Located up the road – an hour by car, maybe less if Bernard’s driving – is Alex Hinault Cycles, a smart bike shop on the outskirts of Saint Malo jam-packed full of the latest equipment from BMC, Orbea and Look. Well, bien sûr, Hinault Cycles sells Look.
Over on the back wall is a large poster of Bernard in the yellow jersey. Mounted next to it is a framed Renault jersey. Under that is the Giro’s elegant Trofeo Senza Fine. The sign outside features a cartoon badger, and you can buy bidons with the logo on it. The badger isn’t smiling. But it’s not snarling either. It looks sort of cute, like it’s reaching out for a cuddle.
At the beginning, Alex says over a coffee and biscuits in the back room, it was tricky to get on. Industry folk assumed he was only where he was because of his name. The youngest of Bernard’s two sons had never actually raced bikes. Tennis was his thing and besides, although he inherited his father’s eyes and dark hair, he doesn’t feel that he was built for cycling.
“My father is two centimetres shorter than me, but his thighs are two centimetres longer than mine,” he says. “Anyway, look at Axel Merckx, he was a good rider who never got the recognition he deserved because he was always being compared to his father. I didn’t want that.”
Four years on and the business is turning a profit and hiring more staff, Alex having convinced those in the industry that it is here on its own merit. At last, being the son of Bernard has its perks. Of a sort.
“Bernard is in here about once a week. He takes the bins out… you know those big bike boxes new bikes come in? He loads them up in his van and takes them to the depot. It does save me money… but he still charges.
“My mum though, she loves to help out in the shop, helping people choose clothes and kit. She’s the real saleswoman. And when they’re here, the customers are always pleased to see them. I mean, they can’t quite believe it most of the time.”
Bernard Hinault was just 20 when his first son, Mickaël, was born, and just 26 when Alex arrived. Alex remembers little bits from his father’s career: a bike room down in the basement of the old house and his dad getting rub downs on his massage table. However there was little of that riding around on handlebars before and after races, or joining his father on the podium, that today’s champion children enjoy.
“I remember that I was always quite happy in July because my dad would go off and it would be peaceful on the farm, you know?” he laughs.
While Bernard was out, his wife Martine ran the household. A trained accountant, she also took care of the Hinault enterprise while her husband was racing or spending the 140-plus days a year out required by ASO. Now he’s redressing the imbalance. The egotistical life of a star cyclist denied him a life spent with his family, so today he enjoys cycling with Martine, who also likes to pedal out with a local club. The two went on a cycling holiday in Louisiana recently; they’re going riding in Chile later this year. He missed out on watching his children grow up, but Alex’s two young sons have given him another bite at that cherry.
“He is more attentive to them than he ever was with me,” Alex laughs. “But that’s normal for grandparents. He is very happy with them. My older brother doesn’t have any children and so they are likely to be his only grandchildren, and he’s had to wait a long time for them.”
Back at home, there’s a box of toys in the corner of Hinault’s kitchen. There are trucks, trains, fire engines and so on, all ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Boys’ toys spilling out of their plastic garage. Outside there’s a trampoline and a very new swing just waiting for that sunny spring afternoon to put a smile on a child’s face.
There’s a balance bike tucked away next to those belonging to grandma and granddad. Somehow it’s just right that Bernard’s grandchildren are two boys. He can spoil them rotten, as grandparents should. I mean, could you imagine Bernard Hinault ever getting into playtime with Barbie?
What you don’t see when you step into the Hinault household is memorabilia. Besides one portrait of him riding, this is just a normal-looking country house. There’s a model tractor on the dresser and a vast country freezer in the pantry. Big enough to fit Greg LeMond in that, eh Bernard? (It’s actually full of frozen chickens and Cantal). If this were an episode of ‘Through the Keyhole’, you’d have to look pretty far to find any indication that this house belonged to the greatest cyclist of all time.
Let’s run with that for a minute. There is a case that Bernard Hinault is the greatest rider of all time. It’s between him and Eddy Merckx. Hinault won a bit less, still dominated the sport, but he was likeable in a way that Merckx never was. He was engaging. He could be terrifying, he could be charming.
He was exciting to watch. He was – he still is – a handful. Hinault had fun while Merckx often seemed bored, as if winning was just a struggle to avoid disappointment. Hinault loved to win but above all he loved to scrap. He loved the fight. He was le Blaireau, the Badger.
