1981 – 1985 Age & Guile v Youth & Skill

1981 HINAULT ENCORE

“This happened on the morning of the  depart from Mans. Maurice Champion, Guimard’s second in command, took me to one side and showed me a letter and asked me what I thought about it.

It was a few words addressed to Bernard Hinault. Moving words from a mother about her son who was ill, very ill, and in hospital, who was unable to come and cheer for his idol at the Compiegne-Roubaix stage. She wondered if she could be so bold as to request a quick visit after the stage finish. “It would be marvellous for him to have a few moments alone with you…”

On my advice, in a case like that, Eddy Merckx would go, I said, torn between the humanitarian impulses we all feel and the pressures of being a champion and how easily that delicate balance can be upset.

“We’ll go as soon as possible” said Maurice Champion, the evening of the arrive at Roubaix. He made me promise not to say anything.

And he told me, the next day, in a few words, quite moved, about the visit by the Maillot Jaune to a poor little lad, laid low by a malign illness, the Renaukt-Gitane jersey that he was presented with, the simple words of encouragement that had been spoken….

“Bernard is OK” said Champion “He didn’t show his sensitivity, but he had to be really strong not to show it, or to lose his concentration. That’s his superiority.”

I don’t know if Bernard Hinault knew what I knew but when our eyes met at the start of the Roubaix-Brussels stage I knew that he was not the same as usual. I realised that, putting sporting considerations aside, the World Champion was like a palmier – tough on the outside but with an extremely soft heart.

The Tour being finished I don’t think I’m betraying anyone by sharing this little secret.

But the 15 July, when Hinault won the stage at Pleynet, he gained a lifelong admirer”.

Jean-Marie Leblanc, Directeur Tour de France

1982 THE EASIEST OF THE LOT

If you think ‘globalisation’ is a modern curse/blessing in the sport, think again. The Tour had been welcoming riders from beyond Europe since its earliest days – remember Abdelkadar Zaaf? – and Australian Phil Anderson had been a surprise rival to Hinault – and Yellow Jersey wearer – in the 81 Tour. And in 1982, Jacques Goddet – inspired by the World Cup in Italy – wrote an open letter to the race, envisaging a globalised Tour de France:

“The Tour is absolutely ready, from the broadcasting point of view, to be globalised at this point when the bicycle has conquered the world and the sport of cycling has plunged its roots deep into every continent and is followed by passionate fans.

Let’s look forward then, as the Tour 1982 leaves Basle and heads toward its destiny, to a potential future for the race:

–          The Tour will be ‘globalised’ every 4 years (with respect to the Olympic cycle and the World Cup)

–          It will happen in the year after the Olympic Games (to have the best riders)

–          It will be disputed by National teams

–          It will be open to 18 teams, 9 professional teams from the traditional nations of Western Europe, 9 from Eastern Europe and the new cycling nations (probably amateurs). Traditional nations: Germany (with Luxemburg and Austria), Belgium, Spain, France, Great Britain (and its dominions), Hollan, Italy, Scandinavia and Switzerland. New nations: Africa, Canada, Colombia, USA, Poland, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, USSR and East Germany

–          The team classification will be given extra value

–          The parcours will visit as many countries as possible with the heart remaining in France

Example: Depart (prologue and 2 stages) then stages in the USA, Great Britain, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Spain which leaves 9 stages to be raced in France and of course the finish on the Champs Elysees.

I imagine that the bike manufacturers and the team sponsors will appreciate the huge economic interest this will generate and appreciate the force of the impact from which they’ll benefit directly or indirectly by continuing to support an event of this calibre.

I hope that the leaders of our sport will be able to see what a race as brilliant as this will bring to cycling which has some work to do not to be left behind by other similar sporting events if it wishes to hold onto its ‘pole position’ with the public.”

Goddet’s Mondiale of cycling hasn’t flown – yet. There were some whispers that the 100th Tour might be raced in National teams but it didn’t happen. There’s no doubt though that the concept of cycling as a team sport is stronger now than ever before, with fans being urged to identify with a particular team rather than individual riders, and teams identifying more strongly than ever with a particular nationality – Team Sky being the prime example. Who knows? Maybe Christian Prudhomme, the current race director, will revisit Goddet’s proposals and think ‘well, why not?’.

