Legend Bernard Hinault examines the greats of the past and the present
An intimate Q&A with the Badger — the five-time Tour winner and three-time Giro champion who also won Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Giro di Lombardia, and worlds.
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They called Bernard Hinault “The Badger” for his stubborn temperament and his aggressive racing spirit. Throughout his career Hinault was known as le patron of the peloton. Not only was Hinault a five-time Tour de France winner and three-time Giro d’Italia champion, but he was also the winner of great monuments like Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia, not to mention the world championship title. In short, Hinault is a living legend. A long-time ambassador to the Tour de France, Hinault is now retired and living quietly on his farm in Brittany. And while he hasn’t raced a bike in decades, he has lost little of his patented outspokenness and unabashed directness. It was with great pleasure that VeloNews caught up with Hinault, who looks back on the sport past and present with his own uncanny sense of candor.
Bernard, do you remember your first bike?
Oh oui! It was a little small bike that I got for Christmas, or I should say that we got for Christmas, because my parents bought it for my brother and I to share. I must have been seven or eight years old. It wasn’t a racing bike or anything, just a bike for getting around. I would ride it back and forth to school every day, about 10 kilometers every day. I didn’t start racing until I was 17.
When you started racing was there a bike you dreamed of having, a bike back in the day, that was a real reference for you like a Celeste Bianchi or a pink Mercier?
Oh, I simply dreamed of having my own bike. And when I started racing I got a Gitane. It was blue I remember and weighed 12 kilos. My brother had bought it, but since he didn’t really race, or only just a little, I inherited it. It was a big heavy steel frame with Mafac center pull brakes. It was just a real tank compared to the other kids.
As a kid growing up or a young amateur, who were your heroes?
For me there were two: Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. They were both such big figures, and they won a lot. And I had the good fortune to actually ride with Eddy for nearly three seasons, or should I say, ride against Eddy! I think the first time I raced against him was Paris-Nice in 1975. He was one of my heroes, but when we were in a race together, he was just another rider with a head, two arms and two legs that he uses, just like me. Sure, he was impressive.
But once I took the start with him, he was another rider to beat. There was no reason to say I was not as good. There was no reason to say, “Oh, Eddy Merckx is at the start, I’ll ride for second or third!” If that is the case you had best not take the start. Back in 1975, Eddy was still plenty strong. And I have to admit that it was impressive being in a race with him. But it wasn’t because he had won all of those races that I was going to give up my place. I was there to earn my spot in the peloton just like he had when he arrived in the professional ranks. I remember that we even got in a break together during Paris-Nice that year.
And while you never raced with Jacques Anquetil, he was the director of the French national team for several years when you were racing.
Yeah, that is when I really go to know him. I joined the French national team in 1976 and we always got along really well. Between one champion and another there is always a link. We spoke about bikes, about anything really. He was a farmer and we talked about that. I just asked him about everything. And then I just observed him, how he reacted to people around him, team staff, and how he approached a race. I also observed Eddy, but at some point you have to have your own style, your own approach. One thing that really stood out to me with Jacques was how all of his old teammates just adored him. He had a really human side, and that’s really important.
I never raced with him, but Anquetil was just incredibly strong. I’ll never forget when we came to the world championships in Colorado in 1986, we went for a bike ride together. I think he was getting a little bored and one day he said, “Can I go out with you on your spare bike? I won’t touch the seat height or stem height or anything, I just want to go for a ride.” Now he hadn’t gone for a bike ride since he retired. But it didn’t matter, he still had that amazing pedal stroke. We went out for 50-60 kilometers and when he came back he said to me, “Bernard, I never felt so good on a bike!” We were pretty close in height. He never benefited from all of the technology that I had at my disposal, and he just loved the way my bike was set up. He never did any wind-tunnel testing. If he had, I think he would have been even stronger.
Were there other riders besides legends like Anquetil and Merckx that left a strong impression?
Well I was always really impressed by the great classics riders like Roger De Vlaeminck, Walter Godefroot, or Francesco Moser. They were real specialists and they just had something special when they hit the cobbles. I’ll never forget De Vlaeminck. I think he was probably the most elegant rider I ever saw. The only other one that compares was Moser. They were both big riders and yet the way they were positioned on their bike gave you the impression that they were just skating on air.
A dog ran in front of me and I was on the ground once again!
Take us through that epic 1981 Roubaix.
Yeah that was some race. Between crashes and flats, I was stopped seven times. I remember that, because I was world champion, I trained a little bit harder than usual in the early season to honor the rainbow jersey. I felt really good at the start, but I flatted as we entered the very first cobbled section and my teammate Pascal Poisson gave me a wheel. Then I flatted again right at the end of the section and Rolland Berland gave me his wheel. It is safe to say that I wasn’t getting off to a great start, but I caught up with the pack really easily.
Then when we hit this one section I crashed hard on the right side of it. And then just after I got back up, I crashed again on the other side. I couldn’t even tell you what section it was. At one point I had another flat, and as I was catching up, all of the team cars had come to a complete halt and were blocking the road. So I had to dismount, put my bike on my shoulder like in cyclocross, and run past all of the spectators, not to mention the motorcycle that had fallen and blocked the road, before I could remount and chase. At one point I was with Roger De Vlaeminck, who must have crashed also, and together we caught the group of favorites that included Marc Demeyer, Francesco Moser, Hennie Kuiper, and a few others. And that was pretty much the final selection.
