i cannot, for the life of me, see the point of the sport of golf. in my younger years, a couple of my friends had taken a fleeting notion to dredge their dads' golf clubs from the hall cupboard and dragged me into the fray (i'd like to say 'kicking and screaming' but that's not entitrely true). unfortunately, my abilities with a golf club turned out to be even poorer than my current skills on the bicycle. the first outing resulted in my having taken 107 strokes after nine holes on a course that featured a par of 84 for the whole eighteen. by the second game, i'd resorted to building sand-castles in the bunkers after only three holes.
i'd like to think this might be considered something of an embarrassment, given that the game was allegedly invented in 15th century scotland. ironically the first written record of its existence was the banning of the game by king james ii in 1457, predominantly becasue it was proving a distraction to those who should have been learning archery. take a good, long hard look at those inhabiting the upper echelons of modern-day professional golf, and you may struggle to find a scot in the top ten.
the french must feel somewhat the same regarding their national tour. while many countries lay claim to having invented the bicycle, there's little doubt that henri desgrange was the progenitor of the grand tour, a stage race originating in 1903 and originally the preserve of the french nation's cyclists. the last frenchman to stand atop the podium at the end of three weeks of gallic sight-seeing was bernard hinault in 1985. since then, the nearest any frenchman has come to repeating any of hinault's five tdf victories was 2nd and 3rd places in 2014 by respectively jean-christophe péraud and thibot pinaud.
william fotheringham's masterful treatise on the career of the badger takes into account this seeming contradiction of the biggest cycle sporting event in the world and the drought of local winners since hinault hung up his wheels in the 1980s. not surprisingly fotheringham offers no solutions, only hope. conversations with marc madiot and dominique arnould place the state of contemporary french cycling in a modern context, offering informed contrast between the exemplary sporting career of bernard hinault and a subsequent lack of yellow jerseys.
"On this, Madiot, Guimard and Hinault spoke with one voice: champions are born, not made."
hinault's rise to fame would seem to confirm that statement. born and brought up in the almost unpronouncable breton village of 'yffiniac', a "country lad who (sought) a career on two wheels rather than till the soil..." his first nickname was 'cerdan' after a legendary boxer of the 1950s, paying tribute to his combative stance as a youth. before cycling took hold, the young hinault was being trained up as a cross-country runner, an activity that occupied his athleticism in the years from '69 to '71 before cycling began to take hold.
"He had been bought a bike at fifteen as a reward for passing his exams; he rode it daily into Saint-Brieuc to technical college, to avoid the two kilometre walk from the bus station...
emulating many of the world's great cycling champions, hinault began winning almost as soon as he began racing. the rest, as they say, is history. hinault's career, a bit like that of merckx and coppi, is reasonably well-known, or at least, bits of it are. almost everyone with an interest in professional cycle racing will have heard at least one anecdote concerning the badger, even if it's only a predilection for throwing interlopers off a tour de france podium. through the pages of this book, the author fills in any (every?) gaps in the reader's knowledge.
fotheringham has made pointed use of his freindship with scots climber robert millar, who features frequently throughout the narrative relating to hinault's career from the early eighties. as a rider closely involved in the annual melée at the tour de france, millar was ideally placed to observe hinault at close quarters. referring to the stage to sallanches in 1980, millar as a first year professional states "It was the first time I saw Hinault in action, the first time I'd been there at the front when he was going for it... It was so hard that there were no attacks. [...] I had never seen anything like that."
the author also pays tribute to richard moore's previously published volume slaying the badger, a book specifically dealing with the episode of hinault's career in which he partnered american greg lemond. this chapter of tour de france history will likely bear continual re-examination; lemond still contends that hinault was intent on working him over despite early season promises to the contrary. hinault's side of the story would have it that, though he could easily have won that sixth tour, he wanted lemond to win having demonstrated his true champion status.
"He did not behave like someone who was trying to set up the win for his teammate. It provoked a total schism in the team."
it's a character trait regarding which robert millar has also been quoted in the high life, stating that while he admired hinault's prowess on the bike, he was less than impressed with his personality off it. merckx had to win every race he entered, where hinault only had to win the races he'd decided he wanted to win. however, if we exclude armstrong (in the same manner the uci have seen fit to do), hinault was arguably the last patron of the peloton; a rider who marshalled those he deemed inferior, and woe-betide anyone who attacked without permission. it's this personality that infuses each and every chapter; like millar, though the reader may not admire hinault's methods, it is very hard to dismiss his tenacity and panache in achieving a palmares, the successor to which france eagerly awaits.
unless, perhaps, your name is greg lemond.
though it's a habit i'm not proud of, in order that i might reprise portions of a book under review, i fold the corners of pages relating to items i may wish to refer to or quote from when writing the final review. the downside to such a method is one of concentration. i have come to note that books which encourage addictive reading, such as this one, often result in a whole chunk of pages devoid of folds. on reflection, i see that the first fold appeared at page 50, and it certainly wasn't for lack of interest.
few published cycling books can truly be regarded as essential; a pleasure to read and to own perhaps, but rarely can it be said that cycling life would be lessened by having passed them by on the bookshelf. william fotheringham's bernard hinault falls into the former category. if you have even simply a passing interest in the sporting side of cycling, here is a book that shines brighter, written in a manner that makes it very hard to put to one side once started. his writing is noticeably finer in each subsequent book; this one is state of the art.
william fotheringham's 'bernard hinault' is published by yellow jersey press on thursday 14 may. through the generosity of the publishers i have one copy to give away to the sender of the first correct answer to the following question.
in which year did bernard hinault last win the tour de france?
answers to email@example.com and please include a full postal address. closing date is monday 18 may.
tuesday 12 may 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................