Ever since I can remember French cycling has been in a bit of a form slump, stretching back to before most of today’s peloton were even born. But just recently there have been glimpses of hope with the emergence of names like Pinot, Bardet, Bouhanni, Barguil, Demare, Gallopin and Alaphilippe. Against this optimistic backdrop I was intrigued to learn more about the most famous French rider of them all, five time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault, who still remains the most recent Frenchman to win the Tour back in 1985.
From the author of the excellent ‘Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike’ each chapter bristles with anecdotes spanning the career of Le Blaireau, the Badger, both on and off the bike. From tales of his amateur days racing with his cousin René across Brittany to his arrival on the pro scene in 1974 and his maiden assault on the world’s greatest stage race in 1978 under legendary directeur sportif, Cyrille Guimard, it paints a vivid picture of just how the influence of this bean farmer’s son became so strong and enduring, and so problematic for generations of French riders to follow.
Beyond legendary tales of on-road dominance, the book’s great strength is its examination of Hinault’s wider impact on professional cycling. His run-ins with rival riders, officialdom and even spectators are the stuff of legend, including the infamous riders’ strike at Valence d’Agen during the 1978 Tour de France which thrust Hinault squarely into the role of patron of the peloton. “Marching forward like Napolean,” was how Paul Sherwen recalls Hinault that day.
The book is peppered with revealing quotes, each shedding more light on Hinault’s psyche and legacy. Explaining Hinault’s view of the route for the 1980 Tour de France, which he would sensationally abandon, Irish legend Sean Kelly points out: “He was pissed off with the race organisers having so many cobbles, as he was many times. So it was ‘I’ll show these f*ckers’!” Of the devastating performance later the same year that saw Hinault crowned World Champion, Robert Millar recalls: “It was relentless … he just knocked the crap out of everyone.”
Bold, brash, talented, opinionated, intimidating. Hinault was one of a kind. As Fortherington observes, “The patrons – Merckx, Rik Van Looy, Hinault and Anquetil – were a blend of union leader and mafia boss, but they had this in common: they ruled the sport through muscle and mouth … (Hinault) continued to dominate his fellows to the end of his career. After which the patron went the way of the dodo.”
Just as it took the Belgians years to accept there would only ever be one Cannibal, Fotherington explores how the rather tortured French have long wrestled with the issue of how to replace the Badger since his retirement on his 32nd birthday in 1986. Fotherington likens it to English soccer, still living in the long shadow cast by its 1966 World Cup winning team. It struck me as not dissimilar to the post-Warne era of cricket, where young spin bowlers are still judged against the impossibly high standards of their once-in-a-lifetime predecessor.
Despite producing many fine riders in the ensuing decades, including Jean-Francois Bernard who was anointed as the heir apparent to Hinault in the late 1980s before crumbling, by his own admission, under the pressure, no Frenchman has been able to exert close to the dominance of Hinault, certainly not at the Tour de France. But with two Frenchmen standing triumphantly on the Paris podium in 2014, and a host of others nipping at their heels, perhaps the interminable wait may soon be over?
Hinault’s is a remarkable story and Fotherington’s book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of our sport and its most influential figures.