Book review: Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling

BERNARD HINAULT was one of the greatest cyclists of all time and is the last Frenchman to have won the Tour de France.

Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling

William Fotheringham

Yellow Jersey Press, €22.99; Paperback, €19.99

This year marks the 30th anniversary of his fifth and final win at the world’s toughest cycling race and he’s one of only four riders to have won the Tour five times.

But his prowess as a rider extended far beyond that, both during his glittering career and into retirement, and this book, Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling by award-winning journalist William Fotheringham charts the rise, fall and rise of not just his subject but the sport.

The fall, eluded to in the last reference, is not so much about Hinault himself but more so cycling in France in general and why a nation that calls itself the spiritual heartland of the sport has failed to produce another rider like the Badger from Brittany.

Part of the reason, though it’s not explored as well as Fotheringham is capable of doing, is the peloton à deux vitesses, a not-so-veiled reference to the fact many riders that succeeded the Hinault era were racing in an EPO-charged peloton.

That quibble aside, Fotheringham tells you most of what you want to know about Hinault, stories of the men who helped shape him — his first real coach, Robert le Roux; Cyrille Guimard, the directeur sportif with whom he worked to craft his greatest victories; and the man who helped him re-invent himself after his divorce from Guimard, Paul Köchli.

Some of the stories recounted by the author are old hat at this stage, such as in the 1984 edition of Paris-Nice when the road was blocked by strikers from a nearby dockyard.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Le Blaireau (The Badger) as he was often known because of his frightening style when cornered, slammed head-on into the assembled mass, taking his fair share of thumps and receiving a broken rib for his troubles.

That was Hinault, always willing to attack, no matter how unlikely the odds. It was what endeared him to fans and followers and his line ‘as long as I breathe, I attack’ is an attitude that won him many a race and a follower.

He was shy at times, ebullient others. And only Hinault would have said the following: “You are like a soldier, a general who dominates, who imposes his will on the others. I believe that you are born like that. Some are born to be workers, others to be in charge. I could have been a warlord. I would have waged war to win castles and land if I’d been born in the Middle Ages. Or I could have been an admiral.”

Hinault was not one for ducking the challenge of conquering ‘one of cycling’s great institutions’, whatever his views of the event.

He never disappeared from the sport, even after retirement — and this is another area where the author deserves credit as the transition from rider to working man is well-documented.

In recent times, Hinault works for race organiser ASO and in his role there he’s effectively a ‘podium bouncer’, ensuring etiquette is followed and tradition adhered to. Interlopers have occasionally made it onto recent Tour de France podiums, but any podium crasher first has to come through Hinault, a fairly frightening proposition.

Since Hinault retired the French have been searching for a rider capable of matching his achievements. Hinault is probably the best ever French cyclist. With two home riders on the podium of le Tour last year there are signs that French cycling is reclaiming its place — but while France may one day find a new champion, there will never be another Hinault’.


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