clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Slaying The Badger, by Richard Moore

Slaying-the-badger_mediumTitle: Slaying The Badger: LeMond, Hinault And The Greatest Ever Tour De France
Author: Richard Moore
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Pages: 296
Year: 2011
Order: Random House
What it is: What it says on the tin: the story of the 1986 Tour de France and the Civil War between La Vie Claire's Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond
Strengths: As with Moore's previous two books, this one is underpinned by some fantastic interviews. Hinault and LeMond are obviously the two stars, but they're almost put in the shade by three very special interviewees: Paul Köchli, Andy Hampsten and Cyrille Guimard.
Weaknesses: If you already have a firm view of the 1986 Tour - pro-Hinault or pro-LeMond - you'll very probably find that shaken a bit by the time you get to the end of the book.

Pick a Tour, any Tour, one that you could go back in time to and relive live, as it happened, and watch the whole thing from up close. Which one would you pick? For those of us of a certain generation, this is an easy question: it has to be 1986, Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, what was supposed to be the dauphin's coronation ride around France but turned out instead to be one of the most beautiful Civil Wars this sport has seen. It's a race that has everything. Even, I think, a happy ending.

That happy ending thing. I should put my cards on the table. I can remember watching the 1986 Tour, Channel 4's coverage of it. Bernard Hinault was the rider to root for. The man was charismatic. He was hard as nails. The story of his fall into a ravine in the 1977 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré as he swooped down off the Col de Porte was a legend. Not for the fall, anyone can fall off on a descent (well, I know I can), but for le Blaireau being helped back up onto the road by his directeur sportif, Cyrille Guimard, and then climbing onto a new bike and riding on to win the stage, and the race overall.

Or there was the story of his 1980 victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, ridden in the snow, a race so brutal that a hundred of the hundred seventy-four starters had quit before they got to the feedzone at Vielsalm and by the time they got back to Liège only twenty riders were still on their bikes. And Hinault hadn't just won that race, survived to the end and then out-sprinted the next best rider. Oh no, he'd won in style, by going on the attack, eighty klicks out from home. On his own. The man was old school.

And then there was Saint-Étienne in the 1985 Tour de France. Three hundred metres to go and Hinault decks it. And just sits there on the road, blood pouring down his face and staining his yellow jersey, before he finally gets up and rolls across the finish line. A broken nose. And the Pyrénées still to come. That's it, we imagined, that has to be it, he's going home. The next day, there he was, bruised - his two black eyes finally made him look like a badger - and ready to ride. A broken nose? Pah, nothing.

So yeah, I was crazy about le Blaireau. Hell, Hinault even rated above Sean Kelly. But here's the twist: in that 1986 Tour, I actually wanted Greg LeMond to win. It wasn't that I liked LeMond - quite the opposite, actually - but Hinault had made him a promise, given his word. And, in those days, I believed that cycling held true to the chivalric ethic. A man's word was his bond. For Hinault to go back on his word and win for himself ... oh say it isn't so, Joe.

That said, I wasn't averse to watching Hinault fucking with LeMond's head, watching Hinault make LeMond earn that victory. No one has the right to have the Tour de France served up to them on a platter. And LeMond seemed to think the race was his before it had even started. Hinault jerking him around, that only made up for the lack of a challenge from anyone else in the peloton. The Badger was just playing with him, stirring it up. That's what I believed was going on anyway. What I wanted to believe was going on. Convinced myself was going on.

And then Richard Moore came along and trod on my dreams.

* * * * *

The story of Slaying the Badger is the story of the 1986 Tour de France, but it is also the story of the two men at the heart of that race, Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, of who they were, where they'd come from and how the politics that shaped what happened on the roads of France in 1986 came into being. And much of what happened in the 1986 Tour is rooted in what happened in the 1985 Tour.

So the story of Slaying The Badger is two Tours and two men. Except there's more to it than that. Because that 1986 Tour represented the changing of the old order, not just the passing of the crown from Hinault to LeMond, but also changes in the wider world of cycling. Changes best exemplified by two men: Cyrille Guimard and Bernard Tapie.

Guimard was the old world of cycling. A former pro himself, he became a directeur sportif and guided Lucien Van Impe, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon to, between them, seven victories in the Tour, in just nine years. Tapie on the other hand was a hard-nosed businessman who saw an opportunity to get into cycling, make a splash, and then get out again. Guimard and Tapie, theirs was, in part, a battle for the soul of cycling, the fight between cycling as a sport and cycling as a business.

The old order was also changing with the role of the Foreign Legion. LeMond was just one among many. And more than the individuals, 1986 saw the arrival of an American team at the Tour: Jim Ochowicz's 7-Eleven squad. This part of the change, the opening of cycling's borders, had been on going for most of a decade by then, and you could pick any year from that decade to mark a major milestone. But '86, the first non-European winning a Grand Tour, is probably the key milestone of that era.

