Tour de France 21 Stories: Bernard Hinault, Rainbow Warrior

In 1980, Bernard Hinault was the boss. He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in mythic style, riding through bitter cold and snow, arriving nine minutes and twenty-four seconds ahead of nearest rivals Hennie Kuiper and Ronny Claes. Only 21 riders finished out of the 174 who started.

A few weeks later, he won the Tour of Romandie. In early June, in a show of total force, as if the Italian opposition and raging tifosi didn’t exist, he won the Giro. Then, during a cold and rainy Tour de France, struggling with tendonitis in one knee, he abandoned on stage 12 in Pau, while wearing the yellow jersey. Hounded by the media, he sought refuge with his friend and loyal team-mate, Hubert Arbes, in nearby Lourdes.

The next important event on the calendar was the World Championships at the end of August, on home turf in Sallanches. It was one of the few trophies still absent from his display cabinet.

In five years of racing, he’d clocked victories in all three Grand Tours, not to mention the Dauphiné Libéré, the Giro di Lombardia, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Gent-Wevelgem and the French national championships.

But had Hinault sufficiently recovered from his knee injury? Would he be able to live up to everyone’s expectations?

Hinault later described the 20-lap, 260-kilometre course as, “the hardest route ever used in a World Championship.” It featured the Côte de Domancy (which comes about four kilometres into today’s stage) whose gradient over three and a half kilometres fluctuates between 8% and 10%, with sections at 15%.

“It’s normal that the course was hard,” explains Cyrille Guimard, the legendary directeur sportif over the phone during this Tour’s second rest day.

Guimard was Hinault’s boss at Renault-Gitane-Campagnolo, and the architect not only of Hinault’s five Tour victories, but also those of Lucien Van Impe, Laurent Fignon and, almost, Greg LeMond (if he hadn’t been working for Hinault.) You can hear him commentating on this year’s Tour on BFM TV and RMC radio in France.

“If you have a course that’s too easy, then, depending upon the circumstances, there are lots of riders who could win. If you have a route that’s difficult then you’re down to ten or so riders, and it’s the strongest who wins.”

“Since it was France that was organising the race, we presented a beautiful route. You could say it was a course designed so that he had the maximum chance of winning.”

“Why do people remember that race? Because around 80 kilometres from the finish, Hinault started to make it harder. On every lap he hit the climb very fast at the head of the peloton.

“The first time he dropped 50 riders. On the following lap there were 25 still with him. By the next, there were eight. Then there was just one. He did the whole of the final section like that.

“There was only [Gianbattista] Baronchelli still with him, and on the final climb Hinault attacked again and went off on his own. So if you like, he was the motor—” Guimard catches himself, “ah, that’s not a term you can use anymore!” and bursts into peals of laughter.

“Let’s say he gave the race its identity. He was the one who made the difference, who made the race hard, who eliminated all his rivals. There was no contest.”

“For seven or eight years, he was the strongest rider in the peloton. He didn’t do every race full throttle, but on the days he wanted to win, the days when he was well trained and totally motivated, there was no one who could beat Bernard Hinault.”

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