Man Racer

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.

Happy-go-lucky Bernard at Paris-Nice

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.

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20 comments

  1. Alex

    It´s not uncommon for overachieving, high-caliber winners like Hinault or (your fave CEO here) to act like a bulldozer, ignoring whatever obstacle on their way to… to wherever they want to get to.

    These guys must have the FW of their brains with some social traits simply non functional. Thus, they don´t mind doing ANYTHING to get what they want, when they want and the way they want. To them, the end always justify the means – so as long as they´re winning, “whatever”: it´ll settle by itself. And if it dont, then whataver too! (lol)

    Since life´s more complicated than that and the process of achieving anything usually involves other people one way or another, the above means they´ll screw, look down, put down, let down, bully, fight, ignore and/or criticize (and ignore criticism from ) anyone who is believed to be in their way – and not uncommon, even oens who might be aligned with their ideas!

  2. Lachlan

    Spot on. I’d go even further – fears not a part of it, its the dominant force – I heard once the insight on champions motivation but thus:- its not that they “have to win” or have a greater desire to win than others, rather it is that they have an abnormally high fear of losing.

  3. Champs

    Fear doesn’t have to be the motivator. Does Cancellara go into a 50k ITT with doubts that he can win? Cavendish can see a flat stage profile and know that there’s no getting around his high speed and low position.

  4. Jim

    >>>Does winning things make you arrogant, or is it arrogance that makes the champion in the first place?

    Bartali was a great champion too. I’m unaware of him ever being considered arrogant.

  5. Janet D.

    It’s not bragging if you can back it up. To date, Cav has, yet my wallet will not tend to his ego. I’ll be reading his little book from the chairs at Barnes & Nobel.

  6. mrg

    the documentary Tyson (the boxer) is recommended for it’s insight in to motives.

    frankly, i’d rather read the super Mario biography. Cred, style, ego and sex appeal. Does it exist today?

  7. travis

    Very good essay and question to raise. I was thinking of an example of someone who might have the aspects of arrogance and dominance that didn’t bug me so much and I think it would be Cippolini for me. He seemed to hate to lose but always had some class and penache. I feel that Cav lacks that grace and is no where near as suave as the Lion King was.

  8. Touriste-Routier

    Sprinters are somewhat mercenaries, so it should be no surprise that their personalities are more edgy. There is a whole lot more than a flat profile that determines victory, and there is a lot of pressure for them to win on a day-to-day basis, thus confidence is married to uncertainty. Contrast this with a GC rider; while they too have pressure to win, tomorrow is another day where mistakes can be rectified.

    Doubt can be self-doubt or just acknowledging not being in control of the variables. However it can be outwardly presented in several ways. In general, the “nice-guy” sprinters (Benati)seem to be less successful than the ego-centric (Abdu, Cipo, Cav).

    Love it or hate it, one interesting thing about Cav is that he isn’t politically correct, which gets him in the headlines as much as his sprinting. His interviews are always more interesting & entertaining than those who are more polished and better media trained. If Columbia didn’t like it at some level, they’d find a way to gag him.

    I suspect Boy Racer will gain some humility as he gains some maturity, and as his speed wains Bernie never seemed to gain it though.

  9. MattyVT

    @Touriste-Routier- The sprinter-mercenary angle seems to be pretty true for the most part. McEwen (scrappy and cagey like Cavendish) comes off like a cocky little prick unlike some of his less abrasive counterparts like Petacchi, Boonen, Bennati or Zabel. Petacchi had the fire to win as evidenced by his broken hand after punching the team bus, but perhaps he is more an internalizer. Boonen’s problems have been well documented, but he’s also not really seen as arrogant.

    The debate about arrogance feeding success or success feeding arrogance is an interesting one. When watching Hell on Wheels you get an interesting view into Erik Zabel’s Tour experience- and he’s surprisingly human. Granted he didn’t win the Maillot Vert that year but even at his apex I can’t recall any incidents of him being considered arrogant. I’m sure another reader will correct me if I’m mistaken.

  10. Jim

    >>>Love it or hate it, one interesting thing about Cav is that he isn’t politically correct,

    Absolutely. I reject the notion of “political correctness.” It is an internalization of a censorship that a lot of pushy church lady types would impose on the rest of us. But there is a difference between being “politically incorrect” in the sense of speaking painful truths, and being “politically incorrect” in the sense of saying stupid things. Too often, Cav’s opinionating falls in the later category, to my way of thinking.

  11. Spaghetti Legs

    The book itself may be a marker of insecurity. The spotlight falls on pro cyclists in general, but especially sprinters, for a short time. I think Cav (possibly at the urging of a publicist or manager) is maximizing his income against the time when his star fades and people just aren’t that intersted in him anymore. As it stands now, when Cav stops winning races, there isn’t much story there. Probably can’t say the same for many of the other current stars in the sport.

  12. Robot

    @Jim Excellent point. There’s “truth teller” and “shit talker.” At this point, I think Cav is more of the latter as well. He comes off, a lot of the time, sounding like a boy instead of a man, which makes his book aptly named.

