Book Review: Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling

Hinault Fotheringham cover

Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling by William Fotheringham

Some say Bernard Hinault was better than Eddy Merckx. If the Belgian has a better palmarès they reckon Hinault would win if they started a fantasy race at the height of their powers. It’s amusing speculation and we’ll never know. What is more certain is that Hinault was the last rider to try and win everything, he did the Giro-Tour double but also the Worlds, Paris-Roubaix and so much more. One big factor behind this is Hinault’s forceful character.

Many will know Hinault today as ASO’s podium master. It’s sometimes a modest role, a god of the sport reduced to making sure the yellow jersey is zipped up tight. Would Eddy Merckx show up to pour beers in the village départ? But some might see traits of Hinault the cyclist, the confident manner and moments of aggression where he’ll gladly punch or push any joker who tries to leap onto the podium. This book is the story of Hinault’s racing career, of how and why he started cycling and what happened next.

Methodically this is a synthesis of past quotes, interviews, meetings and moments. It reads as if Fotheringham has pieced together archives and impressions in chronological order to tell the story. It works well, no references feel like they’ve been crowbarred into place and it all tells the story of a powerful man surprised at his success, toying with others and even his team mates.

The book never quite touches directly on what made Hinault so good, the assumption is that he was born with the DNA of a champion and this was boosted by aggression and even borderline psychopathic tendencies. Hinault talked about racing for fun, for pleasure but this meant attacking his rivals anywhere but the fun was cruel like a cat toying with a mouse. You wonder if Hinault’s rivals locked their hotel doors at night just to sleep safer. Hinault’s mental side comes to the fore again and again. His jaw alone tells a tale, jutting defiantly at the world. Fotheringham explains Hinault’s pirouette on Lance Armstrong (once a champion now unmentionable) but doesn’t cover the whispers about Hinault himself, the links to veterinarian horse trainers.

Innovation and technology is celebrated and Cyrille Guimard is a key factor. Arguably the greatest team manager ever, a point he’d probably argue too. There’s not much to read on Guimard in English so this book is a great insight. Of course merely signing Hinault to your team would make any car-driving chimpanzee look good but Guimard and Hinault are a winning tandem. Guimard was the first to supply a cycling team with a bus, the book details many more examples and Hinault responded well to the new technologies. It’s pleasantly confounding since he often appears as the sort who thinks all you need is a bike with round wheels yet Fotheringham shows Hinault adopting a aero helmet for a time trial as it’s a means to put even more time into others. This is still cycling in the pre-sports science era, take Hinault and Guimard’s policy of an 80km warm up before time trials; it sounds excessive but thinking about it, this meant starting the time trial with heavier legs and therefore being unable too make too many sprints up hills and out of corners: today we’d call it pacing and trying to keep the power output steady but back then this wasn’t so obvious. Later on it’s explained Hinault would beat rivals with a strong final third of time trial, a “negative split” in today’s jargon. Similarly Hinault teams up with Bernard Tapie to launch a new team and this ushers in yet more modern aspects of team management. This is the story of Hinault but a constant theme is the evolution of the sport and Hinault was involved in this.

At times the book delivers one race account after another and amid the “Hinault attacked here, Hinault won there” accounts you get lost. Presumably it’s the same for all sporting giants, the heavyweight makes another KO punch, the  footballer scores another winning goal. In this sense the relentless nature is all part of his story, the way he’d go solo with 50km to go, how as an amateur he’d take the fight to the pros.

The book has a francophone vibe as Fotheringham opens with his experience of racing in Brittany, Hinault’s home region. It continues with numerous French phrases, there’s coup de gueule here or ravitaillement there. The quip about Neige-Bastogne-Neige might have some wondering what happened to this one day race in case you didn’t know that neige is French for snow and a rhyming play on Hinault’s 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège win in the snow. The French phrases are not used in an arty or snooty sense but some readers might find themselves needing to note them down or search for translations online while reading.

The 1986 Tour de France battle between Hinault and his team mate Greg LeMond is recounted, familiar ground if you’ve read Richard Moore’s “Slaying the Badger” but essential for a Hinault biography; ideally you’d read Fotheringham first and then delve into Slaying the Badger for the full story. The book does a good job of retelling many Hinault legends such as Hinault ordering a bottle of wine with a pre-prologue meal, famous but this book puts it in context. But this isn’t “Hinault the wild life”, he was an incredible character on the bike but remarkably straight off it, he’d even strop on training rides to speak to farmers about their work. Even as a rider he shunned celebrity he was famous for winning but never famous for being famous and the book tells the tale of media annoyance because he wouldn’t play their game.

