Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the oldest of cycling’s monuments. And for that reason, it has long been called The Dean of Classics. Founded in 1892, this Sunday was to be its 105th edition. It always produces great winners from Rik Van Looy to Jacques Anquetil to Eddy Merckx to Roger De Vlaeminck to Sean Kelly to Philippe Gilbert, and Alejandro Valverde. But one year stands out among others in the annals of this great race, the 1980 edition. It was not that a certain Bernard Hinault came across the finish line first, but the manner in which he won — surviving a brutal snowstorm with an 80-kilometer solo breakaway. We caught up with one of the sport’s living legends on the eve of the 40th anniversary of one of his most memorable victories. He remembers a race like no other, in a time like no other.
VeloNews: Bernard, it’s been 40 years since you won what is often cited as the most epic version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race that was nicknamed “Neige-Bastogne-Neige,” as much of it was raced in the midst of a snowstorm (ed. niège is the French word for snow). Only 21 riders finished. You not only finished, but you won in a stunning 80-kilometer breakaway. What resonates most when you think back on that day in 1980?
Bernard Hinault: Well perhaps there were other editions much earlier that were held in similar conditions. We don’t really know since the race started well before radio, television, major newspaper coverage, let alone the internet (ed. it also snowed in 1919, and 1957). But in modern times, yes it stands out. I had already won the race back in 1977 — it was my first monument victory. But the 1980 edition was something else entirely. Already it was zero [degrees celsius] at the start in Liège, and then almost as soon as we left town it started snowing and it snowed almost all the way to Bastogne. But just before we hit the turn-around point in Bastogne, the sun broke through. That was perhaps what saved me! It was probably the only reason I stayed in the race. Otherwise I would have packed it in, at the feed-zone in Bastogne. But the sun didn’t last long, and it started snowing again. It was just a brutal race with cross-winds all day.
VN: Well, the peloton just shattered, with most of the riders dropping out by the time the race hit Liège. I think your entire team dropped out.
BH: Yeah, I just had Maurice Le Guilloux with me until the feed zone. He really helped in the first half of the race. But after that, I never saw him again and I think he dropped out because I was alone for the rest of the race.
VN: Did you worry that you were going to be too isolated in the final kilometers, without any teammates?
BH: No, everybody was in the same situation. So many guys dropped out early in that race that no team had three or four riders in the final [kilometers]. Even a lot of favorites dropped out. But that said, we really didn’t know everything that was happening. There were no race radios back then. We didn’t really know who was in the race or who wasn’t. We didn’t know who was really in front or behind. It’s not like today. It is hard to imagine what it was like 40 years ago, but even the team directors didn’t know everything that was going on. We just didn’t have that kind of technology.
VN: What kind of equipment did you have to survive in such elements?
BH: Not much! I just had a rain jacket like most of the riders. But back then we didn’t have the technical clothing they have today. Teams back then didn’t give us winter gloves because, well, there were no special gloves. I just had some wool gloves and a cap that was mine, but they weren’t designed for cycling or anything like that. I had two or three wool jerseys on under the rain jacket and that was it.
VN: For much of the race it seems that everyone was just in survival mode. When did you think that you could actually win the race?
BH: Well at one point Cyril [Guimard, the team sports director] came up to me and told me to take off my jacket because the real racing is going to start.
VN: Well, Guimard is known as a master tactician!
BH: Yeah, but not on this day, really. He had no idea that I would then go to the front just to warm up. But that is what happened. I thought he was crazy because I was already cold. And when I took off my rain jacket I was even colder. I just thought, well the best way to warm up is to go to the front. And when I did that, well, I quickly dropped everyone in my group and bridged up to the leaders. There was Henk Lubberding, Silviano Contini, Rudy Pevenage, and Ludo Peeters. I caught them on the Côte de la Haute Levée and dropped them right away.
VN: But there was still like 80 kilometers to go, and you rode solo over climbs like Rosiers, and La Redoute.
BH: Yes, but I knew at that point that I was going to win.
VN: Really, with 80 kilometers still remaining?
BH: Yeah, that is not a problem! I had dropped everyone and most of the big favorites, guys like Francesco Moser, had already dropped out. When I look back on that victory today, I know I really pulled a great exploit. But let me tell you, in the heat of the moment, I really suffered. Looking back on that day, I know I really did something fantastic, but when you are in the middle of the action, you don’t necessarily understand the magnitude of a certain victory. It is only looking back, and hearing other people’s impressions over the years, that I understood just how impressive a victory like that one in Liège was. For me, winning Liège like that was like winning any other great race, like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France. It is not because it was snowing that it was any different. It is only with time that I realize that I really pulled off an exploit that day. In addition, Liège was always one of my favorite races, along with the Flèche-Wallonne, which is always the Wednesday before.
VN: It’s funny, you won both of them twice, but never in the same year. You won Liège in 1977 and 1980, and Flèche in 1979 and 1983.
BH: No, you have to leave something for the others!
VN: It’s interesting watching the old clips of that race. You sure were not spinning the legs like the cyclists of today!
BH: No that’s for sure. But we were just a little bit cold. And if memory serves me, there were 16 climbs that day!
VN: But three years before when you won it, the distance and race route were similar, but you averaged nearly three kilometers an hour faster.
BH: Yeah, it was really just a grueling day. We had a cross-headwind all the way out to Bastogne that day, and then you turn around you hit the hills. That combined with the snow, was just so hard. I have fun looking back on that victory, because I know that I really did something special. But let me tell you, I had absolutely no fun that day. But when I look back on it, when I look back at everything I did to win that race, I just think to myself, “Wow! Pas Mal!”