The story of the ’86 Tour de France has been told a thousand times. The conventional version runs like this: In ’85 Bernard Hinault was in the yellow jersey but hurting in a big way. His young teammate Greg LeMond was strong, and capable of winning the jersey for La Vie Claire. As the Badger was nearing retirement (and equaling the TdF wins of Anquetil and Merckx), Hinault asked LeMond to help him win, with the promise that he would turn around and help LeMond to the maillot jaune in ’86. A year later, le Blaireau seemed to have forgotten his promise, attacking LeMond mercilessly and forcing the young American to compete not only with the other contenders, but also with his team captain, all the way to Paris.
In this version of the story, Hinault is the big, bad wolf, and LeMond is Little Red Riding Hood. Hinault, the deceiver, and LeMond the nearly devoured.
Richard Moore’s excellent new book Slaying the Badger reexamines the mythology of this great race, attempting to shed new light on the motivations of these two great riders and what really happened on the roads of France in the summer of ’86. What helps set Moore’s book apart is the array of characters he brings to the story. La Vie Claire directeurs sportif Paul Köchli and Maurice Le Guilloux give first hand accounts, not only of the in-race dynamic, but also of the unique pressures on their two star riders. Super domestiques Andy Hampsten and Steve Bauer add anecdotal information as well, and it all combines to make a thrilling read of a story whose ending you already know.
Of course, the difficult part of telling such a tale is maintaining enough narrative tension to keep the reader interested, so Moore resists the common trope that Hinault is simply a silver-backed gorilla among men, unable to capitulate to any competitor, even a friendly one. He further makes room for Hinault’s ambivalence toward his American protegé by bringing in French media reports from the time, reports that show the immense pressure on Hinault to take a record sixth Tour, and the antipathy the French public felt toward the Yankee usurper.
Not to be counted out either is La Vie Claire owner Bernard Tapie, a man of legendary charisma and ambiguous moral fiber. Tapie wants to take credit for everything and nothing. He is pulling all the strings and flying off in a private jet, influencing decisions and making grand pronouncements, quite often with no basis in reality.
Perhaps the most interesting character though, is Köchli, the Swiss manager of the team. Köchli has this reputation as a mad professor of cycling, viewed by many as a genius, and the book is littered with disquisitions by this enigmatic man outlining his psychological profiles of the athletes at his command, and his very strange take on race tactics.
What comes through in the end is that, for all the ’86 Tour reads like a modern, black-and-white morality play, what really transpired was more of a perfect storm of grayness. Hinault never even countenances the idea that he wasn’t supporting LeMond. Köchli never names the team leader. LeMond likes and respects Hinault, but remains steadfastly convinced the Frenchman is out to get him. The French La Vie Claire riders ride for the Badger, their master. The North Americans ride for LeMond. The peloton and its protagonists shift alliances back and forth. It is the opacity of the situation, which, going on and on, day after day, stage after stage, creates this magnificent drama.
It makes for a pretty great summer read, no matter whose side of the story you’re buying. Hinault remains, 25 years later, his irascible self, and Moore’s interviews with le Blaireau evince only subtle differences in his version of events. In one-on-ones with the American, LeMond has enough distance to laugh about what must have been the most difficult time of his difficult career, and the others, Tapie and Köchli, are preserved like insects in amber, curiosities from a different time in pro cycling.
Whether you know the story or not, Slaying the Badger is a worthy addition to any cycling library.
Top image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Carbon fiber bikes have changed more in the last 10 years than steel bikes have in the last 50 years. I write that as a fan of steel and an owner of two steel bikes. While it’s hard to quantify just how much stiffer carbon bikes are now than they were when George W. Bush entered office, it’s easy to quantify the drop in weight. For most manufacturers, the weight loss on their top-of-the-line bikes is half a kilo, sometimes more, and on occasion, less.
Weight is but one method of judging a bike and were it our sole criteria, it would be a bad one. We’d end up with sub-kilo steel frames that are too small for chimps.
I’ve been interested in the calculus that goes on between large companies that do all their own engineering on their carbon fiber framesets and small outfits that work with some of the same manufacturing facilities and purchase frames that are produced in the manufacturer’s own molds. These frames are called “open mold” because literally anyone can buy these frames, provided they are willing to purchase enough of them.
The practice is really just a 21st-century version of how almost all American companies purchased steel frames from Italy and, later, steel and aluminum frames from Taiwan and China. If you’ve ever purchased Trader Joe’s-brand wine, then you’ve purchased a product sourced in exactly the same manner.
The Torelli Montefalco is sourced in much the same way Torelli has always sourced products: from smaller manufacturers selected for the quality of their work. While the Montefalco is not produced by the Mondonico family, but instead a smaller composites facility in Taiwan, the effect is the same. It’s a small operation focusing on quality work that isn’t producing for any of the big names out there.
Before throwing my leg over the Montefalco, I had a lot of questions: How would it fit? How stiff was it? How light was it? How did it handle?
Let’s dispense with the easiest of these answers: Following the conclusion of my riding, I dismantled the bike, removing everything save the derailleur hanger. Bear in mind most companies list their frame weight before paint. The painted Montefalco with derailleur hanger was 1010 grams in the large size (57cm top tube). I was impressed. I’m sure that derailleur hanger weighed more than 10g, so this qualifies as a sub-kilo frame by any standard. There aren’t a lot of sub-kilo frames out there; companies are increasingly resorting to eliminating that outer weave layer and paint. I’m willing to bet that the paint on this frame weighed at least 60g (about 2 ounces).
