“In the midst of competition, Hinault attempted to snatch victory like a furious, clawing rodent… he acted not only for himself but for a nation horrified that its great race might be hijacked by an American outlaw.” Rolling Stone, 1986
The stench was overpowering: a rotten, putrid smell, so bad that several riders looked around, their faces screwing up as though they were sucking on lemons. Glancing back, they saw Greg LeMond, fourth in line, being led up to the peloton—the main pack of riders—by a string of his La Vie Claire teammates.
Up the outside the four-man train continued, the three worker bees escorting their stricken leader back to the front, where, as one of the favorites, LeMond needed to be. But at least one rider, sitting towards the rear of the peloton, saw the brown liquid streaking the insides of the American’s legs, running into his shoes.
It was a bad peach, LeMond reckoned. After eating it, his stomach reacted violently. He turned to a teammate: “Pass me your hat.”
“What do you want my hat for?”
“Please, just pass me the goddamn hat!”
Taking the small cotton team cap, LeMond shoved it down his shorts, maneuvered it into position, and filled it until it was overflowing. He tried to clean himself up, but it was hopeless; then he tossed the hat into the hedgerow, and began the grim task of getting back into the race, slotting in behind the three teammates who’d dropped back from the peloton to wait for him.
With his stomach churning, LeMond had 60km of the stage to endure: more than an hour of agony, every second of it spent craving the isolation and privacy of a toilet. As the two hundred riders swarmed across the line in Futuroscope, most eased up, dropped a foot to the road, straddled their bike and reached for a drinking bottle. LeMond didn’t. He weaved urgently through all the bodies, the riders, soigneurs and reporters, searching for his team’s motorhome. He’d never been in it before—it was used mainly for storage—but he knew it had a toilet.
Entering the motorhome LeMond found it packed with boxes, but, tiptoeing awkwardly in his cleated cycling shoes, he negotiated a passage and ripped open the cubicle door. The toilet was gone. Where it had been, there were more boxes. LeMond was desperate. He tore off the lid of the largest box, inside which were thousands upon thousands of postcards. Staring up at him, on each of these cards, was the smiling, handsome face of his teammate, Bernard Hinault. But LeMond didn’t hesitate: he yanked at them, pulling out bundles of cards to create a borehole in the middle. Then he dropped his shorts, sat down and found glorious relief amid—and upon—approximately 40,000 depictions of the great Frenchman.
The common perception is that Greg LeMond was crapped upon by Bernard Hinault at the 1986 Tour de France. What most don’t know is that LeMond got there first.
It is twenty-five years since Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault acted out arguably the most famous of Tour de France scenes, appearing together at the summit of Alpe d’Huez. So often the race’s decisive mountain, on this occasion Alpe d’Huez—a snaking, 14.5km, 21-hairpinned climb that transforms into an amphitheater for the Tour de France—witnessed something that seemed less than dramatic, but which, in a different way, for a different reason, and for the hundreds of thousands who, according to one writer, formed a “squalid, manic shambles’ by the roadside, was no less sensational.
LeMond and Hinault, though teammates in the powerful La Vie Claire squad, had fought each other for two weeks. Because they were teammates, their rivalry was as unusual as it was intense. But there were other explanations for the fact that it was so utterly compelling. For one, it pitted cycling’s “old world,” as represented by the Frenchman Hinault, against the “new,” represented by the American LeMond. It saw a clash of radically different cultures, and also of opposing personalities. Hinault, nicknamed “the Badger,” was aggressive, surly and fearless; LeMond was friendly, open and vulnerable. In football they talk about “men against boys;” Hinault versus LeMond appeared to be man against boy.
After opening skirmishes on the flat roads of northern and western France in week one of the 1986 Tour, Hinault and LeMond waged all-out war in the Pyrenees in week two. The denouement would come in week three in the Alps. It was here that the LeMond–Hinault duel would be settled, where the battle would be decided.