Hinault did the Double with ease and a young Irishman won the Green Jersey. Sean Kelly would go on to win it 4 times – only the German sprinter Erik Zabel would win more.

1983 THE PROFESSOR

He was born in Paris – finally, a non Breton! – and he wore little round Lennon glasses and sported a skinny blonde pony tail. I once saw him out training on the roads near Aix-en-Provence because our holiday hosts had told me where I might find him. Fred bore an uncanny resemblance to the cycling star and let me take fake photos of him dressed in my Super U jersey so I could pretend to have met the real Laurent Fignon. I finally did, briefly, when the Tour came to Brighton. He was legendarily, stunningly abrupt and I loved him for it. He became my voice of the Tour – eloquent and incisive – and I listened, heartbroken, as his voice was stolen by the cancer that killed him. Last year I made his acquaintance again in the cemetery at Pere Lachaise in Paris where his ashes are interred. I won’t pretend I didn’t stand in front of his simple slab and cry.

The Professor, as he was known, bust onto the scene by winning his first Tour at 23. It was an incredible era, those mid 80s Tours – Hinault, Fignon and Lemomd trading the title between them.

But the tale of this Tour is – as so often – the tale of one man’s suffering and his impossible dream of taking the Yellow Jersey to Paris in the face of huge adversity. It is the tale of Pascal Simon and fight to save the Maillot Jaune.

Pascal Simon was the eldest of the four cycling Simon brothers – I used to think of them as some kind of circus act ‘The Fabulous Cycling Simon Brothers’ – the others were Regis, Jerome and Francois. He took the Yellow Jersey on stage 10 to Bagneres-de-Louchon which was won by a young Scots rider, Robert Millar. Then, as so very often in the history of this race, disaster struck: he crashed on stage 11 the 177 kms to Fleurance. He finished the stage but was diagnosed with a fractured shoulder. Maybe he should have abandoned then but he decided to try and tough it out. And so began his battle – against his rivals, his suffering, his self doubt.

Stage 15: contre la montre to the summit of Puy de Dome. 15.6km of pure pain: “End of the road for Simon. Un calvaire. A climber at a standstill. A tightrope walker flirting with the void. A desire to abandon, the word on his lips that he refuses to cry out to the excited crowd. ‘I used up my effort too quickly. I thought I was much closer to the finish line. But the crowd was so thick that I got the distance wrong. I suffered horribly over those last 2 kms. But with all those people supporting me I couldn’t give in. On the contrary, their encouragement helped me to stay en danceuse as long as possible. It’s probably because of the crowd that I’m still in Yellow tonight.’”

Simon was still in Yellow by 52”.

Stage 16: 144.5 kms Issoire-Saint Etienne. Acceleration over the cote de Lavet. Simon is dropped, unable to respond. His team gather round him and start to chase. But the peloton are kind. Tomorrow is the Alpe and everyone is wary of striking their matches too early. A truce is called. After 20kms of pursuit, the Yellow Jersey is safely back in the peloton. Simon keeps the jersey for another day.

Stage 17: 223 kms Le-Tour-du-Pin – l’Alpe d’Huez. The high Alps puts an end to Simon’s dream of Yellow. The day is too hard, too long, too much. Simon is forced to abandon. Even courage has its limits: “I tried to go as far as possible. But I’m too bad. Tonight I’m sad. It’s the last time I’ll wear the Yellow Jersey.”

The new leader and eventual winner,  Fignon had this to say: “I’d like to pay homage to Pascal and what he’s done since his crash. He’s shown extraordinary courage and great dignity. But that’s life, that’s the race”.

Simon was right. He would never wear the Yellow Jersey again. But there’s a twist – a beautiful, wonderful, heartbreaking twist.

2001 Tour de France: Francois Simon has grown up with one of his brother’s Yellow Jerseys on the wall of his house. He’s always wanted one of his own and today he is close, so close. Before the stage he gets a telephone call from his brother Pascal: “He told me he’d had to leave the Jersey here and could I go and find it for him”. Later that day Francois pulled on the Yellow Jersey on Alpe d’Huez, 18 years after his brother had had to abandon it there.

