Mystery surrounding the tests on Bernard Hinault’s right knee was the big story following the Tour de France.
The defending champion went to a hospital in Nantes, France, soon after quitting the race, undergoing complicated examinations of what was said to be tendinitis. The results were not immediately made public, and word spread in the European peloton that the problem was more than a simple inflammation. According to rumor, what doctors discovered calls for an operation which could take the shine off the rest of the Frenchman’s career.
Hinault disappeared from the Tour like a thief in the night. At around 11 p.m. on the eve of the unlucky 13th stage, he packed his bags and drove off into the darkness with his wife and young son. Days later, sympathizers were still standing outside his new mansion, a few miles from his birthplace of Yffiniac in Brittany, displaying banners with encouraging messages. The rider himself said he wanted no more than rest, although he took to training gently within three days.
Hinault first complained of his right knee pain during the Rotterdam Six in the posh Ahoy Stadium last year. He was riding poorly and soon threw in the towel. A few weeks later he gave up again in Paris-Nice, for many years the No. 2 professional stage race in France and often regarded as a shakedown for the Tour itself.
“But that had nothing to do with tendinitis,” said Hinault emphatically. “I banged my knee against the handlebar stem at top speed and it still hurt for several days afterwards.”
In Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the doyen of classics in which he first came to prominence, Hinault was back in his old dominant form. And in the Giro d’Italia he put himself alongside the gods of the sport — Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, and Eddy Merckx.
But then, within days of the Tour start in Frankfurt, the knee pain came back. Many said it was because Hinault insisted on riding such big gears. He was, they said, literally wearing away his knees from the inside.
He took a hammering on the stage across the Franco-Belgian border, and at Compiegne he was talking of quitting for the first time. There was panic in the Renault camp, with everyone making plans for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau to take over team leadership. Renault is one of the few teams which still has its one star rider.
French-speaking Belgian doctor Guy Charles then tried a form of miracle cure. He administered an injection of cortisone — a drug banned by UCI rules — but the pain persisted.
Hinault must have made his decision to quit by the time he left the Hotel Continental at Luchon to make the televised draw of France’s national lottery. But he said nothing as he laughed and joked before the camera and afterwards with ever-popular Raymond Poulidor and team manager Cyrille Guimard. Hinault then returned to the hotel with his wife Martine and son Michael.
At 8:30 that same night, he told the Europe-1 radio station that he was optimistic for the following day’s first stage through the steep Pyrenees on the Spanish border. What happened next nobody but the people concerned knows. But at 10:30 Guimard found Tour organizer Felix Levitan in the hotel foyer and told him Hinault was out of the race.
The press and television crews were furious — they had been misled all along and now they were given the biggest story of the race too late to use it. What they didn’t know yet was that they would also be denied the chance to interview the man at the center of the rumpus. For while Guimard fended off questions in the lobby, the Family Hinault was sliding out the rear exit, into a car and away into the night.
Said Guimard: “A few minutes ago, Bernard knocked the race on the head after a final massage. He said the pain in his knee was too great to start again in the morning. So there you have it — voila!”
Tempers rose and Guimard was ringed by shouting journalists.
Why did Hinault make up his mind so late? they wanted to know. What was the sudden change that led to the decision? Had he suddenly grown afraid of the Pyrenees? Sure he had the right to leave the Tour, but was this the right way to do it?
Guimard, who is no mean answerer of the press, was stuck for words.
“Well, yes,” he began, “but the situation was so bad that we didn’t have time to consider all those things. I have made a mistake, I admit. The plan was for Bernard to retire officially, giving him time to compose himself.
“I had to tell the officials first, so that they could look after the rest of the race. But I hadn’t expected to meet Monsieur Levitan here in the hotel and that set everything moving too soon.”
Levitan informed Raleigh manager Peter Post, who in Joop Zoetemelk suddenly had the new maillot jaune. But by then it was late and the wily Dutchman decided to keep the news from his riders until after breakfast the following morning. There was no need, he reasoned, to disturb their sleep with thoughts of their new responsibilities, or to over-excite Zoetemelk with the sudden change in the situation.
At 11:15 p.m. Zoetemelk was already asleep, perhaps dreaming of a yellow jersey that in reality was already his. Hinault was away through the night, and the journalists were drowning their anger and frustration in the hotel bar.
At this writing, Hinault has said next to nothing about the curious happenings at the Hotel Continental. The question that now needs to be answered is whether he has still weightier matters on his mind.
The riddle of Bernard Hinault’s knee had the most positive answer in Normandy, France, on July 28.
Amid rumors that tendinitis was not all that had made his right knee a misery in the Tour de France, Hinault raced to victory before a crowd of 20,000 spectators at Plessala.
The decisive move came when 15 of the 120km remained. Hinault attacked with Yvon Martin, Maurice Le Guilloux, and Hennie Kuiper, and they were never caught. Hinault outsprinted Martin by a wheel for the win.
Hinault went for a specialist’s attention and tests at a hospital in Nantes after quitting the Tour on the eve of the Pyrenean stages. The results of those tests were not made public and rumor spread about the nature and seriousness of the trouble.
Meanwhile, a big shake-up looks likely in the Frenchman’s Renault/Gitane team. Four riders — Bemaudeau, Chalmel, Berland, and Becaas — look almost certain to switch to the Peugeot team. The rival car and bike maker is still looking for the strength which has eluded it for several years.
Renault manager Cyrille Guimard confirmed that the moves were likely and said they came because Peugeot was offering more money.