Those then are the stories which form the background to Slaying The Badger. How do you tell them? Well, in both In Search Of Robert Millar and Heroes, Villains and Velodromes, Richard Moore built his story by getting others to tell it for him. He uses the same trick here, assembling a stellar cast of interviewees, about twenty in all. (There's only one key interviewee missing, Bernard Tapie, and that's not that big a surprise. Instead, Moore tells his story through solid secondary sources.) The stars are, inevitably, Hinault and LeMond themselves, both with their own memories of what did and did not happen. But they're almost outshone by three of the supporting cast.

First, there's Cyrille Guimard, the man who guided their careers toward greatness and who was, quite possibly, the greatest directeur sportif ever. Then there's Paul Köchli, La Vie Claire's directeur sportif, a man who was fervently anti-doping and believed that it shouldn't matter who won a race, so long as he was wearing a La Vie Claire jersey. And finally there's Andy Hampsten, a first-hand witness to what happened on the roads of France that year. For those three interviews alone, Slaying The Badger is worth reading. For more about about them, see the interview with Richard Moore.

* * * * *

So what is the story of the 1986 Tour de France? At its heart it's actually quite a simple story. Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault had been team-mates at Renault. Hinault was the first to leave, joining the newly formed La Vie Claire for the 1984 season. This was to be Hinault's comeback from a second bout of tendonitis. And when he blew up in the 1984 Tour, most assumed the comeback was done for.

Which may explain why Greg LeMond was happy to sign for La Vie Claire for the 1985 season: it would get him out of Renault, where he was in danger of being lost in the shadow of Laurent Fignon - who had thrashed Hinault at the '84 Tour - and he could shine at La Vie Claire, where Hinault seemed to be on the slide.

Except that le Blaireau was only down, and far from out. Guided by Paul Köchli, he bounced back. At the 1985 Giro d'Italia, Hinault showed that the Badger was back in town. At which point the realisation dawned on LeMond: he'd be helping Hinault to his fifth Tour victory.

In the first part of the 1985 Tour, it didn't look like Hinault needed anyone's help to win. The race was looking processional. No one was even close to Hinault. No one. And then came Saint-Étienne. The Alps behind them, the Pyrénées to come. Coming into the finish, Steve Bauer's back wheel went from under him, Phil Anderson went into Bauer, and Hinault went over the top of Anderson. Despite the broken nose and black eyes, Hinault still started the next day. But this was a different Hinault, a less imperious Hinault, an Hinault who was clearly mortal.

And then came the Col d'Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden. Cyrille Guimard sent the Renault riders to the front. He may have had no skin in the game, but he still had a score to settle with Hinault. And settle it he almost did. On the Tourmalet, Hinault was riding backwards. And then Stephen Roche - then sitting pretty in third, behind LeMond, behind Hinault - took advantage of the mayhem Guimard's boys were causing: he went for one. Only to find Greg LeMond on his wheel.

The second La Vie Claire car came up to LeMond, the assistant directeur sportif, Maurice Le Guilloux, at the wheel. At this point LeMond was just covering Roche's attack, riding in his slipstream, not coming through to help at the front. But he wanted to help drive the break. He asked Le Guilloux for permission. Le Guilloux got on the radio to Köchli, who was back with Hinault, and Köchli said that LeMond could only ride if he attacked Roche. Köchli had no real problem with LeMond putting time into Hinault, taking over the race lead - he believed the team was more important than the rider, remember - but he wasn't going to help Roche move up a position and still be a threat to LeMond. If LeMond was going to attack, it would have to be a winning attack, one that left the team holding at least as strong a hand as it held at the start of the day.

LeMond had (still has, actually) two problems with what Köchli told him: one, by blasting it out over the radio, even Roche heard what Köchli's instructions were; and two, LeMond understood that Hinault was still within a minute of him, when in reality he was a lot further back. If he'd been let off the leash, LeMond could easily have put minutes into Hinault, enough to win the Tour with.

Others - especially Köchli - take a different view: LeMond had been given the chance. He had been told that if he wanted to ride, he was to do it without Roche. And he didn't take that chance. But, you say, of course he didn't, Roche heard the order. But remember something about Roche: on a climb he had, in his own phrase, the acceleration of a diesel train. Dropping him on a climb just took some swift accelerations of pace.

The next day, the final day of climbing, the race summiting the Aubisque twice, morning and afternoon, LeMond played the loyal domestique, offering no challenge to his yellow jerseyed leader. And thus it was that Bernard Hinault rode his way to a fifth Tour de France victory and joined Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx in the record books. And with everyone knowing that 1986 would be Hinault's final season - he'd promised years earlier that he'd hang up his wheels on his thirty-second birthday, November 14, 1986, and Hinault was a man of his word - it seemed unlikely he'd be the first man to win six Tours. Especially unlikely when, before the 1985 race ended, he gave this quote to Miroir du Cyclisme: "Next year, I'll stir things up to help Greg win, and I'll have fun doing it. That's a promise."

How true was Hinault to his word in 1986? Was he just stirring it up or did he actually try to give the French what they wanted from him, a sixth Tour victory? Well that's the story Richard Moore tells in Slaying The Badger. And some stories you really do have to read for yourselves.

* * * * *

You'll find an interview with Richard Moore on the Cafe Bookshelf.