Both Hinault and Hoogerland start with the letter H, and that’s pretty close to where the similarities end. We have, only recently, discussed the need not to make heroes of athletes, and if there is any lesson from the events of the last year (or decade) that must be it. Having said that, I cling to the idea that I can admire certain titans of the sport despite their human failings. In fact, there is little I appreciate more than the tragic tale of a flawed genius.
As a football (soccer) fan, two of my favorite ever players are Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane, a couple of characters who struggled with demons that almost always threatened to overcome their natural brilliance.
As we evaluate and reevaluate our sporting icons, there are two qualities that always seem to spark my passion, bravery and audacity. Bernard Hinault, a deeply flawed genius in his own right, is, to me, cycling’s very best example of audacity. Always looking to turn a race on its head, always willing to attack, Hinault could rightly be called an asshole, but it was his naked audacity that lit up the racing of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time I was just becoming aware of the sport.
Johnny Hoogerland on the other hand is not much as a cyclist. Oh, he’s good, a cagey climber and opportunist, but he is not the dominating persona that we normally turn into a hero. What everyone remembers about Johnny Hoogerland is his crash from the 2011 Tour de France, a television car pinching sideways into a group of riders, Hoogerland spinning skyward and then bouncing into a barbed wire fence. He got up and rode out the end of the stage despite serious lacerations. Later, he cried on worldwide television as blood streamed down his legs and the polka-dot jersey pulled tight across his chest. Instant legend.
Forget the fact that, just a few months after being struck by another car during a training session, bruising his liver and cracking his ribs, Hoogerland is clawing his way back into the pro peloton. The guy is unstoppable, and I don’t know if he’s a hero of mine, but I certainly admire him his courage and wish him well.
We are in a different place now with our cycling. We see the riders differently, but maybe we can still have some heroes, some people whose audacity and bravery we can appreciate, even as we pass the opportunity to place them on pedestals. This week’s Group Ride asks who your new cycling heroes might be? What do you like about them? And how do you see them differently now, in light of all that’s come out about the sport over the last year?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bernard Hinault hated Paris-Roubaix. He called it “nonsense.” He raced it until he won, and then he quit showing up each year. Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen all get paid to race it. They say they love it, but if they weren’t being paid, do you think they’d subject themselves to that torture. Of course, if you want to ride the route, you can sign up for the Paris-Roubaix Cyclo, which takes place every other year, and shell out your hard earned cash for a perineum pulverizing promenade over the pavé.
Such is our love for cyclo-suffering that we will actually pay for the privilege of experiencing the same pain as our heroes.
You can ride the Êtape du Tour, l’Eroica or the Flanders sportive. Each ride gives you a chance to challenge yourself over difficult terrain in a legendary locale. People are already doing these by the thousand, sometimes on vintage bicycles. Our sport is anything if not perpetually nostalgic, right?
Or, you can ride Paris-Brest-Paris, Boston-Montreal-Boston or even the Race Across America (RAAM). Go big and then go home. Why not?
Just the other day I met some gentlemen who are racing RAAM this year, and what struck me about them, beyond the passion for cycling they exuded, was just how like ordinary cyclists they looked. Any of them could be on your next group ride, and you’d never know what they were capable of. But they’re daring to do something extraordinary.
This week’s Group Ride asks: If you could ride one of the big events in cycling, not as a pro, but as an amateur, which would it be? This is not fantasy time. This is time to think about a challenge you might actually take on and ride. Tell us what you’d do, why you’d do it, and when you think it’ll happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Fausto Coppi had a big schnoz. I like to think it helped him cut through the wind. His hair was notoriously neat, Brylcreemed left and right, with a razor sharp part. No wind would take purchase there. He had a strange barrel chest that housed steam engine lungs, a narrow, almost feminine waist, and a pair of bird legs you would hardly believe could generate the power that made Coppi ‘il campionissimo,’ nearly untouchable on the road between 1949 and 1952, and the unquestioned top cyclist on this big blue marble in many of the preceding and successive years as well.
If one were to take the palmares of the top five or six riders in history and set them side-by-side, it would be hard not to conclude that Eddy Merckx is number one. In this exercise, Coppi would drift down the standings somwhere between Hinault and Anquetil. But this is the stuff of paper and statistics and apples and oranges and oddly colored fish on impossible bicycles. It’s nonsense.
Coppi won the Giro d’ Italia in 1940 and set the Hour Record in ’42. He then went off to war in North Africa where he was taken prisoner and lived in a POW camp. He didn’t race again, properly, until ’46, three seasons later. That year he won Milan – San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, the Grand Prix des Nations, the Giro della Romagna and three stages of the Giro d’Italia. He won the overall again in ’47. Thereafter, he won everything in front of him, Spring Classics, Grand Tours, a World Championship. He was a climber of legendary ability, his signature move being to attack on a hard climb, distance the field and finish minutes before the next rider, alone, as they say, in photo.
