Friday, April 3, 2009

The "Badger": Bernard Hinault

Today we take a slight detour from the norm. Courtesy of my friend at GITANE ( comes an interesting interview with Bernard Hinault who won the Giro d'Italia in 1980, 1982 and 1985 (this in addition to his five Tour de France and two Vuelta a Espana victories). As published by Gitane

Bernard Hinault is arguably the best bicycle rider of his generation…and possibly of all time (with the exception perhaps of Eddy Merckx). Five times a Tour winner, winner of the Giro, the Vuelta, and just about all of the Classics (that matter), he was a fearsome competitor on the bike, earning him the nickname the “Badger”.

To get a glimpse of Hinault’s ferocity, one only has to watch the video of him on the podium in Nantes during the 2008 Tour de France (ironically, Gitane are manufactured in Machecoul, just on the outskirts of Nantes). Below is a link to a video showing him shoving a protester off the podium during the awards ceremony (link not affiliated with

Hinault started his professional career with Gitane. Recently, GitaneUSA forum member Nicolas Lelievre was fortunate enough to meet Hinault and spend some time chatting with him about Gitane, his pro career, and related topics. Included below is the translated interview.

Special thanks to Nicolas for sharing this with us, and of course to Bernard Hinault!

Q :Many fans wonder what was your contribution to the development of new material for Gitane bikes and how it was done ?
A:It was mainly for try-outs, the whole research & development was done by the “Régie Renault” which had a wind tunnel and gave us an advantage. Most of the time, we just confirmed the data by riding the bike. It was done on a track.

The track was supposed to give a “neutral” environment?
Especially for the wind. We’d go for 3 laps with one bike, then 3 laps with another while maintaining the same heart rate & BPM and comparing times afterwards.

The heart rate was your benchmark?
Yes. The bikes were configured the same way, you had to maintain your position and do your 3 laps. Sometimes 5 times in a row.
I know you have not used them in a race but what about deltas?
Not these but the first “profil” we tried.

The design was new, were you surprised at first?
When you want to search & win, which I always did, and someone tells you that thing is going to make you go faster, there’s no point in arguing. The rider is here to test and bring his knowledge.

Were you frustrated not to have these when you started “La Vie Claire”?
Well, I used this experience a little…the frames that were made were also inspired by what I had seen at Gitane.

Gitane bikes were always factory made or handcrafted outside the factory, then painted?
In fact, from what I’ve seen, they were handcrafted…in the factory. The best workers were assigned to the professional bikes.

So there was a special treatment for these?
Yes, this is a bit like a luxurious car. Depending on the rider, the frame had to be shorter here, longer there…it had to be top notch. And the material that was used was not available for retail. We’ve had Reynolds 753, 531…3/10, 5/10…not many people could use that.

We are intrigued by a particular bike that you used in 1983 for the spring classics. Instead of being blue, it was chrome coloured with a little badger on the front. You won the Fleche Wallonne with this bike. Do you remember it?
Not at all (laughs)…No…anyway, that was a Gitane. It could have been a prototype?

Well, you won with it so it was probably a good bike (laughs)…
Yes, I think that must be it. It was probably a prototype with new material…I don’t know why it came out like this.

Regarding Campagnolo groups, did you prefer Super Record or C-Record ?
I don’t remember the specifics…when you get the best possible, that’s all you’re interested in. Whatever their name was, we didn’t care. The important thing was to get something good, working and having no trouble.

Let’s talk about Look. In December, we talked about the fact that the first Hinault frames with La Vie Claire were in fact Motobécane and then Look came with their carbon frames. What about the aluminium Look frames? Who manufactured them?
I don’t think we ever got aluminium frames.

During the 1986 Tour de France, 2 types of frames were used, the black carbon ones and the other ones, white with La Vie Claire colors…
The grey Hinault frames were not aluminium, it was Reynolds or Colombus…whatever the Look frames were, it was not aluminium. It was steel. Either Colombus or Reynolds.

Ok. There is a question about gears. What was the typical gearing used in an ITT ?
Typically it was 54x12 or sometimes 53, maybe 55 once I think…then again it largely depended on the profile of the race, it means nothing without it. If the wind comes from the tail you can try an extra teeth, if it’s up front you can go down to 53x17 instead of 12…It means nothing…

I think the question is also to see if things have changed a lot since then…
I don’t think they get much bigger than we did…

Same question for the mountains?
I think the smallest I’ve used is 41x25 or 42x25.

Still, you have to be able to use this!
Oh, but it’s all good!

I imagine, at this kind of levels (laughs)…Ok. If the UCI had not interfered, where would we be now, in terms of technology ?
Fairings all over the bike…that’s where it was going. Or else you could organise 2 leagues, one with the UCI regulations and the other totally free.

