Guardian cycling correspondent Fotheringham (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, 2013, etc.) recalls the days when bicyclists were bold and doping was second nature. "Leave me in peace; everybody takes dope," said French hero Jacques Anquetil—except the subject of this book, Bernard Hinault (b. 1954), who won five Tour de France titles.
Hinault's brilliant career—he was arguably the best competitive cyclist ever—fell between two tumultuous moments in cycling history. Nevertheless, he was a one-man extreme-weather event unto himself. He began competing in the early 1970s, following the retirement of Anquetil and the semiretirement of Eddy Merckx, and he continued until the rise of Greg LeMond and a whole new technological age. As Fotheringham writes in this fleet, personality-drenched book, Hinault was a throwback to Breton cycling at its most elemental and ferocious. The author is also fascinating on the rise of cycling as a sport in the period after World War II. It was insular and a bit clandestine—much like the French Resistance—complete with heroes and weekly events that tested the mettle of all participants. Hinault was built of such stuff. He was notoriously prickly—he once said “he wished he had a jacket with tacks on it, to ward off back slappers who would hassle him after stages”—and he was brash, busting up the time-honored events simply by winning them, and screw the veterans’ scripts. He was brutish, he possessed extreme endurance, and he loved a challenge. In short, he was the Badger: strong, tenacious, and always spoiling for a fight. “I’m not a nice animal,” he reflected in retirement.
Fotheringham draws Hinault to fierce perfection: a workingman born to the bicycle seat, massively successful because he had the grit and no need for better living through chemistry.