It is difficult to separate Coppi from the history of Italy at that time or, for that matter, from the history of professional bicycling. While he, along with great rival Gino Bartali, gave Italians something to cheer about in the bleak post-war years, he also revolutionized bike racing, developing new standards for nutrition, rest, recovery, and preparation. He was a great contributor to modern team tactics at a time when the Grand Tours were just beginning to embrace the notion of competing teams rather than individual cyclists.
I would argue that, given back those three seasons during WWII, and without the toll of disease and ill-nutrition that POW camps and wartime rationing imposed on him, he would have set a standard that Merckx would have strained to see, even from his lofty perch.
For these reasons and many others, Coppi is my favorite cyclist of all time. Though I never saw him race, perhaps even BECAUSE I never saw him race, Coppi represents the absolute apex of what it means to be a PRO cyclist. He is a man who really did transcend himself, both athletically and culturally. With Coppi there are myths and legends, because we don’t always have the concrete language to describe the things he achieved.
I could go on and on, but you’ve read all this before by other people’s hands.
This week’s Group Ride seeks to leave behind the troubling times of our current top cyclists and would-be legends. What we want to know is: Who is your favorite cyclist of all time, and why?
Rhapsodize, my friends. Wax poetic.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The passing of the Professor, Laurent Fignon, left me thinking. As an American watching him race live, I found him haughty, distant and more than a little effete. To my naive eye, LeMond cut a much more heroic figure. Looking back now, and having educated myself a little, I have a much better appreciation for what Fignon really was, the last of his kind.
To be sure, we still have Merckx and Hinault to remind us of a time when a Tour de France champion also raced Paris-Nice, the Tour of Flanders, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the spring, as well as the Tour of Lombardy and Paris-Tours in the fall, a time when a top pro’s season spanned March to October, rather than just 19 days in July.
If Bartali and his use of the derailleur in 1939 marked the end of the pre-War era, that time when Desgranges was constantly screwing with the format of the race and keeping his riders on simple, heavy machines, then Fignon’s passing marks the eventual extinction of the all-rounder, the sort of champion who can win in the rough and ready spring, then dominate a grand tour in the summer, before giving the Worlds a good shot. After Fignon came LeMond, the first real grand tour specialist, a champion of a much narrower sort. From LeMond, the narrowing of focus only increased until the Bruyneel/Armstrong tandem turned the Tour de France into a year long project that saw the American win seven times in Paris.
My cyclo-ignorant friends ask me if Lance Armstrong is really the best rider ever, and I usually reply with a derisive snort. That’s not a knock on Armstrong’s palmares, but I take pains to explain to them that there is more than one race on the pro calendar, and that the greatest champions have raced all year and built a list of wins that far exceeds what Armstrong has done.
Fignon won the Tour twice, the Giro, Milan-San Remo twice, La Fleche Wallone, the Grand Prix des Nations. He finished third in the Vuelta. He was French national road race champion. And this is not to compare his palmares only to those who came after, it’s to underline the difference in attitude. Once upon a time the Tour de France was a goal, but it was not sufficient unto itself. When Greg LeMond was named Rider of the Year in 1989, Fignon was incensed. He’d lost the Tour by eight seconds, but he’d won more races than the American.
To be fair, early in his career, LeMond rode Paris-Roubaix with an eye on the win. His Tour specialization really commenced in earnest after his hunting accident. You could argue that LeMond’s early career was raced in the old, all-rounder mode, while his later career presaged Armstrong. Whether by diminished capacity or as a tacit rejection of the Guimard-Hinault school of racing, LeMond pared down his interest. Always keenly aware of commercial factors, perhaps he simply cottoned onto the fact that an American star was only ever going to really get rich by winning the Tour.
Fignon, on the other hand, came directly from the same mold as Hinault, his actual arch-rival. He never complained of lacking Hinault’s support when they were in the same team. He gave the Badger no quarter when they were opponents. He attacked to win. He won with panache. He may have been hard to like, as Hinault and Anquetil had been before him, but he was easy to respect.
And who has ridden so well since?
Joop Zoetemelk finished on the second step of the Tour de France podium six times. He won once, in 1980. And like Raymond Poulidor, who is known as the Eternal Second, many believe he could have won more races if he’d attacked more, if he’d been more ruthless, but Zoetemelk wasn’t an aggressive rider. He didn’t choose to win. When the race was on the line, he was as likely to let the moment pass as riders like Hinault and Merckx were to attack.