The book ends by exploring why there’s no successor to Hinault. It’s comparable to the search for the new Merckx in Belgium and both the French and Belgians are still waiting decades on. Fotheringham looks at the structural issues in France but it’s hard to pin down. As Guimard once quipped, “c’est génétique” in that all the structures and systems can’t produce someone with the physique and mentality of a champion. But there have been other factors, Fotheringham looks at the “two speed cycling era” where French teams largely rode clean while their rivals did not, a general hypothesis that stands up, albeit with some big exceptions too. One big reason for this is the French could afford to ride clean because no matter how dire their results a wildcard invitation to the Tour would appear and the entire annual budget would be justifiable marketing spend for a sponsor. This chapter is probably worth another book… or a hundred blog posts.

Want to know more about one of the greats? Here’s the comprehensive version of events to read in English although you might look up a few francophone terms. It’s well-researched with accounts from the times accompanied by recollections today. There are some amusing tales but this isn’t the tale of a playboy or even a showman, he raced like Rambo but retired as a dairy farmer

It’s probably best read one chapter at a time, try it on, say, a long-haul flight and the relentless tales of Hinault winning melt into one, as do the tales of his rivals who often sounded like survivors of a natural disaster, as if they’d been ravaged by Hurricane Bernard. But there’s more, Hinault’s style of racing is fascinating, especially the way he’d attack climbers in the valleys or outsprint the sprinters. He’d break his rivals physically and mentally. Thanks to Guimard he often had a technological advantage too.

It’s also a good tour of where French cycling is today. L’Equipe might go wild in July with front covers celebrating Frenchmen who finish third or seventh but watch the podium ceremony. That 60 year old pulling zippers? Now that’s what you call a champion.

This book was sent free for review. It is out now in the UK and Europe and a US version called “The Badger: The Life of Bernard Hinault and the Legacy of French Cycling” looks set to appear in September but US readers will find the current edition for sale online too. For more book reviews see

35 thoughts on “Book Review: Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling”

  1. Interesting…
    And in this day and age of Sports Science, I suspect we can keep waiting for a new champion. None as dominant as the Cannibal or the Badger will ever come around again; the science of obtaining the maximum from your physique has levelled this out, I believe. Alas…
    But the book might well be worth a read, thanks for reviewing it, Mr. INRNG.

  2. Looks interesting (oh and typo alert: dairy farm, not diary), but one reason I think William Fotheringham’s writing as kind of bland is that he rarely looks at doping, there is no investigation, it is more story telling. I want to know more about the Badger’s relations with Vets, horse trainers (btw, where did you find this info, inrng?). Writing about a great cycling champion and making an “impasse” on doping should be a thing of the past….

    Oh and good points of the “clean” French — I had not though of it, but it makes sense.

  3. Fotheringham appeared on the cycling podcast last week to spruik the book but it was interesting listening to the last two Hinault biographers discuss their quite different personal interactions with their subject matter during their preparations. What does come across is the respect and intimidation that both felt.

  4. In terms of five time Tour winners, there seems to be a surfeit of anglophone text on Merckx and Hinault, but very little on Anquetil and nothing on Indurain. The shadow of Indurain’s successes notwithstanding, is there any particular reason for this, or anything out there worth recommending to find out more about both riders?

    • Well I think it many ways Indurain spells e.p.o. more clearly than any other pro-cyclist. Large guy flying up the mountain, basically crushing the competition at will (until he gets beat by Mr.60% — another farcical creature). It would be hard to do yet another semi hagiographic job on him a la Fotheringham — for there is relatively little by way of distraction, the guy has a quiet personality, not a lot of charisma, etc…

      — sorry for the double post, meant to only reply to Ronan!

      • There’s one book on Indurain that I’m aware of (Indurain: A Tempered Passion by Javier Garcia Sanchez) but, if we’re being honest (and even avoiding EPO) he wasn’t the most interesting man/cyclist in the world – monster the (incredibly long) time trials, mark in the mountains, win the Tour, go home, put your feet up.

        • I think it’s more the personality than the allegations of doping. Many riders have interesting tales to tell but Indurain just seems to have the charisma of a coffin. He might be a nice guy but this won’t sell books nor will the story of how he won through the time trials and holding his rivals within range in the mountains is not a gripping one.

