Back in 2011 the wonderful folks at VeloPress furnished me with a copy of Richard Moore’s “Slaying the Badger – Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault and the Greatest Tour de France”.
The book is an in-depth examination of the 1986 Tour de France where French cycling hero Bernard Hinault seemingly goes back on his promise of helping American upstart Greg Lemond win his first Tour de France after Lemond sacrificed himself to help an ailing Hinault win his record tieing 5th Tour the year before.
The book is an excellent look at a tipping point in the sport of cycling. 1986 introduces a cyclist from outside of the European establishment with a bone fide chance of winning cycling’s greatest prize. It marks a break from traditional training and tactics that had remained vastly unchanged since the 1920’s and 1930’s and along with an American capable of winning le Tour, the North American onslaught begins with Hinault and Lemond’s La Vie Claire team mates Canada’s Steve Bauer and fellow American Andy Hampsten. Also included in the 1986 tour is the first American team to compete in the event, the 7-Eleven team with Canada’s Alex Stieda who would be the first North American to wesr the Yellow Jersey (albiet for a fleeting moment).
Three years after the book, ESPN have released a fine documentary based on Slaying the Badger destined to go down as one of the better sporting documentaries of all time.
The ESPN doc takes time to give us the background leading up to the 1986 Tour. That race and subsequent dirty dealings needs some context and they do a fine job of establishing Lemond as the outsider, illustrating the mentorship Hinault provided and then the dramatic events of the 1985 climb to Luz Ardiden where Lemond was instructed to slow his pace to allow an injured Hinault the opportunity to limit his losses and eventually win his record breaking fifth Tour de France.
After that race Hinault publicly vowed to work for Lemond in return his sacrifice at next year’s Tour.
Money in the bank for Lemond, right? Not exactly.
When the 1986 Tour de France rolls around Hinault decides he’s got the legs to go for a record breaking 6th win and the backstabbing and double dealings that follow are Shakespearean in nature. Teammate Andy Hampsten labels it “fraternicide”, killing your brother. A pretty accurate assesment.
I’m a fan of documentaries, sports docs in particular. The cast of characters that include champions, villains, a tactical mastermind and an entrepeneur/puppet master/gigolo engaging in such dirty dealings reminds the viewer of Paul Jay’s excellent 1996 WWF doc “Hitman Hart – Wrestling With Shadows”. There are heros, villains and double dealings that are operatic in scope.
Perhaps the most striking segment of the film is when after Lemond and Hinault’s famous tandem ascension of l’Alpe d’Huez, crossing the finish line arm in arm and Lemond’s lead solidifed, Hinault mentions on live television that the Tour is not over and anything can happen. A flippant Frenchman bragging to television hosts. Seated next to an obviously incredulous American who thought his win was guaranteed on that day. His facial expression is the embodiement of “WTF?”.
In the end we all know what happened. Lemond remains the only American to have won the Tour de France, 3 times in fact.
What’s most striking perhaps is the dynamic between Greg Lemond and his wife Kathy. The two had weathered this attack as well as an unbelievably vicious campaign from Lance Armstrong who destroyed the Lemond Bicycles company and attempted to do the same to Lemond’s personal reputation after Lemond was one of the first to cast doubts on Armstrong’s fraudelent career as Tour de france champion. After all of this we see a couple who are truly in love and seem to have grown strength from weathering these storms.
The ESPN documentary is a must see for any cycling fan and plays out like an opera. For newcomers to the sport, your love of cycling began here. If not for Lemond, if not for CBS, if not for John Tesh and if not for this rivalary of unparalelled proportions cycling in North America would not look like it does today.
You can see the entire Slaying the Badger documentary on YouTube.
The original book is available from VeloPress.