Today, in Boston, it was as hot as the devil’s undercarriage. I pushed away from the office into the murky swamp of the city and made the crucial mistake of jumping onto the wheel of a fellow apparently in a big rush to get someplace else. We rode fast. I thought, “It’s too hot to be riding this fast,” but then I kept pedaling until I washed up on the shore of the steep hill that leads to my house, mostly spent, soaked in sweat, and unable to pull any more air out of the air.
Sometimes, the indecision that might have cost Zoetemelk greater success is the same indecision that keeps a rider in a race he ought to abandon. Think of Cadel Evans, with a broken elbow, hauling the world champion’s rainbow jersey over cols and up monts at this years Tour, or Tyler Farrar sprinting on a broken wrist. Maybe even remember Tyler Hamilton finishing the 2003 Tour in 4th place after cracking his collarbone on stage one. These guys haven’t decided to finish the race. They’ve just put off deciding to quit until the finish line slides past.
Zoetemelk was a classy rider. In the high mountains he floated, his wispy form disappearing up around the next switchback as lesser men toiled away below. Despite his lack of aggression, he still won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Tours, Paris-Nice, the Dutch national road race championship twice, the world championship at the age of 38, Amstel Gold at 39. He’s a legend. Indecision may have cost him some wins, but he still managed.
I arrived in my driveway completely spent, sweating from every pore, absolutely gasping, but still trying not to look too pathetic in case the neighbors were watching. After dismounting, I sat next to my bike, in the garage, trying to compose myself before entering the house. It took a while. And then when I did go inside, it took another twenty minutes before I was convinced I wasn’t maybe having heat stroke.
They say the only reason Zoetemelk ever won the Tour is that his DS told him he had to. There was no one else. He would never have forced himself on the race. He was under orders.
When Louison Bobet finally hung up his Tour hopes, after a series of miserable stages in 1959, he was asked why he kept riding when he knew he couldn’t win. He said, “I’d never climbed the Col de l’Iseran. It’s the highest road in Europe. I wanted to ride up there.” He quit on the descent of the Iseran, on his terms. What looked like indecision was actually a declaration of intent.
It’s only supposed to get hotter here in Beantown. This was the second day of our heat wave. The humidity will get worse. The mercury will rise. It’s supposed to break on Friday, when Hurricane Earl arrives with torrential rain. When I was finally convinced I wasn’t dying, I thought, “Screw that. I’m done riding for the week. It’s only going to be more misery.” But we’ll see what happens. Sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Sometimes he who hesitates is simply enduring, until better days come.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.
Was it thrilling? Were you thrilled? Were you surprised to see Cancellara ride away with the race for the second weekend running? Were you pulling for Tommeke to reel the big Swiss back in? Did you think Hincapie was going to make something of his good mid-race position? Was Pozzato disappointing? What of Flecha and Hushovd, who seemed to wait for the Champion of Belgium to ride himself out in the chase, before dropping him in advance of the velodrome?
From my perspective, this year’s Paris-Roubaix was a bit of a let down. I successfully avoided learning the results all day in anticipation of the Versus coverage with Liggett and Sherwen (It’s the curse of residing on this side of the Atlantic that you can’t see these great races live), and then plopped myself down on the couch after reading my boys some rivetting bedtime stories about bears and mice having tea together, only to witness a decidedly subdued Hell of the North.
The French police barred spectators from drinking in the Arenberg Forest (above), and so there were far fewer at cobble-side, and thus less crashes. In fact, this version of the Queen of the Classics was just too short of mayhem for my tastes, an opinion not at all backed up by the fact that 85 riders had DNF next to their names at the end of the day.
The favorites rode to the front and stayed there. The usual attrition, the pummeling of the pavé, thinned the race down. And then Fabian Cancellara crushed the rest of the strong men, who scrabbled around in his dust, literally, leaving Tom Boonen alone to put up a fight. Quite how the nine of them couldn’t conjure any sort of meaningful paceline to at least limit their losses underlines how much stronger Cancellara was, physically AND mentally.
This was another aspect I found disappointing, the lack of fight from the guys who were supposed to fight.
After the race, as I noted in comments, Saxo Bank owner/manager Bjarne Riis took credit for his rider’s race-winning move. Apparently he commanded his giant Swiss-bot to attack at just the moment he saw Boonen napping at the back of the group. I’d pay 100 Francs to sit next to Bernhard Hinault while he read that interview and then went off on a profanity-laced tirade about modern riders all being a bunch of gigolos attached to Game Boys, but I’m like that. I love the drama. And badgers.
Getting to our little prediction contest…what’s wrong with you guys? You came up with really every permutation of Cancellara, Flecha, Hushovd, Boonen, Hincapie, etc., etc., et. al., PhD, MBA, PDQ, EXCEPT the right one. How did you do that? Well, now you know how Tom Boonen feels. Good effort, but no prize.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…
First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.
So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.
We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.
How do you idolize a man like that?
The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.
So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?
Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.
As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.
I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.
When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.
Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.