How do you think the credit crunch will impact pro cycling?
I think it will be the same as other sports. Lower budgets and some (sponsors) will probably drop cycling altogether.

It will get harder to get a sponsor…
Yeah, then the athlete will have to show a sponsor he can count on him…

Like when you told me in December that you were shocked to see Fedrigo cancelling the worlds to go hunting…
Yeah, because if you get results, you’ll find a sponsor. What are they looking for if not results?

Right. Do you recall your VO2 max at the time ?
Yes. 93.

That’s huge. Big engine.
Yes. And you have the results to go with it. 86 in the winter, 93 in the summer.

And what your lung volume ?
Not that big, 6.6 liters, 7 liters depending on the measuring machine.

And your BPM ?
34 for the lowest, 198 for the highest.

Wow…beautiful machine…ok, you have a fan from Sweden named Stefan who tried to build a bike on your specs. The data came from a Miroir du Cyclisme article from Claude Genzling but the bike appeared to be unstable. The question is: have you kept the same specs for your whole career?
It evolved a lot when we got into that wind tunnel. That’s where we figure out that I needed something special because my femur bones are unusually long and my frame has to be tipped up backwards with 54 in height and 56.5 in length with an angle of 19 at the rear instead of 17.

But surely these long femur bones have been of some help, haven’t they?
Surely they are important levers. The wind tunnel made us realize that. It took us 2 years to get there and modify my frames but by 1979 it was ok.

So, there was no modification after 1979?

Last technical question: did the Italians realize they were behind Gitane in terms of development and did they try and copy ?
I think that what Moser achieved with his hour record came from that, at least a part of it. That’s sport. Everyone can improve on aerodynamics.

Do you have a favourite bike from the days you were competing?
No, since the specs were the same, I was not better on one or the other…

In fact, you see bikes as tools, there is no particular attachment to these machines?
No, it was a working tool we could improve with new technology.

All right. This is a “light” question: do you know the name of the dog that made you fall in Paris Roubaix ?
No. I know it was a black poodle with a red collar but…it didn’t give me its name ! (laughs)

Now a lot of people speculate about the 1985 & 1986 Tour de France with Greg LeMond. Before your attack towards Pau in first mountain stage of 1986, had there been a briefing of some sort for the team?
No. I was just trying to figure out who were our strongest opponents and it went off in a weird way. It was just a hot spot (those little sprints along the way) and we took our opponents by surprise but that’s the race. We didn’t wait for the mountain, there was still 30km to go there but we went out with Jean François Bernard just like that, without thinking about it that much. The idea was that if we got caught then Greg LeMond could counter attack. One of us had to go for it.

In December, you told me about the dilemma for the 2009 in the Astana team. You thought that the crucial move was to take the yellow jersey first in order to control the other teammates. Was this what you were doing in 1986 with Greg LeMond?
Not at all because I had given my word to Greg LeMond. The goal was to start a panic among our adversaries but nobody moved.

It took you by surprise.
Yes and in this case you take what you can.

So when you attacked again the next day, was it 100% for Greg LeMond or did you think it could work again ?
I didn’t think it could work. And I did attack in a descent…the other riders had to come after me.

At the Alpe d’Huez, many people are convinced that Bernard Tapie orchestrated the stage, or was it all improvised?
It’s just the joy of winning…

Do you remember what you and Greg spoke about at the time?
I don’t remember…since he was getting the yellow jersey, I was to win the stage, like I did with Jean René Bernaudeau in Italy.

When you fell in the 1985 Tour de France what did you tell Phil Anderson? Is he the one that made you fall?
The next day I wanted to make him crash too. But I said to myself : “What if you kill him ?” because in a fall you never know how it can end up…I just told him to stay away from me.

You think he did that on purpose?
It sure looked like it…

That would have been very dangerous, he got hurt too…
Not sure…

He fell too, didn’t he?
Did he fall?

Would you have liked being a pro rider in today’s peleton?
Every era is magnificent. I would have loved to compete today, 35 years ago, 40 years ago…when you love competition, you just love it.

If you had had to compete with Lance Armstrong, what would have been your strategy ?
Depending on where you stand compared to the other, you have to improvise.

And a strategy for this year’s Tour?
Being in what team?

That’s the question…not being in Astana?
I try to attack. For the first 15km ITT we see where we stand…If I take the jersey I try to control…

…As you did so well.
If an opportunity shows up in the mountain, I don’t hesitate, I jump in.

