Because Mark Cavendish, 25-years-old at time of writing, has just released his autobiography, “Boy Racer,” I decided to ride down to my local library and borrow their copy of “Memories of the Peloton,” Bernard Hinault’s auto-hagiography. It’s not that I’m not interested in Young Mark’s estimation and explanation of his times thus far. It’s more that I think he’s maybe jumped the gun a bit, but such is the fashion now.
Hinault “wrote” his ode to himself after he retired to his country farm. I say “wrote” because he actually seems to have rambled, nearly stream-of-consciousness style into a tape recorder and then had someone transcribe the manuscript. Even with serious restructuring by the English translator, Hinault’s account of his career is a bit, um, disjointed.
Here’s what I took away from the book, much of which you already know:
1) Le Blaireau was a bully. Even as a kid he took special delight in fist fights with students from a rival country school every afternoon on his way home.
2) He always got his way, either through intimidation or simple bloody-mindedness.
3) His motives were always, always, always beyond reproach.
4) He didn’t attack LeMond. All those times he was up the road, he was actually helping.
5) Greg LeMond is mentally unstable. Americans, generally, lack humility.
6) When he retired, he walked away happy and satisfied with what he’d done.
What I didn’t know, and might just be too-determined reading between the lines, is that, despite the enormous ego, Bernard Hinault was constantly fighting off self-doubt. In the book he casts himself often in a position of weakness, though he was, through much of the time covered, the widely acknowledged top rider in the world.
It is, perhaps, a mark only of low self-esteem that leads a rider of that caliber to feel the constant compunction to prove himself. Or maybe it is only a psychological trick that allows champions to motivate themselves to further and better accomplishment.
I have often thought the Badger, both in his racing career and in his retirement, was simply an asshole, a highly quotable and entertaining asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. And this gets to the core of much of my wonder about our more bombastic champions, whether they possess Hinault’s palmares or Cavendish’s somewhat less developed CV.
Does winning things make you arrogant, or is it arrogance that makes the champion in the first place? Is the tension between self-doubt and superior ability a recipe that breeds both winning and gracelessness at the same time? The arrogance is perhaps not a product of the championships, but rather a mechanism of them, like lactic acid in metabolism.
Even in retirement le Blaireau continues his combativeness. He is never slow to denigrate a race winner or a tactic he doesn’t approve of, and through this sort of sourness he carves out space for his continued legend. In the Hinault universe, not only did the man win all those races, BUT he also did it the right way. Infer what criticisms you will.
Clearly, Hinault and Cavendish were cast in different molds, the former a GC rider par excellence, the latter a pure sprinter. But the method behind the madness of releasing an autobiography so early in his career might be that Cavendish is the same sort of character as his French forebear. When the young Britton, also a country boy in a big city sport, says he is the fastest rider in the world, me thinks he protests too much. It’s not that he doesn’t back it up with his sprinting. It’s more that I suspect he says it out of fear that it isn’t true as much as belief that it is.
With both Hinault and Cavendish colleagues talk about the “hunger for success.” That hunger may be very real, but it invariably contains, within it, the fear of failure. Arrogance is the flip side of insecurity, isn’t it? Thus does Hinault attack LeMond. Thus does Cavendish bad mouth Greipel.
I am not going to run out and buy “Boy Racer.” There was an excerpt in the last VeloNews, and it reads much as one would expect it to. The Badger has gone. The Badger has come again. And this time he’s got bad teeth.