To say that Bernard Hinault is one of the sport’s greatest champions is an understatement, to say the least.
The rider who proudly carried the moniker ‘The Badger’ won five Tours de France, three Giro d’Italia, the world championships not to mention classics like Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But it is hard to imagine just how many races he would have won if it were not for persistent knee injuries. He almost certainly would have been the first six-time Tour winner, and perhaps even more.
Hinault took little time breaking into the pro ranks and was almost immediately hailed as the successor to Belgian giant Eddy Merckx. And he quickly confirmed the hype, winning the Tour de France in 1978 and 1979, as well as the Vuelta a España in 1978 and Giro d’Italia in 1980.
“When Hinault was in top condition he was simply unbeatable in the grand tours,” remembers his long-time director Cyril Guimard. “When he was in shape, losing was not even a question.”
Going into the 1980 Tour, Hinault appeared to be hitting the sweet spot of his career. He had scored one of his most memorable wins ever under driving snows at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April, before going on to win his first Giro. But what many people did not know was that Hinault was struggling with a serious bout of tendonitis.
“Bernard made a big error in the Tour de l’Aude where he changed shoes before the final stage. Now this was back in the days before clipless pedals and the problem was that one of the cleats moved during the stage,” recalls Guimard. “But Bernard went on the attack that day and he did like a 130-kilometer solo breakaway. And the next day, well, his knee was destroyed. We did what we could to get him to the start of the Tour, but he was fragile.”
Starting the 1980 Tour, 40 years ago, Hinault was the overwhelming favorite. And even though he was on the mend, he quickly confirmed his physical superiority, winning the opening prologue. But as the race traveled across northern France, persistent rains provoked a virtual epidemic of tendonitis in the peloton, and Hinault was not spared.
The mounting pain did not prevent him from winning the stage 11 time trial to Laplume in the south of France. But within the inner circle of his Renault-Gitane team, it was increasingly clear that Hinault would not finish the race. And the following evening, with the yellow jersey still on his shoulders, Hinault took flight, discreetly leaving his hotel through the kitchen after dinner with his teammate Hubert Arbes in an unmarked car.
The Tour itself only learned of his sudden departure the next morning. The press was stunned. And it set off a tenuous relationship for years to come. Meanwhile, Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk, who was sitting in second, refused to wear the yellow jersey the following day – a traditional gesture often made by a rider that takes over the lead of the tour when the yellow jersey is forced to abandon.
“In the face of the suffering, I am just a man like all others,” Hinault recalled. “Sure I could have taken the start the next day in Pau, but only to stop at the first climb at the back of the peloton – no way!”
But while his sudden departure was considered incredulous by many, Hinault preferred to cut his losses and look towards other long-term goals. “The best solution was to withdraw so that I wouldn’t compromise the rest of the season,” he defended.
Considering that he rode to victory in the world championships in Sallanches, France barely a month later, his calculations proved correct.
“Put the champagne in the icebox,” he told the hotel attendant in the morning before the start. And with a confidence unique to Hinault, he added, “We will be back to drink it tonight!”