The elimination of the outer weave layer on some top-of-the-line frames is a true double-edged sword. On one hand, the look is fresh and stylish, and to produce a frame where the outer layer of unidirectional carbon looks good enough not to cover up with paint requires the utmost in care. There’s a problem, though. That weave layer, though it doesn’t contribute to the stiffness of the frame and adds weight, it serves an important function in protecting the carbon from any sorts of strikes. I’ve been asked repeatedly how much stiffer 3k weave is than 12k weave. There’s no difference. If a bike shop employee tells you that one weave is better than another, go talk to someone else. That layer is cosmetic and exists so that if you drop your bottle or a wrench on your top tube or a rock flies off your front tire and hits your down tube it doesn’t start a cancerous crack that will kill your frame.
And for the record, the Torelli site erroneously states that the Montefalco features 3k weave. It doesn’t; it features 12k weave—but the difference is 90 percent cosmetic, so the point is moot.
I’ve seen some crazy tube shapes lately, and on occasion, seemingly reasonable shapes used in odd ways. At the head tube of the Montefalco the top and down tubes have a rather triangular cross-section. To attain maximum stiffness in torsion, the best orientation of these shapes is for the triangles’ longest sides to be perpendicular to the head tube and as close to the ends of the head tube as possible, which is how they are oriented on the Montefalco.
The frame features a tapered head tube and fork steerer. What surprised me was when I pulled the fork out of the frame, the steerer was 1 1/8-inches in diameter until just a few centimeters before the crown, then it suddenly expanded to 1 1/2 inches. Though the increase in diameter was sudden, it was enough to do the trick.
Out on the road I’ve come to sense almost immediately the difference between a frameset with a tapered head tube and steerer and one without. I notice the difference most readily when I stand up to accelerate with my hands on the hoods. It’s a move I’ve made tens of thousands of times on different bikes and that bigger fork gives the rider the sense that the bike has an overall increase in stiffness. The days of me standing up and making the chain rub the front derailleur in the 53×19 are gone. Utterly gone and in the mid-‘90s I could make almost any steel or ti frame do that; I could even do it with most carbon bikes. Not any more.
The upshot is that judging stiffness increasingly means judging just how much you can sense twist between the handlebar and the bottom bracket. The only steel frame I ever rode that possessed this much stiffness was made from Columbus Max. There are builders out there still working with that tube set (notably Hampsten and Zanconato) and God love ‘em for doing it, but that tube set is a bit much for me. (I’m sure right now legions of Hampsten, Zanconato and Pegoretti fans are mailing me skirts.)
For my money, the Montefalco offers more than adequate stiffness while still yielding enough that I wasn’t uncomfortable on long rides. Notably, the smaller frames have some material eliminated to keep the flex pattern consistent. Think of it as today’s answer to making a 54cm frame from Columbus SL tubing while making the 58cm frame from Columbus’ heavier-gauge SP tubing.
The Montefalco comes in five sizes. The top tube lengths are 52.5, 54, 55.5, 57 and 59cm. That the sizes come in 1.5cm increments (except for the 2cm jump from the 57 to 59) means that it’s easy for most riders to find a frame that will fit. If you’re either Lilliputian or Gulliver, well, this might not be the bike for you.
Bottom bracket drop on the large is 6.75cm. My review bike was built around a 19cm head tube, parallel 73-degree head and seat tube angles and 40.8cm chainstays. Fork rake is 45mm, yielding 5.69cm of trail. The top tube, as is visible in the photo slopes slightly. Wheelbase is a fairly standard 100.8cm. It uses a 31.6mm seatpost. I’m not wild about this for two reasons: 1) it isn’t a terribly common size and 2) I like the flex that a 27.2mm seatpost gives when I hit bumps. It’s not much, but I notice the difference on these bigger seatposts.
Not much attention gets paid to handling geometry these days. Trail, bottom bracket drop (or height) and wheelbase determine a bike’s character and whether the bike reacts to you or you react to the bike.
As I’ve mentioned previously, my proving ground for a bike is a canyon road in Malibu called Decker. I made two different descents of Decker on the Montefalco. I ride this descent rather aggressively, but not to the point of risky. What I want from a bike is the ability to wait as late as possible when approaching a turn and then make a sharp turn-in. I also want it to remain calm and neutral feeling above 40 mph. I don’t get that from all bikes. The Montefalco was rock solid when I needed it to be but aggressive enough that I could dive into turns. It reminded me of the Specialized Tarmac in its handling. Butcher’s knife-sharp but with the manners of a debutante on leaving finishing school.
There are a number of little details about this bike I really like. The gear cables pass through the head tube, both guiding the housing and preventing the housing from wearing away paint, or worse, carbon (gasp). The rear brake cable is internally routed as well and its entry and exit points are really clean and attractive. The red/white/clear paint scheme looks really gorgeous in sunlight and benefits from just a few decals on the frame.
Suggested retail for the Montefalco is $1800. There are some less expensive framesets being made from carbon, but I’ve yet to ride anything with this much performance retailing for less.
Torelli is also offering a limited-edition version of this frame with a seat mast called the Perla.
In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.