The shadow of Bernard Hinault looms over French cycling like no one else. Second only to the great Eddy Merckx in the breadth of his victories, the man nicknamed the Badger is without question the greatest cyclist that France ever produced—and it is a country that has produced a great many greats.
Hinault was the third rider in history to win the Tour de France five times, but that was by no means the limit of his achievement. He won three Giri d’Italia and two Vueltas a España, taking his Grand Tour total to ten, but he also won virtually every other major race out there; this included the 1980 World Championships, the 1981 Paris-Roubaix, three editions of the Dauphiné Libéré and two each of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallonne and the Giro di Lombardia.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his massive list of victories, Hinault refuses to look at any particular one as his most satisfying.
“The most important thing in your career was the image you give to the people, your attitude on the bike,” he told me. “You’re not only a machine; you think inside the race, you ‘fait le metier’ and what the people take away from your cycling is most important.”
“It’s about the passion you have inside,” he explained. “The shine in your eyes when you take a victory; it happens inside the race, not like a computer program; your instinct on the bike.”
It was in 1985 that saw Hinault join the greats—Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, the heroes he’d watched as he grew up on the north coast of Brittany—with a fifth win at the Tour. He rode the last week of the race with a broken nose, after crashing as he sprinted for a stage win, but there was nothing going to stop him from taking the race, not even the prospect of carrying his broken nose across the Pyrénées.
Although he joined his heroes on the fifth win, he claims that it was not the statistic that motivated him.
“No, it was just important to win,” he said. “It wasn’t important to equal Merckx and Anquetil, just purely for the pleasure of winning.”
Sadly for the host nation, Hinault’s combative 1985 victory was the last to be taken by a Frenchman. Since then a number of French riders have looked like Hinault’s heir apparent, as had Jean-François Bernard, two-time winner Laurent Fignon, and perennial mountain king Richard Virenque have all graced the podium in the years afterwards. For the French right now though, the maillot jaune is something that they chase in the first week before giving it up to the Spaniard or American who will carry it to Paris.
The best French rider in the 2010 race was John Gadret, who finished in 19th place.
Hinault may well have reached the five victory milestone a year or two earlier, had it not been for the knee injury that plagued the latter half of his career. He first won the race in 1978, at just 23 years of age, and then retained his title in 1979. In 1980 though, he suffered one of the cruellest fates that any cyclist can be subjected to and was forced to abandon the race while wearing the yellow jersey. He was just over a week from Paris but the pain in his knee was just too much. But would he have won that race if he hadn’t been forced to abandon?
“Yes, of course,” he said flatly. “In 1980, I’d already won two of the first five stages. In 1980 I had super form and I was feeling better than in 1979.”
It’s also possible that he could have beaten Laurent Fignon in 1983, had the knee problem not forced him to sit out that race, and he may have won again in 1984.
Without his bad knee he might well have taken eight Tours.
It was 1980, of course, the year of the one race that seems to sum up Hinault the cyclist, and Hinault the man. In April he won the most epic edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in its history. Soon after the start it had begun to snow, which got heavier and heavier as the race went on; riders were abandoning by the dozen, but Hinault ploughed on.
He eventually took the victory, the first of only twenty-one finishers, 9:24 ahead of former world champion, Hennie Kuiper—a margin reminiscent of the pre-war era. Reportedly his team had to lower him into a cold bath afterwards, because even lukewarm water was too hot for his near-frostbitten body, and it took several weeks for the feeling to properly return to his hands.
The Breton has a simple explanation for his reason to carry on: “Je suis coureur cycliste!” (“I am a bike racer!”).
“It’s true that the conditions were particularly bad and after the feed zone it really started to snow,” he explained, “but the race had already started so we continued the race; but it was really bad.”
“I remember the race like it was yesterday,” he continued. “Cyril Guimard (Hinault’s directeur sportif) came up to me and told me to take off my jacket and go; I said he was crazy. But when it was hard I rode!”
While that race was only a little over 30 years ago, its epic conditions belong in another era, and would likely never be repeated in the modern sport.
“Now it would be impossible because of insurance,” said Hinault. “If a rider crashes in conditions like that their lawyer is there immediately. If we’re told by the weather men that it will be snowing, then perhaps we would cancel the race; this happened during the race, so we continued.”
Following his knee problems in the 1980 Tour, Hinault recovered to win the world championships in Sallanches, in the French Alps, later in the summer. The next year, clad in the rainbow jersey, he lined up at the start of the race that he hated most of all: Paris-Roubaix. Despite several crashes, and being up against two of the greats of the race in Roger De Vlaeminck and Francesco Moser, Hinault won, silencing the critics who claimed that he only hated the race because he couldn’t win it. “I disliked Paris-Roubaix because it was dangerous,” he said. “My main objective was the Tour de France, not Paris-Roubaix. If I broke my collarbone I wouldn’t be ready for the Tour de France”
“But in 1981, when I won Paris-Roubaix, I was world champion,” he continued. “I trained much harder over the winter than usual, so at Paris-Roubaix my condition was so good that I could take a chance; I raced and finally I won.”
Hinault’s victories, and many of those of previous eras, are generally written about in legendary terms, but again, this is not something that he gives much thought to.
“What happened, happened and it is all in the past,” he said. “The real pleasure I get is that my racing can give dreams to the people and to the spectators.”
As possibly the last truly great all-rounder in the sport though, Hinault was the last rider to win Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France in the same year, something that may never be repeated.
“Nowadays it’s more the terrain of the specialists,” he said. “Only in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège do we start to see the Grand Tour riders.”
This specialization he says, is not necessarily a good thing for the sport. “The riders now know that they don’t have to do everything,” he said. “They are not such good riders as before; they are not as good as my generation.”
