“…And then there’s Badger, of course. He lives right in the heart of [the Wild Wood]; wouldn’t live anywhere else, either, if you paid him to do it. Dear old Badger. Nobody interferes with him. They’d better not!”
– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
“There you go. Look. Two ducks.”
It’s the kind of winter day from which you think spring can never emerge. As if the leaden sky and the damp paths are here to stay. The shutters are down in Calorguen. There is no sun on the south-facing frontage of Lanjuinais farmhouse. The trees are bare. The snows of the Beast from the East are trickling down to the canal. The fierce wind whips through the skeletal branches, chilling everything to the bone. Two mallards emerge from the rushes.
“You can shoot them, too.”
Bernard Hinault takes aim with his rifle. Butt nestled in his shoulder, sight lined up to his cheek. He could hit them from this distance. Silence. A steady hand. He pulls the trigger.
Hinault has a bit of a reputation with firearms. During a hunting trip at a Renault team building camp in the USA in late 1980, he took aim at some quails in the bushes and, not realising they needed to be flushed out first, shot Greg LeMond in the face. Accidentally. Probably.
“We’ve got deer here, and wild boars…. I share the rights with some friends and we go hunting together. We give the kill to a local butcher who makes terrine and we share it out. Half for us, half for him. I shoot them. He does the work. Everyone’s happy.”
What a relief for duck-kind that it’s no longer shooting season. This time at least, Hinault is just imagining. The sound effects are his. His dog, a scruffy terrier named Flemish – one of those animals you think twice before crouching down and petting lest you lose a finger – is resting at home.
Apparently his bark is worse than his bite and he tends to leg it whenever he hears the loud bang. Anyway, there will be neither canard à l’orange nor fresh pâté in the Hinault household tonight. The ducks swim back into the reeds, living to die another day.
“You have to leave them now. This is the time when they are nesting and rearing their young. Look, they are always two by two… just like humans.”
Hinault is the patron of the lanes and copses of this little corner of Brittany, 60 kilometres from his birthplace in Yffiniac and a place he has called home for 32 years.
Back in 1986, when he arrived at the pinnacle of his celebrity, locals were a little unsure how to treat one of France’s most famous faces. Now he’s just one of them. Don’t be fooled by the jerseys that he got, he’s just Bernie from the block.
“There, again, a male and a female. Oh, and another female,” he laughs. “Just like humans!”
Hinault is intimately connected to this place. He knows its seasons. He has learned its comings and goings. Farming he gave up long ago, passing the baton of husbandry over to a tenant who raises pigs, cows and crops on his land: “His problem now, not mine”.
Still, the local animals have had to learn to live with Hinault patrolling his territory, chopping down wood, driving around on the tractor, picking off the occasional creature every now and again for the pot and generally calling the shots. This must all sound rather familiar to any professional cyclist active between 1977 and 1986.
“Yes, there are badgers here too… we don’t hunt them though.”
When Hinault talks about his life here he uses the word ‘bricoler’: one of those words without a direct English translation that more or less means to do odd jobs and to potter about. There’s a French chain of DIY superstores called Mr. Bricolage, which means something like Mr Tinker. It’s fitting for this quiet corner; a place where you have to find stuff to do and make your own fun. We only encounter one other person out walking on this sharp winter day, and she immediately recognises Hinault.
“I didn’t ask to be a celebrity, you know. All I wanted to be was a champion,” he says.
This life could be seen as uncomfortably monastic, a French country version of Desert Island Discs, the British radio programme where celebrity interviewees have to pick eight tracks to take with them to a hypothetical desert island and make a meaningful soundtrack intended to bring comfort and motivation to their isolation.
“Well, it’s not like I’m hiding away. If someone told me I couldn’t see anyone for three weeks that wouldn’t particularly bother me. But being here, collecting wood, looking after the land, walking around… it’s not like I never see anyone.”
Sod the vinyl – let it float off into the surf. Or better still fashion the records into some useful tool. An animal trap. A fishing net. When asked what luxury item they would take with them to the island, famous interviewees usually pick a musical instrument, some sort of food, tobacco or booze, or a pen and paper. That sort of thing. Hinault thinks briefly before responding. He would like a machete, please.
“If I were marooned there for two or three months, I’d find some stuff to do.”
This is Hinault in his terroir. Mr Bricolage. And here he knows that there is a right time for everything. To chop wood. To plant the acorns that he collects from his travels. To go out hunting. To take aim. To pull the trigger. Or to let things go. And he knows when it’s time for the hunter to return home.
In January 2016, he and Christian Prudhomme were returning to their hotel from a late-night function that he was obliged to attend as ambassador for ASO, a role he had been performing ever since he hung up his wheels in ’86. In the backseat, without warning, he told the Tour de France’s director that his 42nd year on the road would be his last.
Hinault turned 62 that year, but there was more to it than age. Looming over his imagination, as he did in real life, was his grandfather: a six foot three inch moustachioed Breton patriarch who spent his final years teaching the young Bernard the ways of the countryside. Hinault knew it was time to give up his life on the road. He knew the time was right for him to become the old man of his childhood memories.
“I was at home and up came Armand, my eldest grandson. It was just the moment when he was starting to walk. I hadn’t felt that he needed me particularly, but at that moment that he started walking, I realised that he did. We needed to share things together. We needed to spend time together.
“All it took was a few minutes. My mind was made up.”
This feature was first published in Rouleur 18.5