Bernard Hin­ault

Procycling - - Rider Diaries -

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.

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