14 Nov 1954 – Just how good was Bernard Hinault? His old mentor, Cyrille Guimard has claimed he was the best. “No one else has ever been in the frame with the Badger,” Guimard said in Slaying the Badger, Richard Moore’s book about the 1986 Tour de France. “Above Merckx. The Badger had the greatest athletic potential of any rider ever. By far.”
The Badger greater than the Cannibal? That may be a little tough to swallow for most but it is undeniable that Hinault’s exploits and uncompromising style set him apart from nearly everyone who has ever thrown a leg over a racing bike.
Tenacious, determined and fiercely proud, in 1978 the young rider from Brittany started his first Tour and began writing his own page in cycling history. Hinault was by no means an unknown when he set off on the prologue around the Dutch town of Leiden – he was already a grand tour winner having just come off a win in the Vuelta. He also had Liège and Gent-Wevelgem to his name and was wearing the jersey of national champion. But could the 23-year- old climb well enough and last long enough to be a real match for the best riders in the world’s greatest race?
The short answer was yes. Hinault rode well in the key stages, winning the stage 8 time trial and performing impressively in the Pyrenees. He won the sprint into St-Etienne and in the Alps was second on L’Alpe d’Huez to lift himself into second on GC, just 14 seconds behind Joop Zoetemelk. On stage 20, he destroyed the Dutchman in the final TT, taking over four minutes out of him, claiming the yellow jersey for the first time in his career and holding it to Paris. “I feel so good I could race another three months like that,” he said. The peloton had been warned.
In eight Tour starts, Hinault won the race five times and wore the yellow jersey on no fewer than 78 occasions; only Merckx has worn it more. His best performance came in 1981 with 20 days in yellow and five stage wins, including every TT and the stage to Le Pleynet, which went over five Alpine climbs. His overall winning margin by Paris was more than 14 minutes.
The Badger won the Vuelta/ Tour double in 1978, later adding the Giro/ Tour double in 1982 and 1985. In all, he won the Vuelta twice and the Giro three times.
While Hinault’s Tour adventures, and in particular his rivalry with team-mate Greg LeMond in the 1985 and 1986 editions, have been well- documented, his courage and conviction was sometimes best displayed in one- day races.
Hinault’s ride in the 1980 edition of Liège has passed into cycling lore. On a day of snow and ice, the like of which has rarely been seen in La Doyenne, Hinault struck out alone with 80km still to ride. In bitter temperatures he won by nearly 10 minutes. Not for him the safety and relative warmth of the bunch. Perhaps a more startling statistic is that of 174 riders that started, only 21 finished. “The snow was driving so hard into our faces, on a crosswind, that we had to protect our eyes with one hand. We needed ski goggles. I couldn’t see a thing,” he said afterwards.
It was a performance that he would match later that same year, this time to take his only rainbow jersey. On a brutal circuit in the Alps, including 20 times up the Côte de Domancy, a climb that includes stretches at 16 per cent, Hinault sped to a solo victory, escaping on the final ascent to win by over a minute. The crowds chanted his name as he approached the line to become the first French world champion for 18 years. Just 15 riders finished that one.
How best to sum up Hinault? They say a picture paints a thousand words so take a single frame from the 1978 Tour: a photograph of the riders protesting against that year’s long transfers and split stages. While the other riders appear nervous, looking around, seemingly unsure of themselves, one man is stood firm, chest proud, head high; a picture of dignity and of defiance. Rock solid. That man is Bernard Hinault.