That might be what Armstrong’s adversaries lacked…
They were running for the 2nd & 3rd seats…

What was your toughest race and why?
“Toughest” doesn’t mean much…it can be very hard but if you win it will seem easy afterwards…

…Let’s say the one where you were hurt the most.
Physically or technically?

Maybe Liège Bastogne Liège. It still hurts years after that.

Your frozen finger…

What was your weakness as a pro? If you had one….
I don’t know…I was able to do anything. I won in the mountain, in ITTs, at sprints…I don’t see a weakness. At this kind of level you need NOT to have one. When you’re on top, everything works fine.

How did you feel on the podium of your first tour victory?
Joy. We had succeeded with Cyrille Guimard in doing what we had told, that is coming to win. It was like “We did it!”

And after your fall in the 1977 Dauphiné Libéré, when you stopped in the middle of the Bastille climb, was it physical, nerves, or…
It’s all that. The tiredness of the whole stage for one…the pain that awakens, it burns a little…and the feeling that you can’t go any further.

So what kept you going? That little walk?
Yes, with the mechanic. Then go to the next curve and from that point it gets easier. You can rest a little in the curve if you want to and then you sprint until the next curve.

It takes nerves to be able to analyze the situation like this.
You just have to think about it.

Did you keep any of your pro bikes?
No, I still have a cyclocross bike and a few track bikes but no road bike. I still have a few prototypes, though.

What kind of prototypes?
Some strange tubes with weird angles.

What brand? What year?
It’s a manufacturer from Bretagne named Salmon…He sometimes gave me bikes to try.

But you did not compete with them?
I don’t think so.

What’s your best memory of the Renault team?
Having to meet Cyrille Guimard and work with him for 7 years, having good teammates and everything in order to succeed.

You told me about a particular TTT with the Renault team, in 1979 maybe…
The finish was at Le Havre and we did climb the bridge of Tancarville…I did the climb (700m in a strong wind) all by myself, it was great knowing that I was leading this great team, I can trust them, they trust me in return, I’m the front engine and all this makes the strength of a team.

…and with La Vie Claire?
I think that it’s the same. The joy & pleasure of winning and help teammates win, that’s a great feeling.

Do you have any idea how many bikes you used per year?
2 or 3, nothing more.

Nothing more? I’m surprised. I thought at least 10.
(laughs) No, no, no…It was not as it is today, budgets were not the same. So you started with a new bike for the spring, then a new one at the start of the Tour. That’s it. '
What is the influence of earpieces on pro racing these days?
Now it feels like they’re not riders but “Game boys” (sighs)…it’s virtual, instead of having the real thing, you have something virtual. Riders should take their initiatives themselves. They should start with a plan and RIDE: observe, feel, ask yourself if your opponents are well or not. If 4 of them stick together, then something is wrong. The DS is not in a position to see this and warn the riders.
What was your favourite food when competing, for the race or for training?
It was mainly pasta & cereals…

…Yes, but on the bike?
Nothing special, there was this cereal gruel that you took twice a day and that was it.

What does it feel like to climb a col in a race at such speeds, do you feel wings grow on your back or are you just focused on the race?
(laughs) No, no wings but you feel the rest of the pack pulling back one after another and you feel like you can take more because you know that there’s a victory ahead.

That’s what you told yourself sometimes, that the others felt more pain than you did?
Certainly. Even if it hurts, sometimes you just accelerate a little and you feel the rest of the riders exploding faster. If you’re in pain when you’re at the top of your form, then the others must feel even more pain.

You have to feel very self-confident to think that way, no?
Well, that’s the difference between being a champion and an average rider. A champion never gives up before the finish line.

That’s what made you forget the pain or did you have other tricks?
That’s a natural thing. You’re so focused on what you’re doing that when it hurts, sometimes everywhere it just goes on until you’re massaged later on…

In the 1980 Tour de France if you had stayed in the pack instead of chasing Kuiper, would you have avoided the tendonitis?
I don’t think it would have changed a thing. There was this awful weather since the start and then 2 days of cobblestones…I had to go through these cobblestones, whether at the front or the back of the race…

You think the vibrations hurt you more than the efforts?

That’s it. Thank you very much.
Thank you.
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  1. What a great interview. I'd love to see a picture of his cyclocross bike. I wonder if he'd ever bust it out for a master's race or two.

  2. cool interview. i like how hinault was an animal on the bike but when off it was very cerebral about his equipment and training.

  3. Thanks for reprinting this great interview. And excellent blog, by the way. Pretty funny how little Hinault thinks about all the cool bikes he was riding. "I don’t remember the specifics", etc. Kinda reminds me of William Shatner interacting with Star Trek fans who know way more about what Captain Kirk did in Star Trek than he does!