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At the turn of each decade, the Tour de France has gone through organisational changes and backstage struggles that have variously turned out to be decisive or utterly inconsequential. The journey back in time continues in 1980, when persistent knee problems forced Bernard Hinault to make a discreet exit on the eve of the first big Pyrenean stage while still in the lead. Journalists in France left no stone unturned in their efforts to track down the Badger in Pau that evening.
Bernard Hinault was crushing the opposition in 1980. The hero who had braved a raging snowstorm to win Liège–Bastogne–Liège in the spring and claimed his first Giro d’Italia a few weeks before was the odds-on favorite to take a third Tour de France win in a row. The Renault–Gitane leader seemed to be right on target as he dominated the prologue and made a show of strength in the two stages held in Belgium and the Nord department in the first week. However, the Badger’s old knee problems resurfaced under the stress of the Paris–Roubaix cobblestones. While he gritted his teeth and soldiered on, the injury would prove to be his undoing. The time trial in Laplume catapulted Hinault back into the lead and in pole position ahead of the Pyrenean stages. At the finish in Pau, the Frenchman even appeared upbeat as he fielded questions on the condition of his knee: “It feels better. Sure, it feels tight sometimes, but I’m on the mend. There’s no reason to be concerned. I told you, I’m feeling better.” No-one knew yet that it was all a bluff.
In fact, he had known for days that the pain would be too much to bear in the high mountains. He had no intention of making a fool of himself on the Aubisque or justifying himself to journalists. Forty years on, Bernard Hinault still has vivid memories of how he felt: “I hid it from everyone at the stage finish because I didn’t feel like answering a bunch of questions. I was already suffering enough. I was in great shape and we had no real explanation for what had happened to my knee.” Once at the hotel, the fallen hero saw the writing on the wall, but it was still a hard pill to swallow, as his manager Cyrille Guimard recalls: “Emotions were running high, so we had to negotiate how to do it. He was ready to leave straight away, but his wife, Martine, managed to persuade him to stay and have supper with the rest of the boys.”
Hinault finally made a move at 10:30 pm, determined to inform the directors of the Tour in person: “I could’ve sneaked out and everyone would have been none the wiser until the next morning. But I wanted to tell the directors in person out of respect for the Tour. So Cyrille and I went to Hôtel Continental, we entered through the kitchens to avoid being seen at the main entrance and I went to talk to Félix Lévitan and Jacques Goddet, who were seated at a table with Georges Marchais.” The race director was not really surprised, but Goddet was also the boss of L’Équipe, which was finalizing the next day’s issue around this time. The conversation was cut short. Bernard Hinault left town with Martine and teammate Hubert Arbes, who had offered to host them at his house in Lourdes to protect their privacy. “Goddet and I agreed that he would be putting out a press release for AFP,” explains Guimard. “From that moment on, every newsroom was gripped by panic.”
The news had no need for mobile phones or social media to spread like wildfire. Many influential journalists were attending the traditional banquet of the “100 kilo club” chaired by Le Parisien’s Roger Bastide, which Jean-Marie Leblanc had been allowed to join as a “trainee” despite his slim figure. “It was an incredible scene from a media point of view,” recalls the former journalist for L’Équipe. “30-odd hedonists in a room with an accordionist playing in the background and, suddenly, the door bursts open and a biker soaked to the skin yells ‘hey, boys, Hinault is withdrawing, he’s off’. The banquet ended then and there as everyone scrambled to write an article. From that moment on we were no longer friends.”
The bombshell that hit the Tour de France at 10:30 that evening was a nightmare scenario for the boss of L’Équipe, who ripped up the next day’s first page and started reviewing the other articles to make them fit with the news everyone was talking about one way or another. Knowing that haste is not at odds with elegance, Goddet amended his editorial (which kept its title No mercy for the shaky canary!) with the addition of two paragraphs combining analysis and emotions: “We would like to pay a heartfelt tribute to the man who, for several days, has been struggling against an injury that can only heal with complete rest, by ceasing to push the pedals and grind the hurting knee with each stroke. He has suffered in the soul and in the flesh, silently bearing the pain and smiling, deceptively claiming to be fine with dignity and grandeur.”
Hinault was eventually able to resume training after an eight-day break made the pain go away. The anger at missing out on what could have been his third Tour de France victory fueled his determination to win the world championships in late August. On his way to the start of the race in Sallanches, he told the hotel attendant to “put the champagne on ice, I’ll be the world champion by this evening.” And the rest, as they say, is history.