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Bernard Hinault, by William Fotheringham

William Fotheringam serves up a new biography of the man they call the badger.

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Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling, by William Fotheringham Title: Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling
Author: William Fotheringham
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press (UK) / Chicago Review Press (US)
Year: 2015
Pages: 370
Order: Penguin Random House (UK) / Chicago Review Press (US)
What it is: A biography of Bernard Hinault with a focus on success and succession
Strengths: As well as hitting the high - and low - points of Hinault's cycling career Fotheringham tries to understand the character of the man they call the badger
Weaknesses: With his "the l'Équipe" this and his "the La Vie Claire" that and his "the La Redoute" the other Fotheringham ought to be slung in gaol by the "the la" police, with the the keys thrown away

"Only three weeks ago, during the Dauphiné Libéré, the young up-and-coming Hinault flew out of a curve, into a ravine. At that moment the French TV audience had every reason to assume that he was lying down there with a broken back. Then he climbed up, was given another bike, rode on, won the stage and went on to win the Dauphiné Libéré. A star for ever. Hinault had gone into that ravine as a rider, but came out a vedette, and the entire operation had lasted no more than fifteen seconds."
~ Tim Krabbé, The Rider

Where do you start with Bernard Hinault? The Dauphiné, Liège, Roubaix? Valence d'Agen, the Col de l'Espigoulier, Saint-Étienne? His duel with Joop Zoetemelk throughout the 1979 Tour, his abandon from the 1980 Tour, his utter humiliation in the 1984 Tour? Let's start at the end. Superbagnères.

1986. The thirteenth stage of the 73rd Tour. Why Hinault attacked that day remains a mystery. Yes, this was just the second day in the Pyrénées and the Alps were still to come, with ascents of the Izoard and l'Alpe d'Huez (where Laurent Fignon had delivered the coup-de-grâce in 1984, making Hinault's humiliation complete), followed later by the Puy de Dôme. But only the day before le blaireau had put four-and-a-half minutes and more into his rivals and taken the maillot jaune with a lead of more than five minutes. There was still the Saint-Étienne time trial to come in, where he could expect to add more time. In the past, this would have been a day for controlling things, limiting losses, protecting what he had. But on this day in Hinault's final Tour, his ceremonial lap of honour in a career that had begun a decade before, Hinault did the unexpected. Hinault attacked.

Unexpected? Yes and no. In the 1979 Tour Hinault had duelled throughout with Joop Zoetemelk and by the final Saturday had subdued his Dutch rival. He set out on the ceremonial stage to the Champs Élysées with a lead of three minutes. And yet on that day when he should have been laughing and joking for the photographers as the peloton wheeled toward its crowd pleasing finale, Hinault attacked.

As the peloton rolled through the valley of the Chevreuse Hennie Kuiper (Peugeot) and Joaquim Agostinho (Flandria) were having at one and other, scrapping over who should stand on the bottom step of the podium. Either encouraged by their attacking or angered by their antics, Hinault (Renault - Gitane) put in an attack on the Côte de l'Homme Mort and opened up a gap on the peloton behind. Only Zoetemelk (Miko - Mercier) responded and caught up with Hinault. And the two started going at one and other with attack and counter-attack. Until the point where their respective directeurs sportif - Cyrille Guimard and Jean-Pierre Danguillaume - came up to them and told them they were so far ahead of everyone else they had to stay away and fight for the stage. And so it came to pass that the men on the top two steps of the Tour's podium duked it out in the sprint on the Champs Élysées, the maillot jaune winning in style.

Hinault, by William Fotheringham
US and UK covers

You can argue whether 1979 was really an attack, but there can be no doubts about 1986. Four kilometres over the summit of the Tourmalet, through the hairpins just past the village of La Mongie, Hinault attacked and by the bottom of the descent had a lead of 1'43" over the peloton behind him. Ahead lay former La Vie Claire team-mate Dominique Arnaud (TS Batteries - Reynolds), the day's breakaway hero. And the Col d'Aspin and the Col de Peyresourde before the final ascent to the ski station at Superbagnères.

Over the top of the Aspin Hinault had pushed his advantage over the peloton to just shy of three minutes. On the descent he hooked up with Arnaud and the two worked together toward the base of the Peyresourde, the penultimate climb of the day. There Hinault dropped his erstwhile team-mate and climbed on alone.

For those who remembered their Tour history, this was a day that recalled the epic exploit of Eddy Merckx on the road to Mourenx in the 1969 race. Like Merckx before him Hinault was in the maillot jaune. Like Merckx before him Hinault opened a gap on the descent of the Tourmalet, this time with still ninety kilometres to go before the sprint through Luchon and the slog up the final climb to the ski-station at Superbagnères. Like Merckx before him Hinault put minutes into the peloton as he soloed toward the stage finish. Was that what it was all about then, Hinault wanting to be more like Merckx?

When trying to answer why Hinault attacked that day, despite his cushion of five minutes and more over everyone else, you have to turn the clock back a year, to the 1985 Tour, and Saint-Étienne. Hinault was en route to his fifth victory in the Tour. But what should have been a celebration turned into the first shots in a civil war after the badger was taken down sprinting for a minor place as the Tour raced into the capital of the Loir département. Hinault was clearly wounded - a broken nose that was obviously going to hamper his breathing, with the Pyrénées still to come - and his La Vie Claire team-mate Greg LeMond felt he should have been given a shot at the title. Rather than being celebrated for equalling the record of Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merck in winning five Tours - or for pulling off his second Giro-Tour double - Hinault stood accused of having denied his loyal lieutenant that which was due to him. Of having won because LeMond was made to let him win. At the end of that Tour, Hinault promised that 1986 would be about his American team-mate. But he never said it would be easy.