LeMond and Hinault arrived together at the base of Alpe d’Huez. They had blown everyone else away. LeMond wore the yellow jersey of race leader for the first time in his career, having wrested it from Hinault’s shoulders as the Frenchman suffered with a leg injury on the previous day’s stage. Recriminations followed in the hours after that stage, and carried on well into the night. LeMond and Hinault “were at each other’s throats,” according to their team’s owner, the flamboyant Bernard Tapie, who claimed to have convened crisis talks with the pair until four in the morning.
And so it has come down to this day, to this climb. Yet now, as they begin the climb to Alpe d’Huez, there is no visible evidence of their enmity. On the contrary, they appear united. The impression is confirmed as they proceed up in tandem, riding through throngs of supporters, the majority of whom are French and cheering their hero, Hinault, urging him to a record sixth Tour victory. It is as though they don’t even see LeMond. They spill into the road, clearing at the last second to leave only a narrow, handlebar-wide passage for the two riders. All the time, Hinault leads and LeMond follows. It seems a truce has been called. For hairpin after hairpin, the order doesn’t alter. Neither does the steady pace; theirs is one of the slowest “winning” ascents of Alpe d’Huez in Tour history. Hinault is at the front, pedaling like a metronome; LeMond just behind him, as though the American is hiding in the Frenchman’s shadow. Perhaps he is.
And then, through the village at the top, where the road levels, LeMond finally emerges from Hinault’s shadow, not to launch an attack within sight of the finish line, but to pull alongside his teammate. He reaches out towards Hinault and pats his back. Hinault turns and smiles. There is tenderness between them now. They speak. They both smile. They exchange a few more words. They clasp their hands in the air, and then LeMond eases off, and seems almost to push Hinault forward, so he can claim the stage win.
On Dutch TV, the commentator is in raptures: “What a gesture! What a gesture! Fantastic! This is fantastic! LeMond putting his arm on that shoulder! That smile! Oh, how beautiful this is. How beautiful sport can be. Oh! How splendid this is! It’s fantastic to be seeing this…. Oh! It’s magnificent!”
For many of those watching it was indeed a moment of such beauty and poignancy that it seemed to transcend sport. Indeed, it didn’t seem fanciful to imagine that what we had just witnessed at the top of Alpe d’Huez might come to be recognized alongside other transcendental sporting moments: Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics; Ali and Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle in 1974; Borg and McEnroe’s 1980 final at Wimbledon.
Yet the background and aftermath to LeMond and Hinault’s all-smiles, hand-in-hand finish at Alpe d’Huez means that, for others, it belongs in a different category, alongside less glorious, though no less memorable, sporting moments: Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear during their world title fight in 1997; Ben Johnson’s drug-fuelled victory over Carl Lewis at the 1988 Olympics; Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup.
LeMond and Hinault were teammates, perhaps even friends, who became bitter rivals in the course of that Tour. Their battle was fascinating, for what it revealed of each of them, for what it told us about the sport and the unique event that is the Tour de France. And for many of us in the so-called “new world”—at least where the sport of cycling was concerned—it provided a first, bewildering introduction to a sport that obviously glorified individuals, yet was organized along team lines, with odd unwritten rules and etiquette, and a rigid hierarchy.
In Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault the 1986 Tour had two protagonists who were compelling, and who would also go down in history as two of the most influential riders the sport has ever known. Hinault, as well as being a formidable champion, was, in effect, the riders’ trade union leader who helped revolutionize their “working” conditions; LeMond, the American free marketeer, revolutionized riders’ pay. He was a pioneer and a revolutionary in another sense, too. No cyclist from an English-speaking nation had won the Tour de France before 1986; at the time of this writing, ten of the twenty-four Tours held since then have been claimed by native English speakers; and the USA has jumped to fourth in the league of nations who have supplied Tour winners, one ahead of one of cycling’s traditional powerhouses, Italy.
But the statistics—even the sense that LeMond was making history—fail to explain why I and so many others watched the 1986 Tour with such rapt attention. What captured my imagination was the drama. The intrigue. The subterfuge. Over three weeks, it became a story with more credulity-stretching plot twists than a dime-store detective novel.
