hops are terrific for getting out of the slush. The mud is slippy but it does smooth out the holes a little - having said that the car gets stuck and Hinault flicks off and stops for a piss. Maybe he knows something we don't...
Before too long he's back on the front and I'm beginning to feel like Guido van Calster. After three hours of hell we've thrown in the towel. Lunch is needed and the awaiting beer is all I can summon the strength to focus on.
We stop in a restaurant and shower in the adjacent hotel, not quite the showers at the Roubaix velodrome, but just as welcome. As we all chat in the car park I notice that Hinault's jacket is still immaculate and there's barely a spec of mud on his face and I look like I've just jet washed a pig sty. Maybe the mud is scared of Bernard too.
It's a major final lesson learnt: always ride at the front. For some reason Monday's recce has changed me, besides the obvious honour of getting mud sprayed all over me by Bernard Hinault's back wheel, I got back to London and rode home, in the rain, laughing at the pathetic pot holes around Elephant and Castle – and I'm thinking: has riding those sacred stones toughened me up? Maybe.
Two days after the ride, as I type this, my hands still hurt. The vibration is a killer and Hinault's huge farmer's hands are clearly better suited to this work that my pathetic moisturised-soft-office-hewn digits, but weirdly, I'm quite liking the pain...
Paris–Roubaix is the best race on the pro calendar for me and it's the only race that's as tough now as it was 'back in the day'. It was the first race I saw on TV, and it's the only race I'd want to have ridden (in those plentiful daydreams about riding a bike for a living...) but even though we barely rode a third of the parcours, Monday certainly told us one thing: Paris Roubaix is stupidly tough and you have to be pretty stupid to want to take it on.
As Chris Boardman once said of the race he always refused to ride: "It's a circus and I don't want to be one of the clowns."