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Interview: Hinault on his career, Lance Armstrong, and doping in cycling

The five-time Tour de France champion says cycling isn't the only sport with a history of doping

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CALORGUEN, France (AFP) — Lance Armstrong has become a stain on the glorious cycling memories of French legend Bernard Hinault, who said he would refuse to speak to the shamed American rider.

Cycling has an unfair reputation over drug-taking, according to the five-time Tour de France winner who marks his 60th birthday on Friday as one of the most popular living Frenchmen.

Hinault told AFP in an interview that he has had a “dream life” in cycling but that doping scandals that have made the sport notorious “hurt all those who love cycling.”

“But they should look at all sports. Cycling is no more rotten than the others,” he declared. “People are always picking on cycling.”

But mention Armstrong and his mood darkens. “If I met him today I would not talk to him. I would not even say hello.”

Hinault was the last French winner of the Tour de France 29 years ago. The long wait for a successor from his home country also pains him.

“Today we don’t have a complete rider capable of racing at 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour and keeping up with the best climbers,” Hinault said.

“We have plenty of good ones with the right temperament. But even with the temperament, you are not the best if you cannot win.”

But despite those nags, Hinault, who lives on a converted farm at Calorguen in Brittany, said he has no regrets about his own career.

“If tomorrow you asked me, ‘you are 20, you start again,’ I would restart the same life,” he said. “I have a dream life, I wish everyone could have a life like me.”

At the entrance to his farm, he keeps the gloves, shorts, and cycling jerseys he uses now. In a nearby cabinet are the cups and medals that set out Hinault’s incredible achievements — five Tour de France titles (1978-79,
1981-82, 1985), three Giro d’Italia wins, and two Vuelta a Espana victories. He said he got the same pleasure from winning each race.

Not ‘a single regret’

Hinault said his own retirement was carefully prepared and decided six years before he was 32.

“I stopped on November 11 and we had a big party, not a funeral, and on the 19th I was already working for ASO,” said Hinault, who does public relations work for the Tour de France organizer.

That meant he missed out on trying for a sixth Tour title.

“Would I have been happier if I had done two years more? I could have won the Tour again. But I don’t have a single regret,” he declared.

For 20 years, Hinault split his time between his farm with 150 Charolais cattle and ASO, mainly keeping his bike in the garage.

“I didn’t have the time. I was working 360 days a year. You are not going to go riding for the five days left,” he said.

But a few years ago, Hinault sold the cattle and started riding again on the nearby rural roads.

“I ride two or three times a week, between 80 and 100 kilometers (50 and 60 miles). There is the same pleasure even if we go slower,” he said.

Hinault remembers every race, starting with his first big win at the age of 16 in a local race that ended in a sprint finish.

He also remembers his rivalry with American Greg LeMond, Frenchman Laurent Fignon, and particularly Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk.

Zoetemelk came in second six times at the Tour de France — three of those behind Hinault. “He gave me the most trouble,” Hinault said.

Now they are friends. The two families have been on holiday to the Dutch West Indies and have ridden up the Alpe d’Huez climb for a Dutch television charity program.

“That is the spirit of sport. At 9 a.m. we start the fight, at 5 p.m. we finish, at 7 p.m. we eat and laugh together,” Hinault said. “The fight starts again the next day.”