It’s hard to tell if Bernard Hinault is acting, even today. As a rider, bluffing and using the media to psych-out the opposition were integral parts of his racing.
Whether it was freaking out Greg LeMond in 1986, playing games with Laurent Fignon in 1984 or just shooting his mouth off to wind up the press, Hinault couldn’t let it lie. Following his retirement at the end of 1986, a T-shirt industry grew up around his quotes, such was their crafted, crowd-pleasing pith.
Sitting in a plush Paris hotel in 2017, he still knows how to play to the gallery with a collection of stories that help maintain the legend of ‘the Badger’ – le Blaireau from Brittany. It’s a role he’s been playing since 1978, the year he won his first Tour de France and led a rider’s strike en route. You wouldn’t be surprised if, like some pub nutter, he asks you to punch him in the stomach, just to show you how hard he is. (He didn’t).
In his presence you feel compelled not to rile him, partly in recollection of photos of him swinging for striking dockers during Paris-Nice in 1984, a move presented as heroic, but just as revealing of a thuggish approach to anyone who got in his way, literally or metaphorically.
The message? Don’t upset Bernard, because someone will pay, and it’ll probably be you.
It was ever thus, it was as if he couldn’t help himself, he just had to be the alpha male. Take the 1980 Tour de France: “Stage five, 250km to Lille, had a lot of cobbled sectors, but the weather had been terrible, so it was like a sea of mud, you couldn’t actually see the cobbles at all it was so deep,” he recalls. “So at the stage start I said, ‘OK, guys, let’s not be crazy, we take it easy today,’ and we started the stage.
“Well, we got to the cobbles and Jan Raas attacked. Uh-huh, not Joop Zoetemelk, but Raas. And I said to myself, ‘OK, if it’s war you want, that’s what you’ll get.”
Hinault rode clear with Hennie Kuiper and won the stage by two and a half minutes, a classic piece of Hinault ‘coup de theatre’ that would cost him, his knee and his team dear a few days later when he pulled out of the race with tendinitis.
Or there’s this: “I remember one year, 1982 I think, at Grand Prix La Marseillaise, my first race of the season and I was out of shape, a couple of kilos overweight.
“The first hour of the race was crazy, like 50 kilometres in the first hour or something. Madness. I was dropped, but the group I was in kept riding and eventually the front slowed up and we caught them again. ‘Well, listen,’ I said. ‘If you are going to ride like that and drop me, you had better do it right and make sure I don’t get back on again. I’m going so badly, but you can’t even drop me? I’m going the worst out of all of you!’
“So I attacked and got away with five others. I was still struggling, but I hung on and hung on and made it to the finish. Inside the final kilometres they started attacking each other, cancelling each other out and I just followed wheels. Anyway, it came down to a sprint and I won,” smiles Hinault. “They should have made sure I stayed dropped.”
To be fair to Hinault, it’s not always only ever about Hinault. He does offer credit to some of the people he worked with, just not necessarily those you’d expect.
“I only learned how to train when I was 28 when I started working with Paul Koechli at La Vie Claire,” he reveals. “Previously, at Renault, Cyril Guimard would tell me what to do, but not why I was doing it. With Koechli, it was different, he taught me and explained things.”
Given that the Hinault-Guimard tandem was widely assumed to be key, this ‘shout out’ to the Swiss almost seems like a calculated wind-up.
However, Hinault also adds a genuine note of thanks to Toni Maier, the man who founded Assos and introduced Lycra shorts and synthetic chamois to the peloton. “You know, when I started racing we were wearing shorts made of wool and leather, it was basic, and when you raced in the rain and they got wet, your shorts got soggy and heavy and would end up hanging over the back of your saddle.
“So when Lycra shorts arrived, that made a big difference, believe me.”
There’s a line there somewhere about a Badger’s backside. But it’s not worth risking the man’s ire, so we’ll leave it at that.