I just finished William Fotheringham’s book, “Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling.” It’s a pull-no-punches look at the career of five time Tour de France winner Hinault. What a career it was!
Tour de France; eight starts, five victories!
Giro D’Italia; three starts, three victories!
Vuelta a Espana; two starts, two victories!
What makes it more remarkable was the relatively short span; he was a pro for eleven years, compared to thirteen years for Merckx, sixteen for Anquetil and twenty for Coppi. The date of his retirement would come as no surprise. Two years before, he announced he would take his leave on his thirty-second birthday. It didn’t surprise many that he did exactly as promised, although most believed he had many good years left in the tank. He had, however, witnessed great riders slowly lose their shiny feathers and fall back to earth, revealed as mere mortals at the end. For me, watching a rider command an ageing body by force of will and memory is bittersweet, tragic, and beautiful. I love him all the more for it. Monsieur Hinault differs with me on this point. That approach wasn’t for him. He would go out at a moment of his choosing, no one else's.
It’s worth contrasting Hinault with Raymond Poulidor, one of France’s most beloved riders and known as the Eternal Second.
The book paints a portrait of a hard-headed Breton with a reputation for making promises and standing by them. How, then, does one account for his seeming betrayal of Greg Lemond in the ’86 Tour? After all, he’d promised to return the favor after Lemond helped him in ’85.
I think it’s a question of instinct. On the back of Fotheringham’s book is a quotation from Hinault himself; “As long as I breathe, I attack” That’s the key, I reckon; he just couldn’t help himself. I agree with the author that it wasn’t even the attraction of a sixth Tour victory that motivated him. His instinct was to attack at all times, if opportunity arose; otherwise, it wasn’t really racing, was it?
His career was significant in another way. During the ’78 Tour, he was thrust to the front, accepting the role as spokesman in the riders strike at Valence D’Algen. He successfully voiced riders’ demands for more humane working conditions, such as limiting stages to only one per day. Up to this point, Tour organizers had thrown in a couple days when there would be two stages, thereby increasing the number of towns paying to have the race come through, or hold the stage finish. He demanded that riders be accorded a dignity and respect previously ungranted. Race organizers appeared to regard professional riders as beasts of burden, a view unchanged for eighty years.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, then his time on La Vie Claire was a blessing for future pro cyclists. After witnessing Hinault’s trouncing in the ’84 Tour, La Vie Claire owner Bernard Tapie hired Greg Lemond to be Hinault’s lieutenant for the ’85 Tour; the salary was viewed as astronomical at the time, but it altered forever the pay structure for professional cycling; the signing also helped to secure Hinault’s fifth Tour, to boot.
With regard to the Tour de France, he was truly the last “grand patron”. Certainly, every Tour has an alpha male, an enforcer, but Hinault’s toolkit was so much bigger; he had the drive to win and the anger to make it happen. He had the physical superiority and had perfected the art of psychological aggression, needling a competitor till he broke them. Moreover, his command lasted the entire season, be it Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April, The Tour in July, or the Tour of Lombardy in October. I can say with confidence, I will not see another Hinault in my time.
If you’re looking to unravel Hinault’s story, to find the flesh and blood inside the legend, William Fotheringham’s book is a great place to start.