“The snow was driving so hard into our faces, on a crosswind, that we had to protect our eyes with one hand. We needed ski goggles. I couldn’t see a thing.”
Bernard Hinault talking after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Sunday 20 April, 1980.
The race was 245 kilometres; after 70km, 110 of the 174 riders had already quit. Approaching the feed station at Vietsalm, at 149km, Hinault told his directeur Cyrille Guimard that if it hadn’t stopped snowing by the time they got there, he was climbing off.
As if Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance herself, was eavesdropping, the sun came out. Hinault, being the sort of man he is, was obliged to ride on.
“I went to the front and started to go [roule] because that way I could get some heat into my body and legs.” (The French word rouler can mean to lick someone, as in a fight, or, in the slang, to stand on the pedals.)
He caught and dropped a small group of breakaways, and, 80km from the finish, he was on his own. “My mind was blank – I couldn’t see anything. I was locked up in myself. I looked at the pine trees – everything was white. I was riding in the furrows left by the car tracks.”
He finished 9min 24sec ahead of Hennie Kuiper, his second victory in the doyen of Classics (Hinault had already won in 1977 and was second in ’79). By the time Kuiper arrived everyone had gone – television and radio reporters included.
It’s as cogent an example as there is of Hinault’s sheer class, his willpower – the rage à vaincre of which he’s spoken – and his style, the panache, the exploit, the dominating spirit, what he called “une morale terrible”.
“Since that day,” he said 30 years on, “I have no feeling in two of my fingers. As soon as the glass drops below eight degrees, I get a pain there.” The following year, wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion, he won a race for which he had always expressed contempt: the Paris-Roubaix.
“What have we done to deserve being sent to hell? It’s an obscenity.” Pressed to expand, he softened: “It really belongs to another time but it’s part of cycling.”
His aversion was rooted in a practicality: ride the Hell and you risk injury, possibly serious enough to put you out for a season. Hardly a sane option, therefore.
On the other hand, it’s part of cycling, and building a palmarès, as they say, was important to him. He needed the cobblestone for his list of victories, so he went and got it.
His career marks the end of an era when the best stepped up to be the best all year round, not just here and there, now and again. He never won Paris-Nice (he was second in 1978) but he won pretty well everything else, all season round.
And it’s clear that quite apart from a core desire for victory (he had a 95 per cent success rate in 12 seasons) he was concerned to confirm his superiority by the breadth of his triumphs.
He is the only rider to have won all three Grand Tours more than once. He took the third of his five Tour de France victories a year after the sickening disappointment of abandoning in 1980 due to tendonitis, and his final Tour victory in ’85 came 12 months after the humbling dished out to him by Laurent Fignon, his former lieutenant.
In ’84, Fignon even had the temerity to call Hinault’s ceaseless attacking on the stage to l’Alpe d’Huez laughable. But it was Hinault who laughed in the autumn of that year when he attacked only a few kilometres from the start in the Tour of Lombardy, and Guimard drove up and told him he was mad. He won it, of course (and also in 1979).
He told me at our first meeting that a rider of substance should be able to win at least one of the five Belgian Classics. Why? It wasn’t necessary in order to secure contracts, even at a time when riders still had to supplement their yearly earnings with prize money.
It was because you couldn’t call yourself a true champion unless you had your name on all the honours boards. His oft-reported strictures on the narrowness of Lance Armstrong’s achievements reinforce his own sense of what it actually takes to join the pantheon.
He was, without question, the last true patron (i.e. boss) of the peloton. Eddy Merckx, quite his equal in achievement, was really too private for such a role – and it’s not a role you choose, rather one that chooses you, if you’re worthy.
That he was the undisputed patron is largely because of his temperament and manner. He was capable of saying “today I win” and delivering, and he generally won in flamboyant style. He led always from the front.
Although the familiar nickname Badger is often glossed as relating to the anger of the beast when cornered, actually it started when he was a boy, apropos of nothing much. No matter. The name stuck and it rather suited his aggressive way.
But to the raw propensity to fight, he adds a layer of such moral power, such inner belief, such natural command that, like the film star on whom all eyes are fixed when he or she is on screen, Hinault drew respect from the rest of the peloton as if by irresistible force.
