It was a cycling team where talent gathered in massed ranks and raced in a jersey that has become synonymous with an era.
La Vie Claire is as well remembered for its Mondrian-inspired maillot as its formidable squad, headed by Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, the latter brought in on a seven-figure contract by flamboyant team owner Bernard Tapie.
The supporting cast included Jean-François Bernard, Steve Bauer and Andy Hampsten, and the team was directed by the esoteric Paul Köchli, described by Richard Moore in his excellent book, Slaying The Badger, as a visionary.
Indeed, it is the subject of Moore’s book – the explosion of LeMond and Hinault’s intense rivalry at the 1986 Tour de France – for which La Vie Claire is best remembered, despite the Frenchman’s victory in the same race – and jersey – a year earlier.
Few moments in sport, never mind cycling, make explicit the complexity of inter-team rivalry more clearly than LeMond and Hinault’s side-by-side ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez on stage 18 of the 1986 Tour, which ended with LeMond, in yellow, gifting the stage to Hinault, before the Frenchman declared in a post-stage television interview that there would be no truce until Paris.
Dorset is a long way from the French Alps, and nearly 20 years have elapsed since LeMond and Hinault waged their titanic battle, but in the warehouse of clothing specialists Prendas Ciclismo, artefacts from one of cycling’s greatest teams abound.
“It’s one of the few jerseys where the inside is more interesting than the outside,” Andy Storey reflects, examining an original, woollen La Vie Claire team jersey from Santini.
He counts the panels (11 in total) and their accompanying seams. Its production is dated by modern standards, in which the seamless garment is king, and its 50/50, wool/acrylic mix is now rarely used. But the exterior remains defiantly modern, a tribute to Piet Mondrian as much as to Tapie or Santini.
The design was adorned with the name of a host of sub-sponsors during its six-year presence in the peloton, between 1984 and 1989, many of which were businesses also owned by Tapie, including battery company Wonder (producers also of the once-ubiquitous bike light). For the American Coors Classic race, the jersey was adorned with logos for Zinger and Celestial Seasonings, but in Europe, the sponsors were those with a global or solely European presence.
The Prendas collection also includes items of leisurewear, knitted like the jerseys, for the team, or, more likely for Köchli, Tapie and company to wear at the hotel or around the race. Here, the sub-sponsor is Terraillon, identified by Prendas founder Mick Tarrant as, “someone, somewhere, doing something”. The reality is still more mundane: they are a supplier of a household goods.
Tarrant bought the La Vie Claire team kit from Santini in the early 2000s, in a consignment he describes as a “wool archive”, and which also included clothing for the Del Tongo and Le Groupement squads. The La Vie Claire kit might be considered the pick of the bunch, however, with the time-trial skinsuit – immortalised in victory by Bernard on the slopes of the Ventoux at the 1987 Tour – the veritable jewel in the crown.
The jerseys remained boxed, as they had been for 20 years or more at Santini, until Prendas moved to a new unit in January 2008. Surprisingly, given the current vogue for all things retro, especially from the 1980s, the public at large were in no hurry to get their hands on them. Storey recalls that the jerseys – “very long and very narrow” – were hard to shift, and that, ultimately, many were sold on eBay.
By 1988, the team had been renamed Toshiba, Hinault had retired, LeMond had joined PDM, and Hampsten won the Giro for 7-Eleven. Despite the presence of a young Dane called Bjarne Riis and the gloriously named Pierangelo Bincoletto and Remig Stumpf (we’ll leave you to identify which one is Italian and German), the team had become a decidedly more Francophone affair: 16 of the 22-man squad signed for 1988 came from L’Hexagone, including Luc Leblanc and the Madiot brothers.
Two years later, Mondrian’s exquisite geometric design had been supplanted by an abhorrence, Tapie had left, and all but four members of a reduced, 16-man squad were French (Laurent Jalabert was among the new cohort).
Toshiba’s decision to replace high art with a design that Tarrant describes as bearing “all the hallmarks of distraction camouflage” is baffling. Unlike La Vie Claire’s Mondrian-inspired design, Toshiba’s livid collection of stripes and conflicting colour blocks has not improved with age, in the eyes of many.
Storey, however, disagrees. “At the time, I wasn’t that keen – it was in the clearance basket [at the shop where Storey worked as a teenager], so we weren’t alone in thinking it wasn’t that great – but it doesn’t look too bad now. The problem was they went from the Mondrian design, which was so iconic that anything would have looked bad by comparison,” he says.
A deal with Prendas means that Santini again make the La Vie Claire kit, but in a contemporary polyester. The design is the favourite of Pietro Santini, according to Storey, even if an early polyester jersey did not find favour with Hinault, if legend is to be believed.
With the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Tour fast approaching, Prendas can expect sales of the replica kit to be brisk. The team kit, however, is likely to remain among the jewels of their impressive collection.
With thanks to Prendas Ciclismo.