France has always given nicknames to its heroes; Anquetil was known as “le Maitre” (the Master, or Maestro), some have a play on their names like Laurent “Ja-Ja” Jalabert, Jacky “Du-Du” Durand, or Raymond “Pou-Pou” Poulidor. Probably the most descriptive, and most appropriate nickname of all though, was the one they gave to Hinault: “le Blaireau,” the Badger.
It’s a nickname that Hinault has been particularly proud to carry. “When you hunt this animal,” he explained, “it retreats to its burrow, but when it comes out, it attacks!”
This is something that particularly fits to his characteristics, he feels.
“At the beginning of the season the journalists wrote that I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t good,” he said. “So I returned home, I prepared myself physically and then I attacked!”
Hinault is known for the no-nonsense character he displayed on the bike, and still shows today, which is much of what earned him his nickname.
“I’m French,” he said. “It’s from my country, but mostly from the Breton country. Mon caractère est Breton!”
The legend of Hinault looms over French cycling in the same way that Merckx hangs over his own country. In Belgium, whenever a young rider shows some promise, they have the “next Merckx” tag hung on them with the associated pressure; it’s the same in France, says Hinault.
“In France, yes,” he agreed. “Whenever a rider is good they say ‘the next Hinault!’ But gently, gently, let’s see how good they can be.”
But if not a new Hinault, where will the next rider come from that can challenge for a home win in the Tour once more?
“I don’t know,” said Hinault. “We have some great juniors, world champions, but afterwards nothing. Something happens somewhere, money perhaps.”
Since the infamous “Affaire Festina” at the 1998 Tour, many French riders have complained of “cyclisme à deux vitesses,” or cycling at two speeds, where they have been subjected to far greater controls than riders of other nations. This means, they have claimed, that riders from outside France can dope, and win, while riders from France cannot.
This is something that Hinault has always refused to accept.
“I don’t think they do enough training,” he shrugged.
Some have argued over the years that many of the top French riders have convinced themselves that the two speeds existed and effectively talked themselves out of contention. This is something that he is prepared to accept.
“Yes, it’s a like a disease,” he agreed, “they are stupid!”
Those same riders who have ridden their entire careers without apparent hope of taking one of the big races, have referred to themselves as the ‘génération Perdue,’ the lost generation. This is also something that Hinault accepts.
“Yes,” he said. “The generation of riders who are between 20 and 22 years of age are the future of French cycling.”
There is hope, then, says Hinault, in finding a future Tour winner—if not the “next Hinault”—among the young riders who are just breaking into the professional peloton.
“We talk about [Mickaël] Chérel a lot, but when you see how he finished the Giro d’Italia … people are disappointed.”
The 25-year-old Chérel ended the race in 62nd place, but rode a very poor final time trial. He raised a laugh by illegally drafting Eros Capecchi, who’d caught him for a minute, but slumped to 119th on the stage.
He is not the only name though. “We are also watching our juniors, like Johann Le Bon and [Olivier] Le Gac, the world junior champion,” said Hinault. “These are two guys for the future because they have been world champion in the junior category. Also they were good at the beginning of the season.”
“Also, [Romain] Sicard, who rides for the team in Spain [Euskaltel-Euskadi], now we need to expect something; we’ll wait and see.”
One of the measures brought in post-Festina was to provide French riders with a comfortable salary, in order to remove a lot of the temptation to dope to win. This though, thinks Hinault, is one of the major factors that has robbed French riders of the hunger for victory.
“They need a basic salary,” he said, “and then prizes for victory.”
Having reached the milestone of five victories in the Tour in 1985, Hinault promised his teammate Greg LeMond, who’d helped him to his victory, that he would help him to take the race the next year. Much has been written about how the race went; Hinault rode his usual aggressive style, attacking constantly, and was accused by many of reneging on the agreement and racing for his own victory.
This is something he strongly denied then, just as he does today.
“I played my part in creating the victory for LeMond,” he explained. “All through the Tour I had great pleasure; I said to Greg LeMond that I would help him to win the Tour de France and I respected my promise. If I had not kept my word, he wouldn’t have won,” he added.
While there may have been a little friction between the teammates during, and immediately after, the 1986 race, relations are far more cordial in the two men’s retirements.
“I have a good relationship with Greg LeMond,” he said. “He came to the Tour de France with his son two years ago. I have a good relationship with all of my former adversaries.”
In his retirement from racing, Hinault has taken up what is now a full-time role with Tour organizer, ASO. The most visible part of this is as the man who zips up the back of the leaders’ jerseys on the podium and introduces them to the local dignitaries on the stage; much of it, though, is much more behind the scenes and involves travelling in official cars during the race, along with VIPs.
“It gives me great pleasure,” he said. “People come in the car with me and they leave with a smile like a banana, they have had a really good day. It’s a real pleasure to explain the race to people, to explain what is happening, and what will happen in the race; it’s a real pleasure to share my knowledge of race strategy with the people.”
His role is much busier than it used to be, particularly with ASO taking on more races all the time, but he still finds time to ride his bike though.
“Yes, of course,” he smiled. “I have more time to ride and for my family, but my job takes a lot of my time.”
With more scandals threatening the sport once more, Hinault refuses to be drawn into commenting on either the cases of Alberto Contador, who tested positive for clenbuterol during last year’s Tour, or Lance Armstrong, who has been accused by former teammates of systematically doping during his Tour reign.
“It has not been judged yet, so at the moment they are white,” said Hinault. “It’s black or white, no grey: if there’s no judgement they are white, if they are positive: black.”
So just like the striped nose of the Badger, or the colours of his region’s flag, whose name in Breton means “white and black,” Hinault will condemn or commend once the cases are settled.
“Comme le drapeau Breton!” he laughed. “Comme la Gwenn-ha-du!”