        • There’s also Miguel indurain by Noel truyers in the cycle scoop series. Its just a brief overview you may be able to find it second hand as I did. Series also covers kelly, Roche,brisk schotte, raas, and Herman van springel. Have not got these but hope to track them down someday.

  5. “tales of his rivals who often sounded like survivors of a natural disaster”

    This had me laughing out loud in the office. Thank you for the excellent blog. Are you celebrating your 5th anniversary in any way? A tumblr with the best lines would be fitting. 🙂

  6. An excellent read, but as INRNG points out, avoids some interesting side issues.

    I had hoped for a clearer explanation as to why the author thought there had been a long decline in French cycling. Not any real or valid answers offered. There have been some interesting developments in the French amateur scene since the Hinault days.

    French teams not doping ! Why has this become such a well established myth. Maybe true to an extent, but remember Festina, French registered team with some rather well known French riders, including a world champion, and before them Peugeot with a similar unfortunate reputation. Outside the French teams, Frenchmen were associated with plenty of doubtful teams – Once anyone. I will not produce a long list, but most senior French riders of the post Hinault period have been either sanctioned or associated with doping. Things might be a little different with the current teams.

    Sometimes the sport is done a great disservice by authors avoiding the unpleasant reality of their labours.

    • BC, I think what INRNG is referring to is the fairly widely-held view that most French teams put the brakes on heavy duty doping e.g. EPO after the Festina affair, plus the subsequent criminalisation of doping (well, supply etc anyway) in France and under French law. The likes of Madiot were leaders in this. I emphasise the phrase ‘heavy duty doping’. Obviously there were some that didn’t put the brakes on e.g. Cofidis, but the view is that many did. And found themselves at the back of the peloton trying to hang on for dear life, in many cases, during the Tour etc. Accordingly, they would be lambasted by the French media for their poor showing year after year. The likes of Moncoutie had to pick his targets very carefully during those years.

      This isn’t a blanket description of all French teams or all French riders, by any means. Hence INRNG’s phrasing.

      • Sam. I think we are making similar points from differing ends of the spectrum. I agree that circumstances forced changes in French attitudes to organized doping post Festina. Some riders did however continue to procure Spanish, Swiss or Italian assistance. Several top French riders – most countries only have a few top riders at any one time, registered outside of French federation jurisdiction, or joined teams outside France to avoid the new scrutiny. The point I was making is that to believe that French cycling was entirely ‘clean’, is patently not true. What is probably true to say, is that those riders without the necessary financial wherewithal, almost certainly completed slowly and clean.

  7. Thanks for the review, it will go on my “to buy” list.

    It isn’t quite true to say Guimard signed Hinault, though almost – probably more accurate to say he re-signed him to the same team.

    As an amateur, Hinault rode for a team in which Guimard had a financial interest, and they met in the Etoile des Espoirs pro/am in 1974, in which Guimard was fourth and Hinault sixth.

    In 1975, Hinault turned pro for Gitane – Campag, which at the time was managed by Jean Stablinski, a French pro (and 1962 World Champion) of the Anquetil generation. Guimard was still riding for Flandria in 1975. It’s clear that Hinault and “Stab” didn’t get on, in part because after a very successful early-season as a neo-pro, Stab tried to make Hinault ride too much: in his first few months, the 20 year old Hinault rode Paris Nice (7th, behind a stellar line up, and beating Guimard amongst others), Paris Bourges (2nd), Circuit de la Sarthe (which he won); Dauphine Libere; Midi Libre; Tour de l’Aude. Hinault thought he was being burnt out, publicly refused to ride the Tour de France if he was selected and announced that he would sign for another team – most likely Mercier – in 1976. At the time, he was on a one-year contract for 1975.

    However, at that point, Guimard privately asked Hinault to hold tight and await announcements. Which, when they came, were that Stablinski was sacked as manager of Gitane-Campag and that Guimard would be taking over as manager from the beginning of 1976. Guimard then offered an enhanced contract including, importantly, a veto by Hinault on when he first rode the Tour de France (which ultimately came in 1978).

    The rest, as they say, is history!


  8. Thanks for this. I generally like Fotheringham’s work and Hinault (along with LeMond) was an important figure in my early interest in this sport. When he announced 1986 would be his last year and that he would come to the USA for the Coors Classic, I knew I had to see The Badger in action before it was too late. I still have a bottle he handed off just before the start of the stage in Sacramento along with an autographed (replica) yellow jersey obtained years later. Naming the date of his retirement well in advance, then sticking to it, makes him stand out as special in addition to his amazing palmares. As they say, “they don’t make ’em like that anymore!”

