Bernard Hinault’s Grand Tour record was nothing short of phenomenal. On three occasions, he doubled a Tour de France win with either a Vuelta or Giro victory, and injury robbed him of a fourth double in 1983. He’d already won the Vuelta, but overreached himself in doing so, strained his knee, and he missed out on a Tour he’d undoubtedly have won if he had been fit.
Hinault also won the Vuelta and Tour in 1978, at the age of 23. Only Eddy Merckx was more frightening than this, and not by much.
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Hinault’s most challenging year came in 1985, when the combined margin of victory in the Giro and the Tour added up to under three minutes. He rolled up to the Giro not having won a Grand Tour in over two years, and he was up against the might of defending champ Francesco Moser. He was also up against the might of many Italian fans who may or may not have pushed their hero up the mountains, according to eyewitnesses.
Nevertheless, Hinault struck his decisive blow early in the race, putting two minutes into Moser on stage four to Val Gardena, then beating him at his pet discipline, the time trial, on stage 12. Moser spent the next 10 days harrying and chipping away at Hinault’s lead by sprinting for every possible time bonus, but ran out of time.
Hinault won the Giro by just 1-08. Looking further back, over Moser’s shoulder, Hinault’s team-mate Greg LeMond was just another few minutes back in third. And, just two months later in France, Hinault entered the Pyrenees a few minutes ahead of LeMond. Hinault’s lead looked safe, especially as LeMond was far too naive and trusting to attack his leader. But Hinault almost blew it.
He came off his bike and face-planted in the bunch finish at St Etienne, and the resulting injuries hindered his breathing enough to enable LeMond, along with Stephen Roche, to drop him in the Pyrenean stage to Luz Ardiden. LeMond, encouraged by a mischievous Roche, was tempted to press on, while his team management suggested he held back. LeMond claimed that he’d been given misleading information about how far behind Hinault was.
LeMond, frustrated by his missed opportunity, then handed out a beating to Hinault in the final time trial of the race, claiming that he had proved he could win the Tour.
Still, there was no lasting animosity between the pair, was there?
GRAND TOUR CLINCHERS – 4 KEY STAGES
1) 1978 Vuelta a EspaNa, stage 18, Bilbao-Amurrio
With only two days of his first Grand Tour left, Hinault leads Spanish rider Jose Pesarrodona by 16 seconds, but goes on the attack on the mountain stage to Amurrio. He finishes two minutes clear of his closest rival, and takes the first of 10 Grand Tour titles.
2) 1978 Tour de France stage 20, Metz-Nancy
The 1978 Tour was decided in the final time trial of the race, 75km between Metz and Nancy. Hinault, riding his debut Tour, and race leader Joop Zoetemelk had traded attacks in the Alps and were separated by only 14 seconds. That was before Hinault put 4-10 into the Dutchman in Nancy, for his first ever yellow jersey.
3) 1982 Giro d’Italia stage 18, Piamborno-Monte Campione
Hinault had worn pink for much of the 1982 Giro, until he was ambushed by Italian Silvano Contini on stage 17. “I paid the price for controlling the race for so long,” he admitted. But he attacks on the final climb of stage 18, and takes three minutes out of Contini, after checking out the stage by car on the morning of the race.
4) 1985 Tour de France stage 11, Pontarlier-Avoriaz
Hinault has already won the early time trial and in the first big mountain stage to Avoriaz, he links up with Colombian climber Luis Herrera, finishing almost two minutes clear of the third-placed rider, Pedro Delgado. Herrera takes the stage, and Hinault the yellow jersey, by four minutes.
From the Archives: Stage 17, Toulouse-Luz Ardiden
It had to happen sooner or later. The Prince challenging the King, on the toughest day of the Tour so far, when the field climbed high into the clouds through the Pyrenees where Hinault the race leader faltered at last.
Unable to breathe properly, he was dropped from the main group near the summit of the Col du Tourmalet, and his La Vie Claire team-mate Greg LeMond, second overall, found himself ahead and began to eat into Hinault’s overall advantage of 3-38. Until he was stopped.
“I had my chance to win today,” said a distressed LeMond at the top of Luz Ardiden. “My team stopped me. Köchli said to me, ‘how dare you attack Hinault when he’s in difficulty.’”
Team director Paul Köchli denied this. Asked if he had held LeMond back, he said, “No, I was with Hinault and I told my assistant to tell LeMond not to ride with Roche, but to attack him if he feels strong. He didn’t attack, so maybe he didn’t feel strong.”
It wasn’t only a meteorological cloud that hung densely over the Tour, but one which brought into question La Vie Claire’s sense of fair play.
If Hinault was suffering, why shouldn’t a well-placed team-mate like LeMond be given his head? This is a French race and Hinault is their king. Perhaps they would let a “foreigner” take his crutches away, but instead he had to hand them back to help the wounded hero to the victory all of France wants.
The scrap for top positions took place behind the frenzied activity that led to Pedro Delgado winning alone. Mountain leader Luis Herrera made one of his breathless ascents, slicing the Roche, LeMond and Kelly group like a knife through butter, to take second place at 25 seconds.
As the LeMond story broke on the finishing line, every pair of eyes on top of this craggy mountain strained down the valley for sight of Hinault.
He came pedalling hard into focus, led by team-mate Nikki Ruttiman, 1-13 behind LeMond.