There are two figures who transcend the sport of cycling - giants of the road whose names are known all over the world and whose fame isn’t limited to dedicated followers of the sport. Household names, if you will. But some will argue that the greatest cyclist of all time isn’t Eddy Merckx or Lance Armstrong. Instead they’ll tell you that it’s a man who celebrates his 57th birthday today; a man who dominated cycling in the late 1970s and early 1980s; a man who remains the last Frenchman to win the Tour de France - Bernard ‘The Badger’ Hinault.
Comparing the relative merits of sporting figures from differing eras is the most inexact of sciences. The big picture becomes blurred by personal sentiment, partisanship and, in most cases, a lack of objectivity. We all have our own heroes and we all have images indelibly burned into our psyche that have come about through following professional sport. Facts and statistics can never tell the full story. Numbers and figures are unable to stir emotions and quicken the pulse in the same way that a dramatic victory or an unlikely, glorious comeback can.
Hinault’s career had all of the ingredients required to make his case of being the greatest rider of all time a strong one. He was a history maker. His towering personality and brusque charisma bestrode the sport for almost a decade. And some of his victories are etched into the annals of sporting legend, stories that will be passed down through generations of cycling fans not simply confined to his native France. Richard Moore, author of Slaying The Badger - his account of Hinault’s epic battle with Greg LeMond at the 1986 Tour de France - found that endorsement of Hinault’s greatness was easy to find when he was researching his book.
Photo - Sirotti
"One of the things that [legendary directeur sportif] Cyrille Guimard told me when I was doing my research was that Hinault was the most talented rider ever," says Moore. "Even more so, he said, than Merckx. I think there’s some truth to that. He didn’t want to win everything like Merckx did. But when he did want to win something he usually did. And he usually did so in emphatic style."
Hinault turned professional aged 19 in 1974, which was, symbolically, the final year of domination by the man whose Hinault’s achievements are most often compared to. As Hinault’s career was just getting started, Merckx enjoyed one of the best years of his own career in that season - winning his fifth Tour de France, fifth Giro d’Italia and his third world championship. But he would never reach such heights again and cycling would soon be looking for a new superstar.
It didn’t have to wait long to find one. Four years later, in 1978, Hinault won the French national championships before clinching a Tour/Vuelta double later in the season, all before his 24th birthday. He would go on to win the Tour four more times (1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985), one more Vuelta (1983) and three Giri (1980, 1982 and 1985). His ten Grand Tour victories are second only to Merckx’s total of eleven, and his second-placed finishes in 1984 and 1986 mean that he is the only rider in history to finish in the top two at every Tour de France that he completed. There is every chance that Hinault could have surpassed Mercx’s achievements in the Grand Tours if large parts of his career hadn’t been disrupted by persistent knee trouble. His all round ability in the saddle was reflected by the fact that he won all classifications at the Tour. He could do everything - sprint, time trial and climb.
"It was a blend of things that made Hinault stand out," says Moore. "The thing that most people think of first when they think of him is his character and personality. He was a real leader of men and was so even very early on in his career. Back then, he was completely undaunted by the big names of the time. But because we think of his character it’s easy to overlook his talent. He wouldn’t have been able to be such a leader without it."
Hinault was as famed for his aggression and his single-mindedness as much as he was for his glittering palmares. While he was busy sweeping up titles and medals, his drive and his outspokenness often put him at odds with the authorities, the media and his rivals. As the last Frenchman to win the Tour de France, one might assume that his reputation in his homeland stands somewhere between that of Joan of Arc and Napoleon. But it’s not the case.
"One journalist I spoke to in France said that Hinault’s reputation is mixed over there," says Moore. "He was very popular at the beginning of his career and towards the end, but his public image suffered in the middle years. He had a difficult relationship with the press, and that relationship reached its nadir when he pulled out of the 1980 Tour while leading the race and didn’t tell them. This made them look foolish, and as a result their reporting on him became less sympathetic.
"His reputation has improved as the French Famine, in terms of Tour winners, has gone on, but his accessibility in recent years has possibly stripped back some of the aura and mystique surrounding him. You can’t imagine Merckx or Armstrong greeting stage winners and handing out medals on the podium at the Tour. It’s a role that some people say is beneath him and his achievements, and I am inclined to agree."
But it’s better to remember Hinault on the road, back in the prime of his career. There were so many highlights, but three really stand out: his imperious win in the snow at the 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege; his commanding wire-to-wire victory on one of the toughest courses ever devised at the 1980 World Championships in Sallanches, where hardly any riders finished; and his final Tour win in 1985, where victory was achieved despite a bad crash.
"For me that final Tour win in 1985 sums Hinault up, really," says Moore. "He got a lot of help from Greg LeMond but seeing him battling and fighting during that final week with two black eyes and a broken nose was heroic stuff. It was Hinault through and through - courage, talent and stubbornness."
A year later Hinault kept his promise by helping LeMond to win the Tour, though his exact role in delivering LeMond to the finish line, and his perceived reticence in fulfilling that promise, has been the subject of much scrutiny and controversy. Bernard Hinault retired shortly afterwards, at the very top of his profession and at the relatively young age of 32. Secure in his position as one of the best ever. Or maybe the best.