  9. I’m currently reading this so quick question:

    Can I read the review without spoiling the book?! And the comments?

    Oh and Hinault > Merckx…

  10. Wow. What a coincidence, I bought the book 2 days ago and I’m at Chapter 6, now.
    You’re right, though, it reads best 1 chapter at the time. Read more and it’s a bit overwhelming, if you don’t know the things being said yet, though.

    I find several parts extremely interesting, especially the anecdotes about Hinault, both on and off the bike. Yet the author does drift into technical or historical sections that are sometimes hard to follow. I feel this book could’ve been even better without all this background (which is interesting, but not always necessary).

    If you know a book about Hinault that delves even deeper into his exploits and character, please let me know, because Hinault as a rider and as a man fascinates me and I would love to read more about him. I’ve already read several books on Merckx, Coppi and Bahamontes. I found Merckx to be the most exciting character, but Coppi had an unbelievable background and upbringing, while also provided with legendary tales of him and Bartali. Bahamontes’ tale was amazing seen in the historical perspective in Spain. (and Coppi in Italy, or course).

    And Hinault is something else altogether. Thick headed, a rebel, a boss. Really like it!

  11. More info on Guimard in one of the Cycling Anthology books. Proves that “marginal gains” was around a lot longer than Team Sky.

    Hinault. A legend.

  12. They say your favourite books, songs, movies etc come from your teen years which I suppose is why I always think of Hinault so fondly. Of course in Australia it took a super competitive Phil Anderson to allow us to see more than months old footage. In those days, we’d rely on the intermittent stocking of cycling magazines in our local newsagent to find out what was happening in Europe.

    How times have changed. In fact, how interesting would it be to know the type of comments that someone like Guimard and his innovation would have brought had your marvellous blog been about then. Richie’s RV replaced by Bernie’s Bus is obvious but would the posters names change as well 🙂

  13. I can only echo the comments of Larrick and Larry T.

    Riding and racing in California on steel bikes in the 80’s, your review brings up memories of one of our cycling gods of yesterday.

    I can only add on this waltz down memory lane, Hinault would certainly be top on my list of guys to go on a ride with, and post ride share a few great bottles of California wine with over dinner.

  14. I too agree with the old foeggies above who like me grew up with cycling in the age of Hinault and Lemond that this blog run by Mr. INRNG is a luxury and a privilege to have. It makes me feel as old as Lemond now looks to say to all the youngsters out there in virtual reality land, “You never had it so good as you do now. I remember back in the old days when….” Vive Le Blaireur!

  15. Of course it’s always nice to talk about this most charsimatic ultra-champion, who probably climbed off his bike too early.
    This book would probably make interesting parallel reading with Guimard’s autobiography, for example regardng Inrng’s question abot what made Hinault so good: Guimad particularly highlights Hinault’s tremendous lumbar muscle power.

  16. “he was an incredible character on the bike but remarkably straight off it, he’d even strop on training rides to speak to farmers about their work”. Not sure if “strop” is a Freudian slip but it seems quite appropriate. As always a great review.

  17. Just want to say that I’m really enjoying reading many of the comments here from posters who were following cycling in the 80s. I can only look read and watch videos of the Badger in retrospect, but would love to have been growing up following his exploits!

  18. I’ve also had a chance to read a book before the official release. Knowing the previous works of Fotheringham I have to admit that I was dissapointed. I mean, the book is well written and one goes through it with a speed of fine time trialist, but some sensation is missing. Something that you’ve not already heard or read somewhere else. It’s more like a nice compilation or a review, than a case study.

  19. Great review thankyou MrInring, excited now as its on my Birthday List (dont let me down Mrs).

    Hinault is a massive hero of mine I was lucky enough to meet him after he climbed off his bike at the Worlds in Goodwood, he was very attentive and friendly (in spite of the circumstance)… all the talk of him playing with Lemond just makes me like him more…..

    I was lucky enough to meet Merckx as a spotty teenager at Eastways after riding 70 Miles (and back) to see him at the Circuit, we hung around, he spotted us and invited us in to decimate the buffet, fantastic!

    Merckx = Hinault in Character and deterimination for the rest is akin to choosing my favourite Quality Street

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