There are world championships and then, well, there are world championships. The magic of the race for the rainbow jersey is its uncanny unpredictability. Because riders compete on their national teams rather than their trade teams, and because the race route changes from year to year, the event can sometimes smile on lesser-known riders.

Words and Images by James Startt

But while upsets are frequent, the epic world championship races are the ones captured by great champions over grueling race routes. Greg LeMond’s second world title in Chambéry, France, only weeks after winning the 1989 Tour de France, certainly goes down as one of the best. Another was the impressive victory taken in 1980 by French champion Bernard Hinault, who almost single-handedly demolished an elite field in his native France.

And in what can only be heralded as a “Babe Ruth” move, Hinault promised national team director Richard Marillier that he would win the race three years earlier—when he discovered that the worlds would be held in France. The anecdote, although rarely cited, calls to mind “The Babe” pointing to the bleachers moments before blasting a home run to the very spot.

Hinault came to the start in Sallanches, a small town in the French Alps, prepared to deliver. On that day, the riders tackled the rugged Côte de Domancy—the main climb on the final time trial to Megève in this year’s Tour de France—no less than 20 times. Lap after lap Hinault assumed his role as pre-race favorite, forcing the pace and splintering the pack. Italian Gianbattista Baronchelli, the final rider capable of following Hinault’s tempo, was having the race of his life. But he was no match for the ferocious champion that was Hinault, often known as “The Badger,” who dropped the Italian on the final climb. Hinault won solo, a minute ahead of the Italian and almost five minutes before the seven-man “peloton.” Only 15 riders finished the 268-kilometer race.

It is a day etched in Hinault’s own memory, and one the ever-candid Frenchman shares with Peloton only a week before this year’s title race.

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Peloton: Bernard, you won one of the most memorable world championships in history. Why do you think your victory in Sallanches is so etched in cycling history?

Bernard Hinault: Well, firstly, because the course was just so hard!

Peloton: It was a race that we rarely have seen since. You were one of the big favorites, the leader of the French national team, yet you attacked already on the first lap and basically won the race from the front. We just don’t see that in modern-day racing?

Hinault: Again, the course was so hard. It was a race for the strongest. You had to be one of the strongest just to be able to follow the pace. When you are the strongest on a course like that, well, you can just drop everybody, à la pédale! I was super well-trained and I was at the summit of my career. If the world championship circuit had been that difficult for the next four years I would have been world champion for the next four years!

On race day, I just told my teammates to keep me at the front for the first 10 laps and then I would take care of the rest. And that is what I did. The Côte de Domancy was just so hard. It was ideal for me. I didn’t need a lot of strategy. The final five or six laps up the hill I just rode a steady tempo like I did in the mountains until, finally, nobody could follow. I didn’t have any help. I just went to the front each time we hit the climb. Each lap, more and more riders dropped—bing, bing! And finally the last rider, Baronchelli, blew about 500 meters from the summit of the final ascension and I rode in to victory.

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Peloton: Yeah, but you withdrew from the Tour de France that year due to tendinitis. You weren’t worried that you would lose the needed condition?

Hinault: No, I just sat out for eight days, the time for the swelling to subside and then I started riding again. Don’t forget, I had won Liège-Bastogne-Liège that year as well as the Tour of Italy, and I withdrew from the Tour de France with the yellow jersey. So I was really in great shape. As long as I didn’t take too long to recover, I knew that I would be okay, and that was the case! After I got back on my bike, the condition returned quickly. I used the Tour of Germany to prepare that year and felt really good there. So I was confident going into the race.

Peloton: You were so confident that, according to legend, you promised the national team coach three years earlier that you would win the world championships that year. Is that really true?

Hinault: Absolutely. I didn’t know where exactly the race would be. I didn’t know it would be on such a hard circuit. But I knew it would be in France and I was going to do everything to win it there.

Peloton: Bernard, you’ve won so many great races, all of the grand tours, monuments like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix. How does your world title resonate today?

Hinault: Like all of the others. We ride to win the great races. And each time we do, it’s a great satisfaction. And winning the worlds remains one of my great victories. You just always want to give your best in this race. It brings out the best in riders!

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Peloton: What is it like wearing the rainbow jersey all year long? You instantly become a marked rider. Is it harder to get results?

Hinault: Ah, no. It’s a great honor. Not everybody gets a chance to wear it. And because I had the rainbow jersey, I made sure I was in shape earlier the following season. As a result, I won races earlier in the season. That was the year that I won Paris-Roubaix. Usually I wasn’t competitive so early in the season.

Peloton: True, it was a race you truly disliked. And yet you won it with the world champion’s jersey! You once called Paris-Roubaix a…what kind of race?

Hinault: A shit race! Paris-Roubaix was just too dangerous for me. When you know that you can win a race like the Tour de France, you don’t think about Paris-Roubaix. If you crash there, your season can be finished!

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Peloton: This year’s world championship is going to be very different.

Hinault: Well, it won’t be hard like in Sallanches. That is something that is not going to be the case in Doha this year. It’s completely flat.

Peloton: That’s for sure, although many people are saying that the wind could really blow things apart!

Hinault: Sure, but all good sprinters at the professional level know how to ride in the wind, or at least they should! In addition, the race finishes on a circuit in the city, so there is plenty of opportunity for the race to come together again. And now they are talking about reducing the length of the race to only 107 kilometers if it is too hot—well, then, the world championships will be reduced to a virtual criterium! No, I think regardless of the conditions, all the big sprinters will be there at the finish and it is going to be a big mass sprint.

If indeed they cut the race distance from nearly 260 kilometers down to 107, it won’t have the same value. You just won’t be able to compare the race to other world championships. There are going to be a lot more riders capable of winning a race that is so short. That said, you still have to win it!