Fear or Love?

"Is it better to be loved or feared?"
I was recently asked this question as I was recounting a classic Anquetil/Poulidor battle with a close friend and, well, it got me thinking.

Photo by Roger Krieger. Courtesy of http://en.yellowkorner.com.

Photo by Roger Krieger. Courtesy of http://en.yellowkorner.com.

It was the 1964 Tour stage finish on the Puy de Dome. The two Frenchmen – one the master, one the underdog – had ridden shoulder to shoulder for ten kilometers on roads so steep it was difficult to walk on. Although by this time he had won the Tour of Spain, Milan - San Remoand the Fleche Wallone, Poulidor's achievements were paltry compared to the man from Normandy. Nevertheless, every dog has his day; this stage was to be Poulidor's moment.  

To this day, Raymond Poulidor is the more popular of the two; the reason? Maybe we prefer an unpredictable story. Maybe we recognize ourselves in Poulidor, having more in common with a man who tries and often fails, rather than the character who, without apparent effort, succeeds almost every time. It was a sentiment that Eddy Merckx faced during his racing career, whereby his dominance in the peloton prompted a similar reaction on the part of the spectating public. Bernard Hinault added another wrinkle to the question of love versus fear with his own unique career.

As a rider and competitor, it’s advantageous to be feared for your talents; your job is easier if opponents feel intimidated by your prowess. In terms of competition, being feared wins almost every time; all the more so if there’s an element of respect mixed in. In “real” life, the life off the bike, most cycling champions seem to want to be loved as much as the rest of us. They have little problem turning their swords back into ploughshares and finding a way to give back. Here are just two examples. Bernard Hinault founded Souffles D’Espoir, a charity helping the struggle against cancer; he regularly leads charity rides to raise money for this cause. Eddy Merckx travels as an ambassador for the Damien the Leper Society which combats leprosy around the developing world; he also funds research in Pediatric Cardiology conducted in Belgium and other charity work. Is there ego involved? The desire to remain in the public eye, or perhaps the desire, as in all of us, to be seen doing good works? I would imagine so, to a lesser or greater degree.

As for me, I’ll take love every time. Love of family and friends, love of duty, doing the right thing wherever possible. Love of this understated, subtle craft that has entranced me for thirty odd years and at which I remain a willing student. Where do we get our impulses, our encouragements to pursue a path, or adopt a certain attitude to living? For me, it was my father; a man who seemed to never "work” a day in his life. Tom Jones was an experimental engineer who worked on adapting gas turbine engines for use in cars; a modest, beloved man who led by example and who was, truly, the hub around which all activity revolved. I absorbed from him the proposition that either you love what you do  --  or you do something else. I digress.

Fear is easy. It doesn't take much. It is, in a sense, instinctual; a path from another time.
Love takes work. It takes intention. It isn't necessarily the easiest way to live. That said, I can assure you it is, absolutely, the most profound, the most engaging, and the most rewarding. 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. 

Real-life Monster


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.