We’re starting a new collection of articles named “Friend or Foe ?”. The idea is to talk about other riders that crossed paths with Greg LeMond at one point and try to figure out where they stand on our “Friend or Foe Meter”. This item is not to be taken too seriously, it is first and foremost an excuse to launch a debate among us. All 3 bloggers of Greg LeMond Fans will vote, contributing to an average grade.
First in line is an obvious choice. As he just turned 60, Bernard Hinault has been quite rightfully celebrated here & there as one of the “all times greats” in cycling. Born in 1954, Hinault managed to win every Grand Tour (5 x France, 3 x Italy, 2 x Spain) most of the 1 day classics (Paris-Roubaix, 2 x Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Gand-Wevelgem, Het Volk, 2 x Flèche Wallonne, 2 x Giro di Lombardia), many 1 week or less stage races (3 x Dauphiné Libéré, 2 x Criterium International, 4 jours de Dunkerque)… In fact, Bernard Hinault is the last of its breed, the “Badass Bosses” of the peloton (Merckx, Anquetil, Coppi, Bobet…), riders who were polyvalent enough to pretend to win any race in the pro calendar and, at their best, showed so much athletic superiority that the peloton simply kneeled before them. Or so it seemed.
When coach Cyrille Guimard expressed his interest in the young Greg LeMond, late april 1980, Bernard Hinault was at the top of his game. He already had 2 Tour de France(s) and 1 Vuelta under his belt and was en route to win his first Giro & the world championships that year. In fact, just one week before, he had done what is condidered by many as his most impressive ride on a freezing snow day, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège with a 10 minutes margin over the very few snowmen able to finish the doomed race, losing all sensibility at the tip of 2 fingers in the process.
Hinault had warned Guimard he was planning on calling it quits on his 32nd birthday, in November 1986. The young Hinault had witnessed the demise of his mogul predecessor, Eddy Merckx, who had been a shadow of himself in 1977-78, at age 32-33 (while Hinault came to rise during the same period). He had promised himself he would not do “One year too many”. The strategy for the team was to find a young stud who would step in the Badger’s furry slippers come 1986. The teen LeMond fit the description : young, strong, ambitious, uneducated to the matters of pro cycling, he was a diamond yet to be shaped. The timing was perfect too, as LeMond would be 25 by 1986. Another factor was interesting in Greg LeMond’s profile : he was American and would be a nice (and relatively cheap) poster boy for French car manufacturer Renault, who was planning on expanding in the United States.
It’s not necessarily a surprise, then, if the first few pictures of the Renault duo of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond were made sitting on a Renault car, wandering around the streets of a skyscrapers-filled city, wearing the Renault team kit. Of course, the cowboy portraits were not too far ahead…
1981 was a learning year for Greg and Hinault was known among his peers as being a good mentor. He did not disappoint. Giving advice and instructions, Hinault would serve as a role model in his mighty world champion jersey. Highlights of that collaboration were Paris-Roubaix, where LeMond was introduced to the cobblestones by paving the way (pun intended) for his leader, and the Dauphiné Libéré. There, Greg would learn and demonstrate his full potential by finishing 3rd as a “domestique” in a race dominated by none other than Hinault.
In 1982, Greg LeMond dropped out of Europe early in the spring and went back to the States after breaking his collarbone in Liège. Therefore, he missed Hinault’s magic summer (Giro & Tour de France wins). When he came back at full speed or the worlds (2nd) and Tour de l’Avenir (winner), it was only to find a tired Badger, out of motivation following a polemic surrounding anti-doping methods.
By 1983, it was clear in Bernard Hinault’s mind that he would not be spending too much time with Guimard anymore. However, he won the Flèche Wallonne thanks, in part, to an aggressive work by LeMond. Unfortunately, the only Grand Tour they would share the Renault jersey in, the 1983 Vuelta, would see a sick Greg LeMond giving up by stage 17. It would be their last collaboration under Guimard’s orders. Damaging his knee in order to win the Vuelta, Hinault would endure surgery in the summer and eventually leave the team.
In 1984, Greg LeMond, now wearing the world champion jersey himself, would again finish 3rd in the Dauphiné (after having won it in 1983), Hinault finishing 2nd, both riders being bamboozled by a squad of Colombian riders helmed by Martin Ramirez. In the Tour de France, they would end up finishing at the same spots in General Classification (Bernard #2, Greg #3), this time being destroyed by reigning yellow king Laurent Fignon, in a state of grace for his second win in the Tour.
It is during this 1984 Tour de France that Greg LeMond was approached by Hinault’s La Vie Claire team to join their ranks in 1985. The Badger’s goal was clear : he needed someone to succeed him and lead the team he had built come November 1986. Greg’s US citizenship was also interesting to try and expand the market of Look’s automatic pedals to the States. However, and it is crucial to understand this in regard to what would happen next, it appears Greg LeMond was not Hinault’s first choice. He wanted Fignon. They had in common the gene of “Panache”, a sense of offensive that came prior to each and every one of their other senses & weaponry. They also shared a culture, a tradition if you will. On the contrary, Greg LeMond was questioning every aspect of this culture, and would not play the game of tradition for tradition’s sake.
