A couple of months ago I was fortunate to have one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I arranged to spend five days in the Brittany region of France to visit with Bernard Hinault and do a little sightseeing. Bernard had agreed to sign and personalize the new lithograph series we recently released.
I’ve met Bernard a number of times over the years at ASO races. My interactions were generally little more than a smile and perfunctory handshake in the invited-guest area. I knew this trip was going to change that dynamic. Right or wrong, Bernard has a bit of a media-supported irascible reputation, so I found myself second-guessing my decision to do this signing. There I sat, driving south from Belgium late at night, rental car loaded down with more than 2,000 pounds of lithographs, wondering how this was going to go down.
The next morning my intrepid interpreter and esteemed cycling journalist, Jean Vantalon, and I arrived promptly at 10 a.m. as scheduled. Bernard opened the door and in an instant any trepidation I had only seconds before was gone. The greeting we received was warm, welcoming and genuine.
After some pleasantries, we unloaded the car and sat down for the signing. I asked Bernard to take his time and let him know I was more interested in quality than speed. In fact, if we did not finish what I brought, I told him I would be perfectly happy leaving the unsigned lithographs behind. Jean was a lifesaver as the interpreter. Lucky for me, he already knew Bernard quite well and that went a long way to make the entire visit run smooth. At the end of the first day, with round one of signings complete, we lingered chatting for a couple of hours at the dining room table while enjoying a bottle of fine whisky. I must admit it was somewhat surreal.
Over the next few days I played soccer with Bernard’s young grandsons on the lawn, walked about his farm, met his dog, ate at a few of his favorite restaurants, chatted with his lovely wife Martine, visited his son’s bicycle shop, saw his personal collection of cycling memorabilia and, all in all, got to know him so much better. And, just like we mere mortals, he has a rack near the laundry room loaded down with jerseys, shorts and socks, drying for the next ride. In his garage hang his bikes—and it is clear that he works on them himself.
On the final day of signing, we spent most of the time chatting about his childhood in Brittany and how he joyfully rides on the same roads today that he did 50 years ago. Bernard talked with impassioned enthusiasm about the happiness that cycling has brought to his life. He then opened a small cardboard box that contained childhood photographs. My level of fanboy geek went through the roof. I had never seen images of Bernard as a kid and I loved his self-deprecating descriptions of himself as a schoolboy and surly teenager. He then pulled out three original photographs of him from his junior/amateur days. He handed them to me so I could get a better look. When I attempted to give them back he told me to keep them.
After receiving his assurance, I took the photos and we started to pack the final signed lithographs into my car for the drive back to Belgium. After taking the winding road from his farm, down the main road and onto the open highway, it started to sink in: I had just had five of the happiest cycling-related days of my life. Bernard went out of his way to accommodate every request I made. Heavens, he even hopped up from the table each time we completed a box of lithographs to help seal the box for its trip back to San Francisco.
Bernard’s reputation as Le Blaireau (“The Badger”) is well documented. Many of the other iconic riders I’ve met have similar traits that I can broadly define as focused and insanely competitive, accompanied by an acute inability to willingly accept defeat in the heat of the moment. The Bernard Hinault of today, however, could not be farther from his reputation as a rider. Simply stated, he is a wonderfully content farmer in Brittany. He has a warm smile and, while quietly confident in his achievements as a cyclist, clearly puts the love and accomplishments of his family far above anything he ever did on a bike. He has a keen palate for whisky, remains a steadfast fan of the sport, can dispatch a wild pig that has wondered onto his property with the skill of a marksman and, above all, is a happy grandfather. His being radiates a life well lived. Me? I spent five days with Le Blaireau. I am one lucky kid!