But why the attack in 1986 on the road to Superbagnères? The best man to put that question to would be Hinault himself. Hinault, though, lives if not in the moment, then very much in the present. Philippe Bordas wrote of him that "Hinault dreams of life where everything is subjugated to the present - no legends, no dreams, but perpetually renewed exploits with a simple immanence: I am what I am, I do what I do." If his present PR duties for ASO require that he resell the past, then that is what Hinault will do. But no matter how many times he is asked to retell the same old stories, there is no sense of self reflection in what Hinault says, no sense of a man trying to understand why he did the things he did. For him it is very simple: he was and is Bernard Hinault.

About as close as Hinault comes to self reflection is this explanation for what happened that day in the 1986 Tour: "When you've got five minutes on the first day in the mountains, what do you do? I didn't win five Tours by being on holiday. I could have just sat on Greg's wheel and from then on the race would have been over." In other words, I did what I did because I am who I am. I do what I do.

And that, I guess, is why - more than any other race he won, more than any of his other exploits, from the riders' strike at Valence d'Agen in 1978 to his punch-up with striking dock workers after the descent off the Espigoulier in 1984's Paris-Nice - Superbagnères defines Hinault. Why a man who won so much is best understood by defeat.

The defeat began on the climb of the Peyresourde, Hinault wilting and his three minute lead evaporating, the chasers just twenty-five seconds behind him as he summitted the climb. The catch came on the descent into Bagnères-de-Luchon. And while Hinault was able to hold his rivals' wheels as they sped toward the base of the climb to Superbagnères, he couldn't match them on the climb itself and they simply rode away from him. At the summit LeMond took the win and wiped out all the gain Hinault had won the day before, closing to within forty seconds of his team-mate and the maillot jaune.

The two duelled throughout the remainder of the race, Hinault never accepting defeat, never making it easy for LeMond but Hinault was defeated. By the time the Tour reached the Champs Élysées LeMond had a lead of more than three minutes. And La Vie Claire - a team that had been created just three years before - had won the Tour twice with two different riders.

* * * * *

William Fotheringham's Bernard Hinault and the Rise and Fall of French Cycling tells stories of Hinault's greatest exploits on the bike but the author is most concerned with exploring the character of the man who has come to be seen as having been the last of his kind, a true patron of the peloton. And here Fotheringham - who, like most of us, is somewhat in awe of Hinault - doesn't pull his punches when assessing quite how Hinault was able to dominate his peers in the manner he did. Three quotes for you:

Hinault - "You are like a soldier, a general who dominates, who imposes his will on the others. I believe that you are born like that. Some are born to be workers, others to be in charge. I could have been a warlord. I would have waged war to win castles and land if I'd been born in the Middle Ages. Or I could have been an admiral."

Robert Millar - "His way of racing was to dominate you. Break you. It was the way he would go about his day. As I came up through the ranks he stopped being able to break me physically all the time, so days I could race with him. When he discovered he couldn't hurt you, he worked on you mentally, he'd say he didn't like foreigners, ask what you were doing there in front. His teammates would come and lean on you, annoy you in the wind."

Sean Yates - "It was not a time when it was considered to be bullying, but Hinault was bullying and intimidating people. He was definitely pushing the envelope."

* * * * *

There are quibbles with Fotheringham's telling of Hinault's story. The first is in the way the author insinuates himself into the story, grounding elements of it in his own experience as a racer in Normandy. This need to make stories as much about the author and his own experiences as about the subject they're actually writing about is one that is all over British cycling writing at the moment.

The other is that, as with his biographies of Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx, Fotheringham doesn't seem to be interested in exploring the issue of doping, even though in his final two chapters he uses the post-Festina peloton à deux vitesses argument to excuse the lack of French success in the years after Hinault. Personally, I would like to see someone exploring Hinault's attitudes to blood doping (he told Philippe Brunel that transfusions were fair, so long as the extracted blood was not reoxygenated in a machine) and hormone rebalancing (in the same Brunel interview he said he favoured it but with strict controls), his relationships with Bernard Sainz and François Bellocq. I would like to see someone actually asking the questions of Hinault's generation that deserve to be asked and not simply pretending that everything that went bad in cycling was down to the children of Gen-EPO.

Those quibbles aside, Fotheringham tells you most of what you want to know about Hinault, stories of the men who helped shape him - his first real coach, Robert le Roux; Cyrille Guimard, the directeur sportif with whom he worked to craft his greatest victories; and the man who helped him re-invent himself after his divorce from Guimard, Paul Köchli - and stories of Hinault's greatest exploits on (and off) the bike.

But Bernard Hinault is not just about the man himself, in its final two chapters it is also about the long shadow he has cast over French cycling. It is not just about success, it is also about succession. In the three decades since Hinault last won the Tour, French cycling is perceived as having wilted - of having reverted to the way it was before Henri Desgrange introduced national and regional teams into the Tour and birthed one generation after another of French heroes, from Antonin Magne and André Leducq through Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil and on to Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon - and is only now crawling out into the sunlight as a new generation of vedettes comes of age.

French cycling's nouvelle vague is already being celebrated, even if the victories worth celebrating are yet to come. Fotheringham's biography of Bernard Hinault not only allows us to remember what it was all like when Hinault was in his prime, but also to dream of what it might be like if the French renaissance delivers all it promises.