The 1986 Tour de France was a tipping point for professional cycling on the European continent and indeed the world over. Journalist Richard Moore revisits this edition of the Tour de France, one he deems as “the greatest Tour de France” in his book Slaying the Badger available from Velo Press.
The 1986 Tour is important for a number of reasons: the first North American to wear the yellow jersey (Canada’s Alex Stieda), the first American to ultimately win the Tour de France (Lemond) and new methods of training, coaching and tactics that would ultimately change bike racing forever.
But what we remember most about that fateful edition of the Tour is the duel among teammates Greg Lemond, an upstart American cyclist and Bernard Hinault, the proud Breton patron of the peloton.
It’s a rivalry that on the surface started the year before when Greg Lemond slowed down on the climb to Luz Ardiden so Hinault, his boss would not lose too much time and eventually win the 1985 Tour de France when Lemond himself had the opportunity to go for the overall win on that day.
Following that stage and on the podium in Paris Hinault, now a five time winner of le Tour pledged he’d be working for Lemond the following year.
Because we all know what happened at the 1986 Tour de France (instead of helping Lemond win, Hinault ultimately challenges him for it), Moore’s back story is what makes this book such a compelling read. So much of what had transpired between Lemond and Hinault needs to be brought into context.
Richard Moore takes the story back further than the 1985 Tour. In fact, he devotes almost two-thirds of the book to giving us the back story of the players like Hinault, Lemond, entrepreneur Bernard Tapie and enigmatic coach Paul Koechli who ultimately ends up stealing the story.
To go back to the 1986 Tour de France Richard Moore paints cycling as the “last bastion of feudalism”. Riders are paid next to nothing while race organisers and team owners make both the rules and the money.
Moore also helps us understand that this Tour de France is the most important Tour in the race’s history. Power is starting to slowly shift into the riders’ hands with the invention of teams like Hinault and Lemond’s powerful La Vie Claire squad. This is also the year of the invasion of the non-Europeans. 7-Eleven join the peloton as the first American based team, winning the yellow jersey (briefly)and a stage. Of course Lemond eventually wins but he’s flanked by fellow American Andy Hampsten and Canada’s Steve Bauer. the landscape is changing.
Moore paints the battle between Lemond and Hinault as a battle between cycling’s old and new guard. His interviews with Bernard Hinault give us into a glimpse of the past of professional cycling with its odd traditions, myths and rituals.
While Hinault was old world France in his approach, Lemond shows little concern for the sports’ unwritten rulebook. He eats Mexican food, has visits from wife and family and even; perish the thought, golfs on a day off.
It seems that Richard Moore’s plan for the book (which is a fast and entertaining read) is to bring us to the 1986 Tour de France knowing that this is going to be a Tour like no other. Two riders on the same team, each capable of winning. Each with different motivation: Hinault could win his (at then) record-breaking sixth Tour victory. Lemond could claim not only his first, but the first for a rider from an English-speaking nation.
As he takes us though the 1986 Tour he drags us through the tension within the La Vie Claire team which has ostensibly been divided split along the lines of a continental divide: the Europeans vs. the North Americans. Despite Hinault’s promise to assist Lemond in quest for his first of what will become 3 Tour de France titles, Hinault attacks his teammate both on the road and in the media.
What makes this book such a great read is that Moore’s interviews with Lemond, Hinault and Koechli give us three different versions of the same race. Was Lemond paranoid? Was Hinault out to break his word? Was Koechli simply “playing bike racing”? The answer is not clear but the read is fascinating.
The 1986’s Tour de France’s pivotal moment was Lemond and Hinault’s ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez. After destroying the both each other and the competition along the roads of France, the tandem climb a historic ascent of cycling’s most important climb, crossing the line arms raised in solidarity. Or so it seemed at the time.
So what really happened? Was Hinault trying to win his 6th Tour or simply making Lemond “earn it”? Was Lemond just in his paranoia? Or was Swiss coach Paul Koechli playing the strings like a masterful puppeteer while working with two uniquely talented cyclists?
Richard Moore does not give a clear answer and perhaps there are many answers to those questions but he gives us lots of fresh perspective on which we may form our own opinion. Nevertheless, the 1986 Tour de France was arguably the best ever edition of the race and Slaying the Badger is one of the best books ever to share the story of le Grand Boucle.
Slaying the Badger is available from Velo Press.