Pondering questions about Paris-Roubaix in the heat of the Gabonese village of Okonja ahead of the start of stage two of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, Bernard Hinault couldn’t have been much further from the wet, treacherous cobbles of Northern France if he tried.
But he knows the demands required for Paris-Roubaix well, having won in 1981. So, does the five-time Tour de France champion reckon Bradley Wiggins can win it? “There’s no reason why not – who’d have said that I’d win it? Wiggins has got to train, he’s got to have the will for it, and then have some luck. After that, he can win it.”
Hinault says that Wiggins has the capacity. “He knows how to prepare, he has done the world championships on the track, he knows how to get ready for that one big race. And last year, he was eighth. From that, he clearly has the capacity.”
When asked for his favourites for this year’s edition, Hinault replied: “There’s a fair few: Cancellara, Vanmarcke. You’ve got to put Wiggins in category A [too]. If he finished eighth the year before and he’s well trained, he can do something similar.”
Were the Briton to win, would it be the biggest victory of his career, given the different demands on a rider? “No, I think it’s all together as one. In his career, there’s no comparison for winning the Tour; there’s no equal for Paris-Roubaix either.”
Seven sectors of pavé will feature in the fourth stage of the Tour de France between Seraing and Cambrai. Given all of the yellow contenders are expected to give Paris-Roubaix a wide berth this year, would Hinault like to see more modern Tour contenders at the spring Classic?
“I think that when you’re a young rider, you need to come and do Paris-Roubaix, to see how it’s ridden. We’ve had cobbles in the Tour de France for the last two years and if you haven’t done it before, you’re going to get a surprise. If you’ve done it a bit, you’re up there and you have less fear.”
Hinault won Paris-Roubaix in 1981, despite crashing into a dog in the finale. Afterwards, the pugnacious Frenchman said that Paris-Roubaix was une connerie – bullshit – and never returned to the “Hell of the North”. What’s his take on it now?
“No, it’s bullshit when you want to win the Tour,” he clarified. “It’s dangerous: if you crash and break your collarbone, it’s a risk, [it means] you’re not at the start of the Tour. So when you want to win the Tour, which is more important: the Tour or Paris-Roubaix? Me, I had more chance of winning the Tour than Paris-Roubaix, so I put everything on that.
“But if I wasn’t good in the Tour, I would have tried hard again for Paris-Roubaix and perhaps I’d win it another time. It takes a certain type of rider. You have to base everything around it.”