On Hinault’s last Tour, Greg LeMond won for the first time. The talk was that Hinault had betrayed his trust. Hadn’t he said he’d work for the American? Instead, he appeared to be attacking him like the most redoubtable of opponents.
Make up your own mind about his sincerity, but the fact is, as Hinault himself explained, he not only destroyed the opposition, he pushed LeMond so hard that the young pretender was forced into a new zone, that of winner of the Tour.
And Hinault second? That’s some victory. Hinault took the polka dots and the combination jersey for best all-rounder.
In the latter stages of the 1982 Tour de France, the journalists had been needling him, making sarcastic comments about his unwonted lack of punch. He decided to show them and won on the Champs-Élysées. The best riders let their bike speak for them. Hinault’s bike had a singular eloquence.
It’s 9.30am in Boué, start town of the Tour de Picardie, and your photographer and I are having coffee in the Café Central while we wait for the press area to open. Napery, wine glasses and cutlery are spread on two lines of tables in the space to our left.
The door of the café opens and the first members of a group of mixed company arrive, greeting all and sundry. One of them is the mayor, I discover, and this is a communal brunch for local civic dignitaries.
The door opens again: enter Bernard Hinault. The honoured guest smiles, shakes hands all round, even as the corks are coming out of the Château Haut Marin behind the bar.
Waiting staff bring plates loaded with mushroom omelette, green salad and bread. There is a jovial hubbub of conversation. Hinault, who won here in 1979, is embraced in the admiration of these fans and responds unaffectedly to the warmth of the hospitality around the table.
He has a beaming expression, an easy manner, an affable way with people. It’s what endeared him to the public when he was racing. Indeed, a French friend told me that he rather took over from Raymond Poulidor as the down-to-earth ordinary guy with the extraordinary ability.
The difference is in Hinault’s pugnacity, his abruptness, his hard answering, all identifiably Gallic traits. From good Breton farming stock, he was always very grounded, straightforward in his dealings, ever ready to talk with members of the public and, if the scowl of disapproval came in a flash of temper, the open grin was quick, too.
I had asked Paul Sherwen, who joined the peloton in 1978, the year of the Frenchman’s first Tour victory, how Hinault was regarded by his fellow riders. Sherwen was clear: Hinault soon became the boss and could issue orders quite as firmly as he put down the hammer.
I asked Sherwen how the other riders felt about him. “Mutual respect. He was tough, but it’s a tough business.” In that ’78 Tour, there was much undercover grumbling among the riders about excessive transfers, but it was Hinault, in the tricolour jersey of French champion, who acted.
On stage three, 50 metres from the line in Valence d’Agen, he emerged at the front of the bunch, dismounted and walked. The rest followed. The stage was annulled.
He’s still as brusque to confront what he perceives as an affront. When a protester leapt onto the podium at the end of the third stage in 2008, Hinault didn’t hesitate or ponder consequences: he instantly bustled the man off, end of story.
Some commentators interpreted his brisk way with any rider whom he reckoned to have behaved shabbily – often by putting him in his place by a show of power on the bike – as seeking to humiliate.
That’s shallow thinking. Hinault dealt fair in a harsh forum. So, too, did Jacques Anquetil, another man often pilloried for arrogance. Pleasing the press was not their concern, albeit the press assumes the role of shaping image through a filter of censure.
Sherwen added an anecdote that underlines Hinault’s basic common touch. They go into a room in the Palais de Compiègne for an interview. On a table, a Louis XIV or XV tea service, and a notice forbidding anyone to touch.
A concierge is hovering busily, nervously, in the doorway. Hinault leans across to lift the lid of the teapot and replace it. The concierge erupts in a fluster of reproof.
Hinault smiles and says gently: “But, Madame, the lid was on the wrong way round.”
I’d interviewed Hinault in Compiègne ages past but there seemed no point mentioning it when I spoke to him on the phone to ask for a sit-down in Picardie.
Fixing a rendezvous can be tricky, however: it’s not always easy to pin down someone of whom everybody wants a piece. However, we saw him chatting with Gerard Porte, ASO’s official doctor, outside the Hôtel de Ville in Doullens, at the end of the first stage of the Picardie.