As an introduction to the sport, the 1986 Tour was, in short, mind blowing. Julys would never be the same again.
And it was, even allowing for the inevitably rose-tinted hue of my spectacles, a golden period. Watching Hinault at his best, we were able to witness the final bow of one of the all-time greats. Hinault, or Le Blaireau—the Badger—was a proud, stubborn, aggressive Breton whose permanent scowl couldn’t detract from his handsome dark looks. The origins of the “Badger” nickname are disputed; its suitability is not, since badgers are ferocious fighters, especially when backed into a corner or when they have their prey within their sights. When Hinault was on the attack—as he was a lot in the 1986 Tour, much to LeMond’s irritation—his piercing eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched as though he was gripping something in his teeth, like a snarling dog refusing to give up a bone. It had the effect of making him look permanently angry, capable of great violence, and not someone to mess with.
LeMond, meanwhile, was the polar opposite: a blond-haired, blue-eyed Californian, as likeable and fragile as Hinault was gruff, tough and self-assured. LeMond was a prodigy, but he had to be to defy the odds, and a century of tradition, in becoming the first American to scale the heights of this resolutely European sport. Along the way, he openly questioned conventions, bucked tradition and acted as a refreshing breath of Californian air through the peloton. He ate Mexican food and ice cream; he played golf when his teammates were resting. Yet with LeMond you didn’t feel he was being different for effect, or that there was anything affected about him; he was just being himself. Though he could appear vulnerable and even endearingly naive at times, it must, paradoxically, have taken a steely kind of confidence to be himself in a world that was not his own, that was so far removed from his own. It left you wondering: Where did it come from? But it helped enormously that LeMond was, physiologically speaking, something of a freak, the kind of physical specimen that comes along once in a generation.
Hinault and LeMond lined up for the 1986 Tour as teammates, having reached an understanding. With LeMond having acted the loyal teammate to Hinault in 1985, it was Hinault’s turn to repay the favor in 1986. That was the deal, even if it meant Hinault, the great French hero, would thereby squander the opportunity to go for a sixth Tour—a record that would have taken him past Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, the other two five-time winners, in the history books. The question, as the Tour approached, and more particularly as it got underway, was whether he would be willing to honor the deal.
In the background to the Hinault–LeMond duel was a colorful cast of characters. Bernard Tapie was the La Vie Claire team owner, a man who would later earn notoriety for his role, as president of Marseille Football Club, in a match-fixing scandal that led to his imprisonment. Cycling was Tapie’s first involvement in sport, and he brought glamour and ambition allied to hard-headed business and commercial sense, as well as—in large doses—a sense of showbiz and a charismatic presence such as the sport had rarely seen.
Then there was a man who was in many respects Tapie’s opposite, Paul Köchli. Tapie owned the La Vie Claire team, but Köchli was the svengali-like figure who was its directeur sportif—its director in charge of the entire program. And, further in the background, there was Cyrille Guimard, the early mentor to both Hinault and LeMond as well as so many other great names of the 1980s—Jean-François Bernard, Laurent Fignon, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer, Urs Zimmermann, Stephen Roche, Pedro Delgado, Luis Herrera… the list goes on. Almost forgotten, there was another significant subplot to the 1986 Tour: The debut of an American team, 7-Eleven, a development arguably more influential than LeMond’s win in sowing the seeds for the future domination of riders and teams from across the Atlantic.
When I discussed this book with Samuel Abt, the now semi-retired American journalist for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times and veteran of more than thirty Tours, he contested the assertion that the interviews I conducted, and the contemporaneous reports I pored over, constituted “research.” “Really,” said Abt, “it’s archaeology.”
As Abt suggested, the sport has changed so much in the past twenty-five years that it is almost unrecognizable. And yet many of those changes have their roots in this period, if not specifically in that 1986 Tour.
Still, though, it was the human dimension to the story of the ’86 Tour that most interested me—of course it was. In Hinault and LeMond the two stars of the race were utterly fascinating, as they still are today. And while their names remain inexorably linked to the sport that made them famous, their legacies are quite different—and surprising. Who would have predicted in 1986 that the stubborn, aggressive Hinault would end up becoming part of the establishment? And that the affable and engaging LeMond would end up being perceived by many as a troublemaker, even a thorn in the sport’s flesh?