    I’d offer that there’s even a sort of insecurity in releasing a biography NOW, as if he might not warrant one down the line. Strike while the iron’s hot. It smacks of a lack of true confidence, if not in the sprint, then certainly in the managing of a pro career.

  13. Souleur

    The multiple personalities within a peloton at any given time is interesting to consider and ponder. The GC’r person, in this case the Badger, was for a generation a quintessential GC personality. All within and without cycling knew it. It is interesting his motive was his fear and perhaps lack of esteem. Personally, I have never considered the Badger to have a lack of esteem, but perhaps deeply seeded in the nucleus of his mind, he is. And that being said, I have within the last couple of years come to an appreciation of the Badger, what he says, how ‘its’ right and how races should be won. In many cases he is right, like him or not.

    Cav is a different animal, as are all sprinters. They do have as Touriste-Routier notes a ‘mercenary’ personna. Some are quality guys, like Zabel, but many have the quality of being a speed demon, the fastest of the fast for the closing 20m and so it goes.

    I agree that in time that tends to mellow out as Cipo did over time, he even became humbled a bit. At one time he was Lion King, but once that expectation was set, he had to deliver it every single time, and that is a tall order for anyone.

  14. Punkture

    While Cav certainly is a cocky little so and so and his antics this season (the row with Greipel especially) do sound a little bit like shit talking to cover up his fragile confidence in this (as yet) pretty unsuccesful season, I would say that the book release is certainly related to all the kerfuffle that Cav causes wherever he goes. Pros have a limited shelf life and they know it and he is successful right now so hes making his money while he can. Tommy Simpson, another (altogether more graceful) British pro released a book midway through his career in which he talks constantly about needing to make enough money to retire on on the back of any success he had.

    Fair play and more power to Cav, if his mouthy personality sells some more books, good for him, maybe he is insecure or maybe he isnt – one thing is for sure, with a bit of form, hes far and away the best sprinter out there with only Thor coming close to his rear wheel.

  15. Armchair Cyclist

    Not only does Cav have to release his autobiography at the right time, but here in Britain there has been a massive surge in ‘celebrity’ ‘auto’biographies. For a couple of Christmases not long ago, the top-selling books where such life stories from people who appeared on Big Brother and the like.

  16. jc

    Hinault was my only hero growing up (no more heros). I admired his internal strength- Greg WAS fragile. Greg WAS naive…If the Badger represents the thick, woven core of cyclings’ rope, Lemond, and now Cavendish represent the frayed end, where great potential is yet to be incorporated, adding to the continued strength of cycling. Hinault IS the tradition of cycling; the strength, the suffering, anger, honor and sportsmanship. His right to criticize was earned, not just by winning, but by the time honored traditions of the sport. Even Cipo and his ego had to earn it. Riders like Cav haven’t yet earned the right to define the sport. That’s why the peloton protested his riding at the TdS. Haussler had his head down, he contributed to the crash, but unlike Cav, he isn’t impudent.

    I contend that the arrogance is a byproduct. That poor behavior (whether defined by us ‘church lady’ types or others *wink*) is too often excused as necessary to do the job at the highest level. More often, it seems to me, that the free mouth is tolerated, even envied because ‘we’ feel restricted and contained- and they act as outlet from ‘political correctness’ or politeness (should all painful truths be spoken?). It seems to me that winners, for all their strength, are the most weak, the most fragile, and most intent on shoring up the sandy bank of their own psyche. Winning is temporary, and they know it. Until Cav starts giving his competition respect he wont achieve lasting greatness.

  17. chris

    i have read several accounts of hinault being a very generous team mate/leader/teacher. working his ass for others, being instructional and so forth. i believe there is even a video of him somehwere giving a team mate a rub down and talking about the importance of his team. i can’t think of a successful athlete in any sport w/o both arrogance and insecurity, though the manifestations of each take as many forms as there are men i guess.

  18. Sebastian

    Andy Hampsten said in an interview with CycleSport that Hinault’s main priority in that ’86 Tour was less to win than to be visibly the one in charge. He launched a series of hugely ambitious attacks that he knew would either A) win him the Tour in a way no one could question, or B) destroy him, but take La Vie Claire’s opponents down with him. Either way, he would end up appearing to be the main protagonist. And indeed scenario B is more or less what happened. Hinault over-extended himself, Herrera and Millar and Zimmerman blew themselves up chasing him, and Lemond followed wheels and chose the right moment to pounce at Superbagnères. Hinault would probably have liked to have won, but there was clearly more going on “in the mind of Badger” (one of my favorite Liggettisms of the period). As Hampsten points out, if Hinault’s sole ambition had been to win, he wouldn’t have gone on another long-range attack the day after taking the Yellow jersey in a long two-up break with Delgado. He was an aggressive man, but he also knew when to calm down and ride defense.

    I’m not sure you’d call this psychology. It’s a kind of mindset that’s not averse to helping others but does not want to appear to play second-fiddle either. Hinault became tetchy in these transfer-of-power situations; but, as Chris says above, he was also a very generous teammate when he was comfortable in his element as “patron.” As Hampsten also said in that interview, “he wasn’t a patient man, but you could learn a lot from him.”

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