Dr Porte moved off, I moved in. Hinault was happy to confirm that he is a big fan of the Garde Républicaine motards and, for a while, we talked of this and that before I introduced myself and he suggested the following morning for an interview.
He was there to meet us at 10 o’clock, waving from the podium to beckon us into the cramped office adjacent. We shake hands. Daniel Mangeas, the voice of the ASO races, is there, too.
Hinault asks if we’d like coffee. I accept, your photographer demurs. Hinault: “A cup of tea? A small shot of schnapps?” and laughs.
Where to start? The questions you write down in advance always sound so dumb, so banal, so old-hat when you formulate them.
I switch on the tape recorder and begin: “Perhaps you could tell me about the farm?” (After he quit racing in 1986, he started farming and working for the Tour organisation.)
“It’s finished,” he says. His two sons didn’t want to carry on with it and he had no intention of killing himself (his words) on their behalf, so he sold it in 2006. As to the transition from racing to retirement, even though he had fixed the date, was it, nonetheless, difficult?
“Not at all. I foresaw it. One day I stopped, the next day I had already decided what I would do.” You prepared for it, in that essentially professional way.
“Yes, you have to prepare well for everything you’re going to do. So I stop, just like that. At the end of your career, you’re tired physically. Morally, there’s a limit. I did other things. It’s not hard.”
The tone of “not at all” and “just like that” is emphatic, as deliberate and full-on as an attack on the bike. This is a man who reflects a lot before he does something but, once in action, casts aside all trammels of doubt which might be a drag on the decision.
Ten years ago, I had asked him if he still rode a bike. “Non.” Now I ask when he’ll start riding again.
“I do. When I had the farm I got plenty of exercise and determined to ride again when I was 60. That’s normal – you stop work, you need some activity. But I started a bit earlier [he’s 55] and now I ride.”
He speaks fast. The accent impinges a little and he swallows words at the end of the sentence. He doesn’t hum or ha, which is not to say he doesn’t weigh his words. It’s part of what made him unbiddable to some journalists.
I missed a little of what he said and a French friend of mine listened to the tape to elucidate. Even he found some of what Hinault said impossible to fasten. (Maybe it was a crap machine…)
Of the quarrelsome relationship between the UCI and the ASO, he is predictably firm: the men of the UCI are comporting themselves like the grands manitous of Formula 1 and FIFA, the self-important grandees taking everything to themselves.
“At one stage I really thought they’d get everything back. [A pause hinting at ‘bad idea’.] What they forget is that the Tour has been run by a private organisation from the very start and not by federations or the overarching authority which knows much less about its workings.
“So how can they expect to assume responsibility for the baby, just like that? It’s a question of business and prestige, which is precisely why the UCI wants to manage it.”
Does that damage the sport?
“Ah, the sport is the sport, it’s a bit in the – how shall we say? – the paperwork.” A nice ellipsis.
On the vexed question of French riders, he is equally cutting. Perhaps they don’t have a super-champion at the moment – you can’t change that, it’s an innate gift – “but I’m convinced that their training programmes aren’t rigorous enough.
“When the national coach, Laurent Jalabert, tells the squad before the world championships that they need to get used to riding 250km in a day, they say they’ve never done that. There you have it. All the great Classics cover that kind of distance. You need to train for it. We say so every time.”
The impatience is there, but it’s couched in unfussy terms: “C’est la logique pure.” Another proof: the older French riders so often find themselves leading a race as if the newer men haven’t yet clocked that success is a direct function of work.
They have a bad attitude. They blame others and, where they, the French, take pride in being neatly turned out, the foreign riders “are dirty, grubby, black sheep”. For instance, the Slovakian Peter Sagan performs brilliantly in this year’s Paris-Nice and at once there is suspicion.
“But look at his palmarès – this is a guy who has already won plenty. Instead of challenging him elbow-to-elbow, they mistrust him because he rides for an Italian team. Those teams have two doctors, and, of course, this explains everything. And if a French rider wins a race… ah, but that’s logical. Makes no sense.”
If Hinault is unabashedly scathing about his compatriots in the current peloton, it is not unduly so. I mention the rider who won a minor race after three years as a pro and said, as if it were revelation, that now he understood: training brings results.