The motivation for this book was to replay a Tour that, for me, encapsulated all that is so beguiling about the sport, and in the process seek to establish what happened—to separate the truth from the lies and duplicity, a difficulty in a sport of multiple “truths.” To do that it is necessary to fill in the background, and so the first two-thirds of this book are taken up with the stories of the two principal characters, as well as the Tours, people and events that all, in some way or another, act as an extended prelude to 1986.
Another, perhaps equally important, motivation was to revisit Hinault and LeMond, in the process reassessing these two giants of the sport: their impact then, their legacy today. But as well as revisiting these great riders and their legacies in a figurative sense, I wanted to visit them in a literal sense, too. These interviews form the basis of the book. And my visits to each of their homes proved revealing, thrilling, slightly intimidating—and inevitably rather poignant.
And so it seems only right that the story should begin with them.
The Badger’s Set, Brittany, December 2009
In a cheap and uncheerful hotel, one of three adjacent to the railway station in the Breton town of Dinan, the welcome is as warm as this coldest December day in years. It’s mid-afternoon; three bored-looking men sit nursing long glasses of beer, glancing in my direction, though not really at me, as I walk uncertainly towards the bar, while the patron, polishing glasses, conspicuously fails to meet an inquiring gaze. So I try speaking. “Ahem… Avez-vous une chambre, s’il vous plait?”
“Mmmm.” The response is grumbled. I can’t even be sure that it’s directed at me; Monsieur Patron hasn’t lifted his gaze from his glasses. But I linger. Apart from anything else, it’s absolutely baltic outside.
In the last 24 hours a freeze has abruptly descended on the whole of Europe, and here in the northwest corner of France the cold claws of the Atlantic are particularly sharp. Even if you don’t see the ocean, you feel its proximity; you can almost taste the spray. Brittany, on the edge of the continent, juts into the sea and receives the worst ravages of its weather. But they’re used to it, take it in their stride, in some respects define themselves by it. Bretons are famously tough, hardy, stoic. “The wind and the rain forge strong cyclists—those who succeed here are really strong in the head,” as the region’s most famous cyclist, and the man I’m here to see, Bernard Hinault, once said.
The patron finishes polishing, wipes his hands on a towel, and wanders out from behind the bar. The briefest of glances in my direction signals that I should follow him. We file through a door that leads out of the bar and, at the foot of a staircase, there’s a chest-height desk: reception. He positions himself behind it; I stand in front. He pulls out a book, licks a finger, leafs through a few pages. “Une nuit?” “Oui.” I hand over my passport. “Voila.” A key is presented; the book is closed; still no eye contact. “Oh,” I say, “tomorrow, I need a taxi to a village near here. How far is it to Calorguen?”
“Twenty minutes,” mumbles Monsieur Patron. Then finally he looks up. “Calorguen?”
“Yes.” And then I lob in the conversational grenade, feeling myself stand a little taller: “I’m going to the home of Bernard Hinault.”
“Ha ha! Ha ha! Chez Bernard Hinault? Oui, oui. Ha ha,” he chuckles, shaking his head. The atmosphere has changed. “Chez Hinault.” Then he actually smiles. “Le Blaireau!”
Next morning it’s even colder, the kind of coldness that cuts through you like a blade. The taxi heads out of Dinan, through fields coated in a dusting of frost and ice. There’s not a breath of wind; the smoke rises from one chimney in a dead-straight line. The roads are empty; the journey is quick, much quicker than predicted by Monsieur Patron. Which presents a problem. I’m expected at 10 a.m. At 9.35 we reach the smattering of buildings and houses that comprise the village of Calorguen, and by 9:37 we are heading out the other side, turning sharply left, along a narrower road, and then slowing as we turn right into an even narrower one, a private drive with a sign, spelling out as much, at the beginning. It’s a thin ribbon of tarmac through the fields, a quarter-mile long, and with a cluster of buildings at the end: a broad, two-story house, barns and outhouses containing, among abandoned machinery, a Massey Ferguson tractor and a Skoda car. The yard is neat, ordered and very clean for a farm.
