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