Commentary: Celebrating the Badger’s birthday; cycling’s last hero

The first glimpse is always the best.

In the summer of 1985, we went badger hunting in the mountains of Colorado. A buddy and I scrambled onto the top of a condo on a street corner in Vail. It was the Coors Classics, and although it was Greg LeMond’s triumphant return to the United States, everyone only wanted to see one man: Bernard Hinault.

The Badger’s arrival at the Coors Classic set the burgeoning Colorado cycling scene on fire. In lap after lap, Hinault stood out in the blur of the peloton. There he was. Ramrod like a Napoleon dressed in Lycra. Pugnacious, confident, built like a boxer. What caught everyone’s eye were Hinault’s space age, clip-in Look pedals.

A buddy and I took the week off of doing nothing much at all, such were the lazy days of summers in the 1980s, and spent the week following the last few stages of the race. After another crit a few days later in Boulder, we elbowed through a sweating throng to press nearer to the Badger. We wanted to get close. We snapped off a few long-lost photos, and my friend stammered out, “Vivre, le blaireau!” Hinault turned and smiled in our general direction. We were giddy beyond measure.

Flash forward three decades, and the last French winner of the Tour de France celebrates his 63rd birthday Tuesday.

It’s almost surprising that Hinault is still that young. His last Tour victory in 1985 seems ages ago. He’s a living legend and a guardian of the Tour podium. It’s a job he took very seriously. Hinault’s combative character, softened by the years, would come blasting out like the Hulk when some drunken fan or an upstart punk tried to sully the sacred space of the Tour podium. You can cage a badger, but you can never really tame one.

I saw Hinault again a decade later, this time as a young scribe covering my first Tour de France. Having a press pass gets you access. My first interview request? The Badger, of course. By the 1990s, Hinault had lost his infamous scowl, yet he was still an intimidating presence. Then part of ASO’s publicity machine, he would take time to field journalists questions, a task he so often loathed as a racer.

Hinault would play up his image as France’s last gallant warrior. Every July, thanks to translation help from colleague and traveling companion Rupert Guinness, we’d perform our annual rite of interviewing the Badger. His quotes were borderline cliché, but they made great copy nonetheless. Why can’t a Frenchman win the Tour? “Pfffft,” the Badger would say in derision, “Because today’s riders are soft.” How to win the Tour? “That is easy!” he would say with a shrug of exasperation as if you’d have to be a fool to even ask. “You must attack!”

The Badger would prowl the Tour start village every morning, and he couldn’t walk five feet without someone stopping in their tracks. Fathers would point him out to their sons, “Look, mon fils, there is the last Frenchman to have won the Tour.”

For me, Hinault is the last of the great, larger-than-life cycling champions. Much of that perception is personal. Other big stars have come and gone, some with more charisma, and others with better success.

Seeing him in person near the end of his career left a mark. I reveled in Hinault’s loutish arrogance and dominance, both on and off the bike. Who else could punch striking miners daring to block a racecourse? Only the Badger. His ego was often bigger than his lungs, but his palmares reveal an excellence and quality that put him among cycling’s greats. Coppi won with finesse, Merckx on class. Hinault won by brute force. And he retired at 32.

And my opinion is also framed by the filters of the day. European racing in the 1980s remained something mystical, romantic, and far away. For American racing fans in those pre-Internet days, news of cycling’s biggest races was more precious than gold. If you were lucky, a local newspaper might run a one-paragraph summary of the day’s major race in the briefs section. So unless you had a girlfriend on a study-abroad program in France, you wouldn’t know who won Liège-Bastogne-Liège until your VeloNews showed up in the mailbox a month later.

The Hinault of the 1980s existed in our collective imagination. Cycling’s great battles of that era were elusive. There were no live feeds to pirate, or YouTube videos to watch. Newsreels and grainy, black-and-white photos only entrenched the notoriety of Hinault’s exploits. Magazine accounts provided more details. The rest you had to fill out yourself.

Hinault’s roguish good lucks and fiery temperament made him the star of his time. He was the last of his breed, the final great patron. He was all at once fascinating and, especially if you were a Greg LeMond fan, a villain.

The world’s a different place today than when the Badger roamed free. And that’s perhaps a good thing. Today’s champions don’t evoke the same fear or respect. The WorldTour peloton is truly international, and there’s much more mutual respect between the riders. Hinault’s abrasive style would not win him many fans.

Peter Sagan seems to be the first rider truly hard-wired for 21st-century sensibilities. The three-time world champion packs rock-star charisma, has the racing chops to back it up, and communicates in gestures perfect for a public consumed with packing their thoughts into 140-character tweets.

I often wonder how the forceful character like Hinault’s would handle today’s Tour de France. The hierarchy of the contemporary peloton is measured with watts, not brawn. Today’s interwoven world of social media and 24-hour news cycle dilutes the aura of cycling’s big champions. We share their every moment. The mystery and romance are erased with that intimacy.

Hinault the racer would feel out of place in today’s highly controlled, high-tempo peloton. Panache died a lonely death with the arrival of the first SRM. In Hinault’s era, riders would lose five minutes in one mountain stage, only to gain back eight minutes in the next. In 2017’s tightly wound peloton, a loss of 45 seconds can prove fatal to GC aspirations. His brutish arrogance would be rejected by the social norms of today. The rabble of social media would rally to defang the Badger. Who could Hinault punch if the insults were virtual?

I can imagine Hinault on this evening, quietly celebrating a dinner with family and friends. Hinault will be savoring a good wine, and playing with his grandchildren. There won’t be any selfies from the Badger.