Film Review: Slaying The Badger

Sporting rivalries make great stories, a binary contest that’s easy to grasp even if the underlying story can be more sophisticated. This summer we expected to see Alberto Contador vs Chris Froome but this didn’t go far. We also had Froome and Bradley Wiggins, a rivalry by distance sporadically conducted in public via book launches and interviews. “Slaying The Badger” is the story of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, two riders on the same team each trying to win the Tour de France. Or were they?

First two explainers:

  • “The Badger” was Bernard Hinault’s nickname, not particularly poetic but badgers have incisive teeth, sharp claws and can fight hard when cornered. Hinault is France’s last Tour de France winner with five wins plus success in many other races
  • “Slaying the Badger” is the title of Richard Moore’s book, an account of the 1986 Tour de France

The book has now been made into a film. But this is no dramatic reconstruction, it’s a documentary with contemporary interviews spliced with archive footage from the 1980s. It’s part of a series of documentaries by ESPN, a US broadcaster, called “30 for 30”.

The main difference between the book and the film is that the book is the tale of the 1986 Tour de France while the film is more a LeMond biographical. The film is fine in this sense as it allows for plenty of amusing footage of LeMond’s early days where his famous “to do list” from the junior days to his first phrases in French to the media. But the book is always going to have more time to explore the characters than a 75 minute documentary.

A screengrab as the documentary explains the sport to a wider audience

The film does lose a bit of time explaining some of the basics of cycling and introducing Greg LeMond, including bookends on Lance Armstrong which have little to do with the main subject. It doesn’t interview as many people as the book although the familiar voices are there with accounts from Andy Hampsten, seemingly as youthful as ever plus La Vie Claire coach and manager Paul Köchli. Bernard Hinault is interviewed too in a closed restaurant, a scene reminiscent of a mafia film where the Don does business and he’s as assured as ever, flashing his teeth. Meanwhile much of the LeMond interview sees him wearing a barrel-like chest brace following a car crash but it only adds to the imagery of a fragile man. This is suggestive but watch more and you see how tough LeMond was to make the move to Europe and live in basic conditions just to get his racing career going.

The fundamental premise of the book remains, this is not merely a sporting rivalry but two rival accounts of the 1986 Tour de France. The race result might be known today but the events of 1986 don’t have a settled truth. Greg LeMond and his entourage say one thing; Bernard Hinault and his another. In short LeMond expected Hinault to work for him to help win the 1986 Tour de France while Hinault was less committed and you get to see the footage of numerous attacks.

The film tries to stay neutral but language and access means there’s more input from LeMond and there are a few mentions of “Greg” in the captions while Hinault is always Hinault. Köchli is elusive, as if he saw a third version of the race. Hinault’s version is that he’d promised to help LeMond win but he didn’t promise to make it easy and besides, the Badger’s antics only glorified LeMond’s win claims Hinault. The film captures another element of the book with the contrast of LeMond’s insecurity versus Hinault’s exploration of the frontier between confidence and arrogance.

It’s well-filmed, at least when the original photography appears and it’s accompanied by neat Piet Mondrian style captions that recall the La Vie Claire jersey. There’s plenty of archive footage and it’s used well. It’s not the same as wasting time on Youtube, the clips are tightly edited and there’s plenty of footage you might not have seen. For example you might have seen the image of Hinault lashing out at protesting shipyard workers blocking the road but the documentary includes footage of Hinault taking a swing and the chaos around. In addition the documentary features plenty of photo stills, in fact so many that there are a couple of moments when it feels like you’re watching a Powerpoint presentation as captions slide across photos. All this happens in a storyline that builds towards suspense, can Greg LeMond win the Tour de France? You know the answer but the script’s designed to hook in more ESPN viewers.

Buy the book for the full story of the 1986 Tour de France but see this for some rich archive footage and a tight video biography of Greg LeMond. It’s entertaining and informative and even if you might know who is going to win the 1986 Tour, the story of how it happens is told with suspense and drama. It’s a well-told story and tightly edited for 75 minutes, you’re left sympathising with Greg LeMond, seduced by Bernard Hinault and the sum of the two emotions is that the 1986 race was all the better for it.