The La Vie Claire cohabitation of seasons 1985-1986 would prove to be hard on everyone’s nerves and frustrating on many aspects. 1985 would be Hinault’s last “monument” year, nailing both the Giro and the Tour de France. Fignon was mostly out, suffering a bad ankle injury that would prevent him from reaching his Tour de France 1984 awesomeness ever again. It soon became clear that Hinault’s strongest opponent would be none other than his own team mate, Greg LeMond. And what better way to control him than to have him in your own team, at your disposal for service ? I might be a little harsh there, but that’s basically how it turned out to be. I’ve discussed this at length here and still gave it a little thought since then.
The first mistake was a flat out lie. Tour de France 1985, in short : Hinault destroyed the competition (including LeMond) in the first week of the race, by way of individual time trials. Game over. Then he crashed and broke his nose. He was diminished and started haemorrhaging time by the pound. Greg was in defence mode, tackling the most dangerous opponent outside the team, Irishman Stephen Roche. But to make sure Greg would not attack Roche (as he appeared to be able to) and, by way of consequence, take the yellow jersey from Hinault, the team management decided to lie to Greg. They told him Hinault was not far behind and recovering time. Only he wasn’t really. When Greg LeMond discovered the truth, after the race, he felt he had been manipulated. And he indeed had. In an attempt to appease him, the La Vie Claire management (including Hinault) promised they would ride for him in 1986. “Sworn, spat”, as we say in France.
As I said before, I’ve had the great pleasure and honour to spend an afternoon with Bernard Hinault in December 2008. He was there at my request, signing copies of his latest book in the book store I was managing. Among the many topics we discussed, we talked about the 2009 Tour and how Contador & Armstrong could possibly cohabit in the same team. I remember how his answer came by reflex, proving he had given this a lot of thought a while ago, and it was a done deal for him : just take the yellow jersey first, and the other guy is screwed. If he attacks you, his leading team mate, he’s the bad guy, and you’re crystal clear. It seemed so simple to Hinault, and he seemed to take great pleasure in showing how simple it was. And, accordingly so, this was exactly what he had done to Greg LeMond in 1986.
You see, what Hinault will ramble on from interview to interview about this topic is that, when he had the yellow jersey and a 5 minutes cushion to boot, he could have rested on his laurels and enjoyed his sixth win. Hence, he implies that, from the start, he was just working for Greg. But there’s something wrong with this picture. Hinault always forgets to acknowledge that he took that 5 minutes so easily because he had not told his team mate he was going to attack. Nor had he told him the attack would occur after an intermediary sprint, where it is commonly accepted to let the sprinters go long for a while. It’s hardly team work from any perspective, is it ?
The thing is, I believe Hinault, rightly so, didn’t want to give the Tour to Greg. Fair enough. So Greg had to deserve it. Still fair enough. But in this case, the idea would have been the Alpe d’Huez stage scenario, i/e isolate the opponents and then make the race, “each man for himself” mode. When he failed to communicate with Greg before his attack, Hinault made sure this would never happen. He was in charge. It is, sadly and once again, manipulation. The problem with the Badger’s attitude is that he diminished Greg’s achievement for his own profit. It’s understandable when you know Hinault’s temper & profile but how damaging in human terms. It stays, for me, at least, a stain on Hinault’s otherwise awesome legacy.
You would think that story would end in 1986, right ? Well it doesn’t. Not exactly. Fast forward 1989. That Tour de France. If there is one thing Bernard Hinault taught Greg LeMond, although not always intentionally, is how to handle pressure. And this became particularly handy when tension started to rise between Greg and Laurent Fignon. Greg’s calm during the race drove Fignon crazy and made him spend considerable amounts of energy. And then there is Chambéry. The worlds. Not many people know that this year, in France, the French team’s coach was… Bernard Hinault.
So… Where does Bernard Hinault stand in our Friend or Foe Meter ?
5.8 might be harsh for someone who, after all, welcomed and trained Greg LeMond in his rooster. Hinault pays the bill of the 1985 and 1986 Tours. His behaviour and manipulator tricks tarnished an otherwise beautiful father/son story. This explains the relatively low scores in the “fairplay” and “behind the scenes” categories. As for confrontations, Hinault is clearly the winner. He was a mature rider whereas Greg was still in his early years. It’s only in their last year of fighting that a shift occurred and Greg took the lead, although Hinault managed to maintain the illusion of domination.
Epilogue : in 2013, for a reunion photo shoot atop l’Alpe d’Huez, Hinault eventually granted “In all honesty, I’m not sure Greg could have dropped me”. That’s as far as he will go for an apology. He is “not sure”.
By Nicolas – @NL_LeMondFans