Occasionally, a spontaneous moment occurs in a great rider’s career that comes to be seen as an encapsulation of their personality. Lance Armstrong had ‘The Look’, a glare delivered to Jan Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez as he rode away at the 2001 Tour de France after bluffing for half the day: snidey, scheming, but brutally effective, that was the American.
For Bernard Hinault, it was ‘The Punch’. It happened on March 12 1984 during stage five of Paris-Nice between Miramas and La Seyne-sur-Mer through France’s south-central region of Provence.
On the tricky descent of the Col de l’Espigoulier, Hinault rode like a demon to get rid of race leader 41, helping to draw away 20-plus riders with him in the process.
But news reached the leaders that on the outskirts of La Ciotat, about 35 kilometres from the finish, dockyard workers were protesting at restructuring.
“We succeeded in distancing Millar; maybe I was going to win Paris-Nice,” Hinault recalls. “And then there were protesters in the middle of the road and it was all blocked.”
In the iconic Mondrian-styled jersey of La Vie Claire, Hinault sailed into the melee at the head of the escape, barely braking or loosening his toe straps like his peers.
“The workers had problems over mass redundancies, they weren’t okay with it. And boom, it all kicked off,” Bernard Hinault recalls, gold fillings glinting in the sunlight. “Pow!”
The most famous photograph from the subsequent frenetic seconds captures Hinault, teeth set in a grimace, right fist cocked, about to strike a cowering protester. After Hinault’s blow lands, another manifestant grabs the champion’s hair, causing him to turn around in a bid to confront his assailant. Behind, leaflets are tossed into the air.
It’s not easy throwing right hooks in metal-cleated cycling shoes – Hinault almost erroneously whacks a Panasonic rider in his way (below) – but he did his best.
The Frenchman is then restrained by a cravat-wearing protestor in lurid red trousers – well, it was acceptable in the Eighties – who awkwardly attempts to embrace him.
Hinault believes his reaction was natural. “I knew that I was losing the race, Paris-Nice, in that moment. It was the only moment in my life that I could have won it.”
Was it a show of his character? “Mais oui. You defend yourself against others, simply. We didn’t ask them to stop us, we were racing. We were annoyed, the race had kicked off, it was going all out.”
Did other riders punch protesters? “I don’t think so, no.” In the contemporary footage, you can see a Système U and La Redoute rider shoving protesters away. But flying in for full-on fisticuffs like Hinault? No chance.
The fracas was over in a matter of moments, yet this freeze-frame of the beast coming out in le Blaireau, all balled-up energy and aggression, has gone down in cycling folklore.
The Frenchman seems to wonder what all the fuss is about. “It’s a natural defence,” he says. “It wasn’t aggression, it’s not the rider who is aggressive. It’s the protesters going for it. It’s normal to defend yourself.
“After that, the race got going, but with everyone else back together, when we had held 45 seconds lead before. I lost Paris-Nice for nothing, pretty much.”
The chagrin is clear: Hinault (above, on the way to winning the 1984 Tour of Lombardy) may have won five Tours de France in his decorated career, but he never claimed a Paris-Nice title. However, discussing this over 30 years on, he admits surprise at how his actions have gone down in history. “Everyone remembers that incident, they don’t remember that Paris-Nice was won by Millar that year [Ed – in fact, it was won by Sean Kelly].”
Hinault’s pugnacity has not waned with age. In his post-career public relations role at ASO, he memorably shoved several podium intruders off the stage, most notably on the Champs-Elysées in 2012 as Bradley Wiggins received his Tour de France trophy. Even now, you don’t mess with the Badger. With Hinault recently announcing his impending retirement from the position, who is going to step up and defend the post-race ceremonies from interlopers?