At 9:43 a.m. I am standing, freezing, facing the farmhouse. The silence is absolute. It seems to be too cold even for birds. So, this is the Badger’s sett; like him, it seems handsome, proud and self-contained. It also seems a bit early to appear at his door, but the alternatives are limited. In fact, there is only one alternative, but the consequences of being caught snooping around by the Badger don’t really bear thinking about. Ringing the doorbell early seems preferable. I look up at the house, and at that moment, in a small window on the second floor, a face appears. It’s him: the Badger.
He answers the door wearing black thin-rimmed glasses, which give him an incongruously studious appearance. He is wearing a pale blue Lacoste sweater, indigo blue jeans, and running shoes. He is short and stocky, with thick dark eyebrows, but the overwhelming impression is of familiarity; his face remains almost spookily recognizable from all those pictures in his heyday of the snarling, aggressive bike rider. Hinault’s dark brown hair might be thinning, slightly, but his eyes—not blue, as they’ve been described, but darker—are as penetrating as ever. In those old photos, it was his jaw, really, that defined him; it seemed always to be clenched, as though he was gripping something with his teeth. Now fifty-five, he still looks serious, stern, as though he means business, but his jaw is relaxed. Hinault extends a large hand, gripping mine firmly. And although eye contact is fleeting, he is welcoming.
Which is the first surprise, since I’d been told by a journalist friend not to expect a warm welcome from Le Blaireau. “I did an interview with him in his house in 1985,” my friend had told me. “His wife was there. My wife took the pictures. We were there for at least a couple of hours. He never offered us a coffee. My wife said afterwards, ‘He didn’t even offer us a glass of water.’ I said, ‘I think in his world there are no social graces.’ That is just the kind of guy he is. Coarse.”
Hinault shows me in through a dark, austere hall and into a vast yet homely kitchen, divided in two by a worktop. In the dining area he invites me to sit down at a long banquet-style table, surrounded by ten seats. It seems to be the kind of house where there are few distractions or sources of entertainment. Certainly no radio, television, books, magazines or newspapers are in evidence. There is no sign, either, of Hinault’s wife, Martine, the mayor of Calorguen. It is deathly quiet, the only sound that of a clock ticking.
Hinault takes off his glasses and places them on the table, then disappears into the kitchen and returns brandishing a large white plastic coffee pot. “Café?” he asks, and then sits down, rolls up his sleeves an inch, and taps his fingers a little impatiently on the table.
LeMond Towers, Minnesota, April 2010
“In ten minutes we’ll be arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul,” says the pilot as my US Airways flight passes over what looks from the air like pan-flat ground dotted with hundreds of grey blobs of water. Actually, thousands; not for nothing is Minnesota known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” But the first surprise is that, from here, I can’t see any golf courses.
Beth meets me at the entrance to the airport with an enthusiastic “Hey!” a warm embrace, and a dazzling white smile. “Listen, this works very well,” says the forty-something blond woman with arguably one of the most challenging jobs in world sport: personal assistant to Greg LeMond. She is alluding to my later-than-expected arrival, after a delayed flight. “Greg prefers the afternoons and evenings. He’s a real night owl,” she smiles warmly. Indeed, she exudes warmth, radiates it, as she continues. “I get emails and texts from him sent at all times of the night; that’s when he gets his work done.”
Emails and texts? From Greg LeMond? “Greg’s probably the most difficult person I know to get hold of,” Steve Bauer, a former teammate, had told me with laconic understatement—and don’t I know it. I had been trying for the best part of nine months to fix up this interview. Bauer was not exaggerating: Greg LeMond is—almost certainly—the most difficult person in the world to contact and then to pin down. There were times when I wished that, instead of LeMond, the subject of my book had been someone easier to get hold of. Someone like Osama Bin Laden, say.