1984 LE NOUVELLE GENERATION

  1. 1.       Laurent Fignon
  2. 2.       Bernard Hinault
  3. 3.       Greg Lemond

Look at that podium. Savour it. Fignon is 24, Lemond 23, Hinault 30. It’s the moment when the older generation gives way to the new. These are the 3 riders who will dominate the race until the rise of the Spanish star Miguel Indurain. It’s a purple patch for French cycling – the elegant Parisian v the combative Breton, a classic rivalry played out on the roads of France given added spice by the fact that they’d been teammates until Hinault moved to the new La Vie Claire team.

Vincent Barteau threatened to ‘do a Walkowiak’ by getting in an echappee fleuve that finished 19 minutes ahead of the peloton. Then Fignon struck, irony of ironies in Hinault’s favoured discipline, the time trial,  and pulled on the Yellow Jersey as the race hit the Alps – and the most glamorous climb in the Tour de France, possibly even in cycling, Alpe d’Huez.

21 virages climb 13.8 kms at an average of 7.9%. Each of those famous hairpins bears the name of a stage winner. Coppi’s name is there – he was the winner the first time the Alpe was climbed in the 1952 Tour. Michel Pollentier and Lance Armstrong’s names are not on a sign, even though they both won there. The Alpe doesn’t acknowledge some of its dopers. It’s not the longest or the steepest climb in a Grand Tour – the Mortirolo and the Angliru make it look like a Sunday club ride. For a mountain so iconic it’s strange to think that when Fignon and Hinault hit the start line in Grenoble, it was only the 10th time the Alpe had been used.

The 21 lacets are named like this:

  1. 1.        Guiseppi Guerini – the Telekom climber got knocked off his bike by a young photographer called Eric but got up and won in 1999
  2. 2.       Marco Pantani (1997)
  3. 3.       Marco Pantani (1995) This is generally agreed to be the record ascent
  4. 4.       Roberto Conti (1994)
  5. 5.       Andy Hampsten (1995) The first – and now only – American winner on the Alpe
  6. 6.       Gianni Bugno (1991) First time under 40’
  7. 7.       Gianni Bugno (1990)
  8. 8.      Gert-Jan Theunisse (1989) The last Dutchman to win here – the Alpe has been known as the Dutch mountain because of the extraordinary success of Dutch climbers. The only man to win on the Alpe in the polka dot jersey
  9. 9.       Steven Rooks (1988)
  10. 10.   Frederico Echave (1987)
  11. 11.    Bernrd Hinault (1986) Hinault is credited with the win though he and teammate Lemond crossed the finish line hand in hand
  12. 12.    Luis Herrera (1984) The Colombian team were amateurs who flew in the mountains and struggled everywhere else
  13. 13.    Peter Winnen (1983) A double winner, the Dutchman said he felt the climb had taken 5 years off his life
  14. 14.    Beat Breu (1982) The only Swiss to win on the Alpe, he attacked from the foot of the climb and was never caught
  15. 15.    Peter Winnen (1981)
  16. 16.    Joop Zoetemelk (1979) In 1979 the Alpe was climbed twice on successive days; Pierre Rolland (2011) only the second Frenchman to win on the Alpe where he sealed the White Jersey
  17. 17.    Joachim Agostinho (1979) the only Portuguese rider to win on the Alpe, he was 36 at the time Carlos Sastre (2008) Sastre won the Tour on this stage with a well orchestrated attack to take the Yellow Jersey from his teammate Frank Schleck
  18. 18.   Hennie Kuiper (1978) Frank Schleck (2006)
  19. 19.    Hennie Kueper (1977) Van Impe was leading on the climb but was hit by a car and had to wait for a wheel
  20. 20.   Joop Zoetemelk (1976) Dutchman Father Jaap rang the church bells for every Dutch winner Iban Mayo (2003)
  21. 21.    Fausto Coppi (1952) the Italian’s style beat Robic’s sheer guts in a classic duel and the first mountain top finish in the Tour.