“You never know when you’re at your best when you’re winning. It’s only when you get beaten by others – when you have done your utmost and you have still been beaten,” he says. “When you beat others, you don’t always know whether you had anything left in the tank. Could I have been even better? Why would I bother finding out? I was already better than everyone else.”
Hinault is a gift. His career is a vast folio of narratives for those of us who love to wallow in the ‘epic’ tales of hard men. His curt assessments are trove for those who prefer some straight-talking pot-stirring over the ‘super happy’ bullshit that today’s riders churn out by the bucket-load.
There’s his semi-mythical upbringing in Brittany, running riot on the family home by letting the chickens out, or coming close to drowning after being caught out by the tide in the Saint-Brieuc bay. The Badger was a modern day 1980s French folk hero, getting into scrapes but always coming out the other side with a grin on his face.
On two wheels he gave us the snowbound 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so cold that he says he still loses feeling in some of his fingers when the mercury drops near to freezing.
“When you are in front, when you dominate the others, it’s a pleasure. When you ride Liège nine minutes ahead of the field, when you’re cold and you’re ill but you know you’re going to win…”
He gave us the cobbled stage five of the Tour later that year. “Because the weather was so terrible, I said, ‘we’re not racing today.’ Then everyone attacked. So it was war. But I was going to win it. Not them. I tried to arrange things, the other riders didn’t accept it. Their loss.”
He abandoned a week later because he had ridden his injured knee into the ground. “Maybe I could have won half the stages in that Tour.” He came back from surgery on the tendon and won the world championships. “Three goals that year – Giro, Tour and Worlds. I only messed up one.”
He gave us the greatest Tour of all time, an enthralling battle with his teammate LeMond in 1986 that was as compelling for the depth of its characters as it was as a sporting showstopper. “I think that if we had fought a real war, maybe I would have won.”
He is still grinning about that one.
Alberto Contador has previously showed Cyclingnews his rather wonderful, neon-lit cellar full of racing bikes and a vast trophy cabinet, a mausoleum ego-bath of a man still living off his career as a pro rider. It was both jaw-dropping and sad at the same time.
Hinault’s jerseys, trophies, photos, are all packed away. “From time to time you look at this bit or that, but I don’t live with that stuff.”
Not long ago he hunted down a few of his old bikes but auctioned them off for a cancer charity, a disease which claimed his mother, younger brother and brother-in-law.
“Most have probably gone to the scrapyard….” he concedes. “One of them, the guy had basically forgotten all about it. It was a bit bashed up. So I said, well if you’re not interested in it then I’ll have it back.”
There was no sentimentality in the transaction, which is an emotional anti-climax for anyone who grew up watching Hinault’s career and devoted themselves to the iconography of those La Vie Claire jerseys, Renault headbands and the clipless pedals and shoes. But it’s also heart-warming at the same time. The only time Hinault does get excited about his mementos is every now and again when the grandkids come over.
“When they see the old photos: ‘Grandad!’” he beams. “‘Papi, papi. That’s papi’. They recognise me.”
Christian Prudhomme once mentioned a certain phrase when discussing Hinault’s retirement: “à la Hinault.” It has a nice ring to it, though it was no doubt frustrating to live with at times, as Prudhomme implied.
“You don’t go back,” Hinault explains. “Done is done. Don’t ask questions.”
The first decision ‘à la Hinault’ was when he retired from cycling in 1986 on a date he had fixed for six years beforehand. He was only 32 but he had seen Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, the two grand champions of the decades before him, wane in front of his eyes. He wanted to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, even if his public found it a frustratingly premature departure.
“Yeah but it was my decision, not theirs,” he says. “I took the right decision. My decision.”
Just as Hinault gave way to younger riders, his former ambassadorial job with ASO is now being fulfilled by Thomas Voeckler while podium hostess Astrid Orioux hands out the jerseys.
“It wasn’t forced on me, I have always done what I wanted to do, and that’s so important,” he adds. “When I took the decision to stop working for ASO, I knew what I was going to do afterwards. And I said, ‘when I stop, I will stop.’”
This is all very commendable. Trophies can be put into storage, bikes can be auctioned off, chapters can be closed and new ones begun. But what about personality? Character cannot be boxed up, vacuum-packed and chucked in the loft. Bernard Hinault has retired. What about the Badger?
This feature was first published in Rouleur 18.5. See part one