Bernard Hinault (1954- ) is arguably the second greatest cyclist of all time behind non-pareil Eddy Merckx. His palmares is a roll call of cycling’s great races. 5 times winner of Le Tour de France, 3 times winner of Il Giro d’Italia, 2 times winner of La Vuelta d’Espagna, 3 times winner of the Dauphiné Libéré, World Champion, winner of Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, La Flèche Wallone, Amstel Gold, the Grand Prix des Nations, Ghent-Wevelgem and a host of other races in his career. One of just four men to achieve a total of 5 Tour de France victories, he is also the only person to win all three Grand Tours twice.
Pugnacious and aggressive Hinault was nicknamed Le Blaireau, or ‘The Badger’, ostensibly for the way in which, like the animal, he couldn’t be shaken off and would never back down from a fight. A trait that saw him lash out at protesting shipyard workers who had stopped the 1984 Paris-Nice while demonstrating on the Col d’Eze. On another occasion when protesters blocked the route Hinault rode at them full tilt, regardless of any risk of injury to them or himself. In recent years as a representative of Le Tour Hinault has shown more than once that the fire still burns when he has forcibly removed invaders from the podium.
In 1977 during the sixth stage of the Dauphiné Libéré, Hinault, wearing the leader’s jersey, attacked and found himself alone and ahead of the peloton while descending the Col de Porte en Chartreuse at high speed. Misjudging a tricky bend on a section with an 11% gradient Hinault hurtled off the road, disappeared from view and plummeted some 20 feet vertically before coming to a stop on the tree lined precipice. A team mechanic helped him climb back up and Hinault, slightly wobbly, mounted a spare bike and rode on. On the final climb of the day at La Bastille, Hinault, claiming exhaustion and no doubt in a state of delayed shock over the crash, dismounted before being urged on by his Directeur Sportif and mechanic. He crossed the finish line in Grenoble the winner of the days stage and sealed his overall victory in the 8 day stage race.
The photograph of Hinault climbing out of the ravine does not do full justice to the severity of the fall and the steepness of the incline. The footage of the crash taken by the motorbike cameraman following Hinault down the mountain gives a much better idea of just how lucky Hinault was to escape without serious injury. Afterwards he was to say “I thought I was dead, I thought it was the time.” The event was broadcast live on French TV and brought Hinault to the attention of the French public and turned the indomitable Le Blaireau into an icon of the sport.
One of the out-and-out tough men of the sport Hinault bossed the professional peloton in a show of dominance that lasted throughout his top-flight career and culminated in the epic showdown with his team mate and nominal team leader the great American cyclist Greg Lemond in the 1986 edition of Le Tour. As Le Patron of the peloton he stamped his authority on races and riders alike, deciding whether they would race flat out or slow the tempo, reining in presumptuous tyros, and destroying his opponents seemingly at will.
Hinault demonstrated his ability to lead early on in his career. 1978 saw his début in Le Tour after he had won La Vuelta earlier in the year. By the close of stage 11 he was in second place behind Belgian Joseph Bruyere. The days racing had finished at Pla d’Adet and the long transfer to the next days départ in Tarbes meant many riders did not reach their hotels until midnight and after. With a split stage 12 ahead of them riders began to complain about the unreasonable demands placed on them by the organisers.
Hinault stepped forward to organize a strike and at the start line of the split stage 12 the riders revolted. Rather than race the peloton opted to ride the 158 kilometres from Tarbes to Valence d’Agen at an average speed of 20kph, arriving at the finish well behind the official schedule and crossing the finish line walking. The local Mayor was understandably irate; the town council had paid handsomely to host Le Tour and the festival organised for the riders could not take place due to their late arrival and the imminent start of the days second stage, a 96km race from Valence d’Agen to Toulouse. In response the riders promised to hold a post-Tour criterium in the town.
The start of the strike was caught on camera in a series of photographs that capture both the moment and Hinault’s flair for showmanship. While the riders milled around in seeming confusion discussing what to do Hinault strode out determinedly with an expression of grim determination on his face. leading the peloton to the start line. As they reached the line Hinault’s body language exuded Gallic swagger while behind him the rest of the peloton appeared hesitant, unsure of themselves. Seizing the moment, and the photo opportunity, Hinault struck a pose worthy of that other great French leader, Le Petit Caporal, Napoleon himself.
Full of brio, defiance, and cocksure self belief, the photograph captures the moment in which Hinault sealed his reputation within the peloton, not only as an excellent cyclist but also as a leader. Le Patron had arrived.
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