“Sure, that gives me reason for criticising them.” Hinault’s remedy? Lower their wages and put the sword of Damocles over their heads. “If you win, we pay big wages. If you don’t win, we don’t pay.”
He came from an era when that was still the ethos, and if it might appear like a hint of nostalgia, I don’t read it as such.
As Dr Johnson remarked, a spell in the condemned cell “concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully”. Over-inflated salaries must, surely, have a tendency to soften focus on the job in hand.
On the muddled approach to anti-doping, he lays the blame squarely on the Olympic committee, the only body with responsibility for every sport, which might act as an impartial and unchallenged authority. In the broader context of individual sports taking on responsibility themselves, cycling is far more proactive than any other.
But why, when athletes are found guilty of doping on the eve of the Olympics – e.g. the two Greek runners in Athens, 2004 – does the Olympic committee not ban the entire team?
What’s needed is unity of purpose, coherence of thinking, uniformity of punishment, draconian penalty, all from a single ruling against performance-enhancing drugs.
Yet, what are FIFA, F1, ITF et al doing? They need to take their share of the general duty to reform.
“Cycling today,” Hinault says in a tone that suggests he is weary of stating the obvious, “is possibly the cleanest of all sports because of the testing we carry out. Our fight against drugs is open and we get results.
“We must continue to fight against doping because there’s so much at risk for athletes.” I say that, in 2001, the then-French drugs tsar told me that most promising kids, when asked if dope might get them a gold medal at whatever later risk to their health, said they would take it.
“It’s mad,” Hinault says, “mad. In the Festina affair you had riders saying, ‘It’s for the glory and the money, and if it kills me at 35, 40, that’s not a problem, because success is where life is best… la vie est plus belle.
“The answer? A punishment so severe – suspension for life or at least four to five years – that there’s no chance of coming back and they’ll think harder. Plus, confiscating all the money they’ve earned.”
His concern for children finds an outlet in participation (together with Bernard Thévenet and Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle) in the ASO Cycloparcs set up in seven towns across France for kids age nine to 11 – “some maths, history, geography, ecology, mechanics and bike-riding”.
There is also his own annual sportive which raises money for hostels which accommodate friends and family coming from long distances to visit terminally ill patients in specialist hospitals, and dogs specially trained to help disabled people of all ages.
Clearly, he does only what gives him pleasure. If you don’t like something, why do it? Hinault, I’d say, is a man at peace with himself, a man who sets himself objectives and goes for them with a purposive energy.
He was once a bit cagey – when I first talked to him, he brushed aside questions in the way I posed them and recast them in his own way. Now his essential outgoing nature and the sparkling immediacy of both his opinions and his feeling, which has always endeared him to the fans, is less guarded now.
At one point, I needed to change the tape, but I was fumbling – I couldn’t see without my glasses. “Try these,” he said, handing me his. They worked and he soothed my evident anxiety to reset the machine and not to inconvenience him. “Pas de problème.”
Of Lance Armstrong’s comeback he is magnificently dismissive. Why is he doing it? He could have walked away from the Tour un grand homme. “Is it about the cycling, for him, or for something else? I don’t know. He doesn’t need the money – he’s got plenty.
“He is not going to win it again, and he doesn’t need any more celebrity than he already has. Perhaps he is doing it because he wants to go into politics so he wants to promote himself. All in all, it’s a bit stupid of him.”
He leans on la politique. For the French, that’s a cipher for everyone scrabbling for a bit of the power pie, clamouring for any number of diverse minority interests, exactly what vitiates the struggle against doping. The ASO is resolute in its stance, but what about the rest? They say one thing, they do another.
When I finally switched the tape off, we chatted a bit about, among other things, the combination jersey, which is still awarded in the Tour de Bretagne. Could it come back to the Tour? It depends on a sponsor, on television time for the podium prize-giving… but, yes, why not?
A way of singling out the best climber, the best rouleur… (not, you’ll note, best sprinter). And, adding that he’d won it in the Dauphiné Libéré and the Tour, he said: “It just shows that you’re good.” He and Mangeas let rip a peal of laughter.
It occurred to me, before we left, that he is a man without an accreditation badge, and I said so.
He just smiled, laughed, patted a pocket, said he had one, all right, not that he always knew exactly where it was.