I had encountered LeMond on two previous occasions, once at a conference in England, when, with two other journalists and his wife, Kathy, we adjourned to a café, and LeMond ordered coffee. And then changed his mind to beer. And then back again to coffee. And then, finally, to tea. Then, for two hours, he talked (there were, perhaps, three questions), recalling in the most vivid and fascinating detail one of his three Tour de France victories. But not, alas, the one I wanted to talk to him about. Eventually, Kathy, who’d been sitting reading a book in a corner, gently reminded her husband of thirty years that they had another appointment. Still, it took thirty minutes for LeMond to finish his meandering—but never less than engrossing—narrative; and another fifteen for him to negotiate the short distance from his table to the door, a journey punctuated by friendly exchanges to another customer, then with the staff. “The tea was great!” he told them enthusiastically, as Kathy grabbed his arm and almost literally dragged him outside.
The second meeting was even more bizarre. While I was standing by the Tom Simpson memorial monument, close to the summit of Mont Ventoux, awaiting the dénouement to the 2009 Tour de France, a figure appeared over the brow of the hill, negotiating the loose scree of a white hillside that looks like the surface of the moon. Behind this figure—initially in silhouette on account of the dazzling sunshine—a two-person TV crew followed, with even greater difficulty over the uneven surface. As they loomed closer, the figure in front grew more familiar. It was LeMond. At the memorial he was introduced to Joanne Simpson, Tom’s daughter, and the pair chatted for twenty minutes. This time, it was the TV crew who dragged him away, anxious to get off the mountain before the riders appeared, and those of us standing by the Simpson memorial were left scratching our heads, wondering if that really had been Greg LeMond.
Beth drives me past the country’s largest shopping mall and then turns off the freeway to head into deepest Minnesota. It’s just thirty minutes outside Minneapolis, yet appears to be a wilderness of lush woodland, dense forests, lakes, and small, ranch-style villages that almost resemble Alpine ski towns in their concentration of thick, dark, weathered wood. Not that this should be a surprise; though today is warm and spring-like, the climate in winter is harsh, with deep snow and temperatures that dip well below freezing. Other than Alaska, it is America’s northernmost state. It seems strange that LeMond, a Californian by birth, should live here.
When we pull into the LeMonds’ drive I can see why he lives in this house, though. A gardener waves as we crawl through immaculately tended grounds, towards a red-brick mansion, in front of which is a circular, elevated flower garden, which looks like a fountain but is actually a mini roundabout. “They’ve got forty acres,” says Beth approvingly. Garages to the side of the house are the size of medium-sized family homes. A tennis court is situated directly behind.
Beth leads me straight through the front door—yelling “Kathy? Greg?”—past a grand central staircase, into the vast kitchen, towards another huge dining table, this one, unlike Bernard Hinault’s, round—easier for conversation.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii,” says Kathy LeMond, appearing suddenly and whirlwind-like in the kitchen, with four small, yapping dogs at her heels. “Greg’s in the shower—he’s been for a bike ride.”
“I’m jealous,” I say.
“You want a shower?” she asks.
“No, sorry, I meant jealous of the bike ride.”
“You want a bike ride? We have loads of bikes in the garage. We could find you one!”
When LeMond appears, the impression is not dissimilar to the entrance of the puppies. Thicker set than he was twenty-five years ago, with greying hair but the same sparkling blue eyes, he arrives like a hurricane and slides across the kitchen floor. He’s wearing a loose-fitting black T-shirt, and he’s still sweating a little from his bike ride; he mops his brow, puts on his socks as he moves, smiles warmly, says “Hey,” extends a meaty hand (Hinault has big hands; LeMond has huge hands), still pulling on the socks while at the same time starting to say something, before starting to say something else, and then he’s sitting in front of me, and—shit, oh no—he’s launching into a discussion of Bernard Hinault’s (lack of) tactical ability, and how he would have fared in today’s racing, when each rider is wired up by radio to his directeur. . . .
“Mind if I turn this on?” I try to interrupt, holding my recorder. But I don’t think he hears me.
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