As my wife and I drove down Empire Road in Copake on Saturday, we came upon a yard sale. I saw, on top of a stack of books, “Slaying the Badger” by Richard Moore. I had heard of the book during an interview with Andy Hampsten. It is subtitled: “Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault and the Greatest Tour de France”. (Moore discusses, at the end, whether it was the “greatest” TdF.) The Badger is Hinault and most people in the book simply refer to him as “Le Blaireau”.
It is the story of the 1986 Tour, in which Hinault was seeking his sixth win and LeMond his first. I use “seeking” advisedly because a central, and never quite resolved, theme of the book is whether Hinault was trying to win or whether, as he insists, he was helping his teammate LeMond to get the win (as LeMond had helped Hinault get his fifth win the year before). I remember watching bits of the event. I think by then, with LeMond and the appearance for the first time of an American team, 7-Eleven (with Eric Heiden among its members), it was carried in a stand-alone show on CBS. (NBC had earlier put highlights into coverage of other sports.)
The book is divided into two parts, the background of the participants and the 1986 race itself and, strangely, the second part is somewhat anticlimactic, in part because we know the outcome. Were that all this book was about, it would be interesting but not much more.
What makes it more is part 1. Moore interviewed most of the major players, including the protagonists in their native habitats of Brittany (Hinault) and Minnesota (LeMond). We hear from Hampsten, Aussie Phil Anderson, Canadian Steve Bauer, Urs Zimmermann (of Switzerland, who would finish 3rd), and Jean-François Bernard (thought to be Hinault’s successor, he never quite made it), among others.
You would think at the highest level, there’d be a villain or two. We know that Lance Armstrong was a jerk, but although Hinault was a predecessor of Armstrong as Le Patron, or Boss, of the Tour, he comes off well. His motives in the 86 Tour may be suspect, but the Badger is seen as a incredibly motivated and stubborn fellow but ultimately a pretty nice guy. LeMond is universally seen, including by himself, as a flake, who proudly says he was “diagnosed” as having ADHD. There’s a hint of “Greg’s first thought was always Greg” but he too comes across as a really nice guy; he’s a great interviewee. (The one person who’s not so great is Bernard Tapie, owner of the team on which Hinault, LeMond, Hampsten, Bauer, and Bernard.)
Drugs? They’re not mentioned, but it seems plain that these guys were not using, although this is a reference to LeMond riding “with one leg”, which could be taken to mean he was not using while others (not Hinault) were. Indeed one of the funnier items is how LeMond dealt with drug-control at the 86 Tour. Not to cheat on it but to make sure that he had proof that his sample was untainted including by using spring water to rinse out everything into which his piss went and putting his fingerprint on the “B” sample vial because he was afraid that the French might spike his sample.
The big what-if of the story is what would have happened if LeMond and Hinault were on different teams in 85 and 86. That they both rode for La Vie Claire made things difficult. And it creates an air of artificiality in both Tours because it suggests that LeMond let Hinault win in 85 and Hinault agreed to let LeMond take the 86 title. Moore points out this tension and the fact that people don’t go into cycling as a team sport yet in the end they can end up being subject to team rules (while, it needs be said, benefiting from the strength of a strong team, as La Vie Claire was, a team built for the GC without a sprinter in sight.
There are a trio of books on the recent years of the Tour that tell the various stories. There’s David Walsh’s “From Lance to Landis” and Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race“, the latter a must-read for those who want to know just how it was done. “Slaying the Badger” is about the era before the drugs took over. Naive? Hampsten has long been among my favorite riders. In interviews, he talks of how in the early 90s he was in the best shape of his career and suddenly he couldn’t keep up with the Peleton on the climbs. That’s when he knew there was a new world in professional cycling. That didn’t happen to him in 86, or in 88 when he won the Giro. I think of him as the Spotted Owl of the field.
A final point. One of the twists in the 86 Tour was that the riders had no radios. LeMond and Hinault agree that they make race more of a test for its participants, even though LeMond missed an attach by Hinault which he would have learned of had he a radio. Riders nowadays say they need the radio for safety, and can point to the disarray this year when a bus got caught under the finish banner and the race finish was moved up. It takes one more thing out of the race. I think that’s bad.
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