Well that was pretty much the race. All you had to do was beat them all in the sprint!
Yes and no. I really wanted to get away alone, so on the next-to-last cobble section, the last really hard one, I accelerated hard. But just then, a dog ran in front of me and I was on the ground once again!
Another crash! Did you think the race was over for you then?
No, no, no! I got up and chased back on once again. It wasn’t that hard!
It wasn’t that hard! I love your nonchalance! Nothing seems to get in your way!
I just knew it was my day. And the sprint, I remember, I launched just like the year before. I had gotten fourth after all. But I really paid attention to the wind. As I came into the velodrome I looked at some flags to see where the wind was coming from. There was a headwind in the backstretch. As a result, I accelerated a little more on the backstretch and then really launched my sprint going into the last turn. I attacked the sprint going into the last sprint and it was over.
I drove straight home in time to see the end of the race!
And there was another race you didn’t like much, Tour of Flanders. In fact one year you even dropped out before the start I believe.
Well yes, back in 1977. But I was not the only one! I was at the start with Rolland Berland and Jean Chassang, and weather was just terrible. Berland actually didn’t even leave his room, if memory serves me.
Chassang just did a loop around the town square, and me, I turned right on the first side road and returned to the hotel. I had my car there at the hotel and I drove straight home in time to see the end of the race! But to be honest, I don’t remember who won, because well, that race really didn’t interest me much!
Your team director was Cyril Guimard, who could be pretty hard on riders. Did he even know you had dropped out?
Well Guimard was not real happy, no, but I had already won a few races, and I won a few after that year’s Flanders as well.
For much of the second half of your career, you were teammates with Greg LeMond. Do you remember the first time you met?
Oh yeah, I think it was at his place nearby Reno in 1980. Cyril Guimard suggested I come with him to visit him to sign him. He really wanted to hire Greg and he just thought it would be a lot more convincing if the world champion came along to really convince him. Greg was obviously an immense talent. After all he had been world champion as a junior, which was really impressive. I mean it is not like he was coming from Holland or Belgium, or some country with a strong cycling culture. To win the world championships as a junior, when you are not coming from a cycling culture, well it was clear that he just was a huge talent. And then we got to know each other at the first team camp the next season. We were down in the south of France by Grasse. Now I didn’t speak English, but Greg came to learn. He really wanted to soak everything up and it didn’t take him long to learn French.
Do you remember the first time he impressed you in a race?
Hmm, I would say the first time we did the Critérium du Dauphiné- Libéré in his first year as a pro. That was the first really big stage race he had done, with really high mountains. I won the race, but he was really impressive and got third. That was the first time where I really understood that we had a successor. That, after all, was the reason we hired him.
Well you had a lot a lot of potential successors. There was also Laurent Fignon on your team, someone who would go on to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
Yes, but I don’t think in terms of pure class, Laurent was as gifted as Greg.
We just lived a lot of very intense, very special moments together. I’ll never forget all of the great moments we had together over the years.
Well Greg did become your successor even though you became rivals when you were both on La Vie Claire in 1985 and 1986. The story of your rivalry has been written and rewritten, but when I see you together today, I sense that there is still something very special between you.
Oh yeah, of course. Whenever I see Greg at a race like the Tour de France, it is just “genial!” We just lived a lot of very intense, very special moments together. I’ll never forget all of the great moments we had together over the years. I’ll never forget the stage to Alpe d’Huez in 1986, for example. We climbed le Galibier and then le Croix de Fer before hitting the Alpe d’Huez. I remember on le Galibier our main rival Urs Zimmerman was still with us at the summit. But I knew that he didn’t descend well, and both Greg and I were good descenders.
So I attacked first on the descent and then Greg bridged up to me before we hit the Croix de Fer. I told Greg not to worry about Urs and to let him catch us a bit. Let him think he is catching us I told Greg, and then when Zimmerman got to about 200 meters of us, we attacked again and at the finish he was six minutes behind. Climbing up the Alpe d’Huez together was just amazing.
Who was the rider that was the most complicated for you to beat over the years in the Tour?
Oh that would be Joop Zoetemelk. He was just there year in and year out. He was always there and just never gave up. He could be three or four minutes down, but he would still try and attack. He was really tough! And he kept me on edge year after year. Certainly I had an advantage on him in the time trials, but he could be so unpredictable.
Cycling has obviously changed a lot since you were racing. Who is the rider that has most impressed you since you retired?
I don’t know if anyone really has impressed me. There have been lots of great riders from Contador to Froome, but they are not riders that are going to attack 100 kilometers from the finish. There is one that I really like a lot and that is Peter Sagan. He is not a climber, but he will attack in the mountains to get the points for his green jersey.
And then there are all of these amazing young riders coming up today from Evenepoel to van der Poel to Bernal to Alaphillipe and the list goes on. Today there are 10 to 15 amazing young riders. That is something we have never seen in our sport. Not at this level. It’s just fantastic!