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The Badger gets Sentimental

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“Here, come on inside,” says five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault. “We’ll be more relaxed.” The off-handed comment by one of France’s greatest cycling legends sums up just how un-relaxed Hinault’s life really is at a bike race. When he steps into the Tour de France VIP village, Hinault is immediately thronged by autograph seekers, dignitaries and journalists. There is rarely any downtime. Hinault accepts the accolades with little emotion and says in his typical matter-of-fact manner, “I’m just a human being like everybody. I’m a human being that won some bike races. That’s all.”

Words/image: James Startt

As a bike racer Hinault was known as a fierce competitor. “He was not a cyclist. He was a boxer,” says Cyril Guimard, who coached Hinault to his first four Tour victories. And in the years since he retired from the sport, Hinault has maintained his assurance, rarely showing any emotion. “His coolness is the one thing that linked his sporting career with his years working for the Tour,” says Jean-Emmanuel Ducoin, a journalist for L’Humanité, the socialist newspaper linked to the French Communist Party. Ducoin has followed Hinault’s career for more than 35 years.

But something seemed to change for Hinault this year when he announced that he would retire from his job with race organizer ASO after the start of the 2017 Tour de France. “I never saw my own son grow up,” he says. “Now I have a grandson, and I want to be present for him.” For some the announcement revealed previously unseen sentimentalism in the cyclist otherwise known as le Blaireau, the Badger. It was a kindler, gentler side of Hinault witnessed by few in the sport.

“My grandfather taught me so many things and I want to give that to my grandson,” Hinault says, referring to the birth of his grandson Armand in 2014. “Seeing my grandson reminded me of everything my grandfather gave me. And I want to be able to be part of my grandson’s upbringing, to give something to him.”

Hinault grew up in rural Brittany, in the small town of Yffiniac and he always celebrated his agrarian and working-class roots. “My grandfather was a farmer and my father laid train tracks for the railway,” he says. “My grandfather plowed the earth with horses. Growing up in the country really teaches you to be independent, to fend for yourself, and my working-class background really gave me a work ethic needed to succeed in cycling.”

Immediately after retiring from racing, Hinault returned to farming, and raised calves. He maintained his farm alongside of his work with ASO until 2006. After representing ASO 140 days each year, he would return to his farm, getting up at 5 a.m. each day to tend his livestock.

Hinault draws no lines between his different careers. He makes no distinction between his days battling Greg LeMond for Tour de France victory, those spent on the farm or those spent in an official Tour vehicle welcoming guests to the race. “Life is just a series of challenges,” Hinault says. “And when one stops, another starts.”

“You know, in Brittany, there are two types of people—those that look to the sea and those that turn inward towards the land,” the journalist Ducoin says. “Hinault was part of the latter. Hinault was one of those that turned his back to the sea. You know when he stopped raising cattle, he saw it as a setback. He is of the earth. And when he leaves the sport next year, he will return to the earth. And he couldn’t be happier!”

From issue 57. Buy it here.