Note: this video was made available to watch online thanks to ESPN

21 thoughts on “Film Review: Slaying The Badger”

  1. In the paragraph above the last image, “…there’s plenty of footage you might not have scene.” should be “…there’s plenty of footage you might not have seen.” Unless you’re aiming for a deliberate pun, given the meaning of ‘scene’ as a clip from a movie.

    (Thanks for your work! Not trying to be annoying, just to help with the ridiculous English language.)

  2. I enjoyed Moore’s book. Look forward to seeing this video as well. Does anyone know if the FEARLESS series feature on LeMond is viewable anywhere? I have a copy thanks to the creators in return for some archival stuff we contributed, but I wonder if it’s more widely available on the ‘net?

    • I’m afraid you’ll have to resort to torrent search Larry, as I did several years ago when I sought material on LeMond, mentioned feature included. I just checked and the two torrent files are still available on I would also like to stress that CT website does not endorse uploading torrents of copyrighted material, so I’m a bit puzzled regarding its status, copyrightwise. In the end, I just downloaded it and, regarding the fact that I’m still at large, it seems legit ;).

      Great feature, though, and the fact that LeMond endured and prevailed through so many obstacles, that he was able to rebound from a gunshot injury that left his body full of lead only to claim not one, but two Tour victories is something that really tells just what kind of material this great champion is made of.

  3. On the 25th. aniversary of Lemond’s epic battle with Fignon in the 89 tour, I can’t help but wonder if this wouldn’t make a great documentary also. In many ways this was an even better tour/win for Greg after the accident.

    • Agree, I’m sure someone’s already writing the book or making plans to do so. The Slaying The Badger documentary does mention LeMond’s later career and spends a little time explaining the Fignon story.

  4. That would be fantastic. Anyone know if Slaying the Badger has a UK cinema release? Or will it be pay per view on TV on ESPN only?

  5. I’m sure all the people that have read “Slaying the Badger” are curious to know: In the documentary, is there ANY mention of the anecdote that opens the book? 😉

    (not going to spoil it for those that haven’t read it. It’s that good.)

  6. Thanks for the review. I was debating whether to watch it tomorrow when it premiers on ESPN (and I will now). Why wouldn’t they show it on the rest day when people are going through mild withdrawal? Just goes to show how low cycling ranks here in the US.

  7. Thanks again, Inrng! ESPN is airing this tomorrow (Tuesday) at 5PM Eastern, so your review is quite timely. My DVR would have missed it as “Cycling” was not in the title. Keep up the good work!

  8. On BT Sport in UK, and apparently on terrestrial UK TV during the Tour of Britain (according to author Richard Moore on Twitter, you’d hope he’d know!).

  9. According to my EPG it’s on ESPN in the UK at 7pm on Sunday 27th July.
    I couldn’t see it listed on BT sport, although this was on a Virgin Media box and they don’t always have the most accurate listings.

  10. “…the contrast of LeMond’s insecurity versus Hinault’s exploration of the frontier between confidence and arrogance.”
    Great writing there.
    I started racing bikes right around that time, perhaps inspired in part by the gripping drama.

    I had an interesting (potentially illustrative) experience at the 2003 Tour: near the summit of L’Alpe d’Huez, there was a special-release book signing (“Alpe d’Huez: the Legend”) that took place on the eve of the stage. A bunch of the riders who had won on L’Alpe were seated, ready to sign your just-purchased copy. We stood in line for well more than an hour past the appointed time, the delay because Hinault was not yet present- the rumor being that he wanted to shower after his podium greeting duties. That point could be utterly false, and ’03 was indeed an inferno, but the frustration all around was evident. When the Badger finally arrived (via helicopter), S. Rooks abruptly stood up and moved down to the end of the dais so as to avoid sitting next to Hinault, while his name his placard remained stationed at the empty seat. It was quite amusing. I should note that Hinault was perfectly pleasant while signing and chatting.

    Thank you, as always, for your efforts Inrng.

  11. I really enjoyed the program, and I especially found the inclusion of Kathy LeMond revealing. She obviously played a role in his successful move to France in the early days and his later TdF performances. I found her charming.

  12. For US viewers who may have missed this, Netflix has been showing a lot ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries. Badger has not yet shown up in Netflix list, but once a 30 for 30 has aired, Netflix has them pretty quickly. If you have Netflix, you might look in a week or so to see if they have it yet.

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