Luis ‘Lucho’ Herrera climbed like an eagle or an angel or a condor. He left Fignon and Hinault floundering but the Colombians never capitalised on their climbing abilities – Robert Millar said if there was a crash in the race you’d usually find a Colombian at the bottom of it. An amateur team, extraordinarily enough, the debuted in 1983 and had an awful time of it, unable to cope with the etapes de plain of the Tour. Lucho’s coronation at Alpe d’Huez was some recompense for the images of Tolosa, Perez and Rubiano struggling way off the pace the year before.

Pierre Chany eulogised the ‘duel of the generations’ in L’Equipe:

“On the interminable slopes of the Alpe d’Huez, where gather clusters of human beings of all colours and all nationalities, the Tour de France, searching for its truth, touches the sublime with the beauty and the cruelty of its penalties. The sublime comes in the form of Luis Herera, the spider of the Colombian peaks, who has responded with brio to the support shown by his faraway people, and Laurent Fignon, the French Champion who starts each day with new and broad horizons, wielding his whip hand over the international community.

The first has given back to the climbers, legendary heroes of the heroic Tours, all their former glory arriving at the summit 49” ahead of he who would take the Maillot Jaune, where he received it last year. The cruelty is reserved for Bernard Hinault, the hard nosed baroudeur, proud rider and lover of a challenge, which he delivers on with admirable generosity. After making the stage as hard as possible, with the obvious plan of taking Fignon to the limit of his strength, he instead experienced, in the course of the last hour, the most terrible road of the cross. In the career of a champion the cruellest moment is without doubt the moment when he suddenly discovers the extent of his weakness, in the face of the assault of a disrespectful youth, and it seems that the ex-World Champion arrived at that place today.

Hinault finished his painful race in a state of near distress, but he will never give up on the fight, already entertaining ideas of revenge today and tomorrow and the following days: “Today I suffered, but I won’t stop attacking before Paris!” he promises, 10 minutes after the stage finishes”.

Hinault would make good on his word – if Fignon and the cycling world felt that the baton had passed to the New Generation then Hinault would make them think again.   

1985 AND NOW THE AMERICAN…

I could see all the spectators lining the roads and I just felt ashamed of myself.  It was a humiliating and humbling experience.”

With only a motard for company, Sherwen rides on. Mile after endless, lonely, gut wrenching, painful mile. “I was out of my mind for a long time. I could hardly pedal and there were times when I could have walked faster. But I said to myself  ‘you can’t get off now, not now’. It would have been a terrible way to end my time on the Tour. I am riding the best race in the world and it would be heartbreaking to stop.”

The rest of the peloton have crossed the line 40 minutes ago when Sherwen starts to drag his weary, pain riddled body up the final climb to the finish at Pontarlier – a final 6.8 km at an average 5.5%. The vehicles of the publicity caravan are already starting their return journey and have to move aside to let him pass. Finally, Sherwen’s long, lonely, extraordinary calvaire is over as he weaves across the finish line.

The commisaires decided his courage and guts and endurance  deserved another chance. Sherwen didn’t disappoint their faith in him. He finished his final race 141st of the 144 finishers. A few years later he joined Phil Liggett in the commentary box and became inalienably tied to so many of my Tour de France memories.

Neither Sherwen or Liggett have covered themselves in glory since the Armstrong scandal. And ever since I’ve been able to watch the race on France 2/3 and French Eurosport my voices of the Tour have been Fignon and Prudhomme, Thevenet and Adam and Holtz and Olivier and Jalabert and Chasse. Some of them – Prudhomme and Adam I’m looking at you – may be every bit as irritating in their own ways as Sherwen and Liggett became years ago. But for those bringing me those golden Tours of the mid to late 80s – and for the bravery of that incredible, brave, lonely ride – I can almost forgive you.

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3 thoughts on “1981 – 1985 Age & Guile v Youth & Skill

  1. I found the link on the Guardian website and I’ve just spent a couple of hours reading all of your articles. Perfect way to spend a Sunday evening with a bottle of wine and digging out youtube clips.

    Many thanks.

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