Today is a hallowed day in the history of cycling - it's Bernard Hinault's birthday. Born in the Breton town of Yffiniac, Hinault went on to win five Tours de France, three Giri d'Italia and two Vueltas a Espana - making him the only man to have won all three Grand Tours more than once and a contender, as far as many fans during the time that he was active and today are concerned, for the unofficial title of Greatest Cyclist Ever.
Hinault was born on his grandparents' farm, but his parents encouraged him to go into banking rather than farming or finding work on the railways like his father, but when he was 13 and he began performing well in cross country running it became obvious that their son was destined for life as a sportsman instead. Then on the 2nd of May in 1971, aged 16 and riding a bike borrowed from his older brother Gilbert, Hinault entered his first cycling race and literally crushed his more experienced opponents - most couldn't even stay with him during the event, then he obliterated those few that had managed to hang on when he launched his winning sprint with 700m to go to the finish line. Within a year, he was Junior National Champion; though French cyclists were playing second fiddle to the Belgians and their mighty champion Merckx, it looked as though his successor had been found.
Late in 1974, Hinault turned professional with Sonolor-Gitane after winning the Amateur National Pursuit Championship and coming second in the Under-23 Route de France earlier in the season. The team became Gitane-Campagnolo for 1975 and Hinault won the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe and the Elite National Pursuit Championship, then in 1976 he won 18 times - including the prestigious Tours du Limousin and de l'Aude. The year after that he won Gent-Wevelgem, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Limousin for a second time, the Critérium du Dauphiné and, proving himself as great a time trial rider as he was a stage racer, the GP des Nations.
Most riders do not complete their first Grand Tour, usually finding the level of competition, the distances and the difficulty of the parcours to be far greater than they'd expected. Hinault's first was the Vuelta a Espana in 1978 - he won the General Classification and was third in both the Points and King of the Mountains competitions. Afterwards, he won the Criterium International and the National Championships, then rode his first Tour de France and won that too, coming third on Points and second in the King of the Mountains. In 1979 he won it again, this time also winning the Points competition and again taking second in the King of the Mountains - by the final stage that year, his advantage was sufficiently large that only a crash could have prevented him winning and he could have coasted through the parcours, but that was not Hinault's way - instead, he got into a tooth-and-nails battle with Joop Zoetemelk to be first over the line and win on the Champs-Elysées. He beat the Dutchman, who days later would be disqualified from second place when it was revealed he'd failed an anti-doping test.
Hinault won Liège-Bastogne-Liège again in 1980, but the victory cost him dearly: refusing to give up in treacherous wintry conditions that forced other riders to abandon in droves, he became so cold that it took several weeks for him to regain full use of his arms. That race was probably also the beginning of the tendinitis that would plague him for the rest of the season: some fifty other riders competing at Hinault's level were also diagnosed with tendinitis at around the same time, an apparent statistical anomaly that has never been convincingly explained and which has led some researchers and fans to suspect the cause was an unknown doping agent; since no doping agent known to have been in use at that time has such an effect, it seems more likely that the high incidence of the disease was due to a combination of the cold weather at early season races and chance rather than skulduggery. Nevertheless, Zoetemelk was not affected and it allowed him to gain the upper hand at the Tour that year. Most historians are agreed that, had things have been otherwise, Hinault would have been the first man to win six Tours rather than the third to win five and, when he returned to the race in 1981, he stamped his authority on it by winning with an advantage of more than fourteen and a half minutes over second place Lucien van Impe and almost eighteen and a half over Zoetemelk.
In 1982, Hinault won the Giro d'Italia and the Tour, then the Vuelta in 1983. He was second at the Tour the following year and rumours suggesting that - as had been the case with Merckx - his best years had come to a relatively early end began circulating; but whereas Merckx failed to recognise the fact and kept trying long after the highpoint he said would mark the end of his career, Hinault still had another Tour in his legs - and what a Tour it was. American prodigy Greg Lemond had been invited to join Hinault's La Vie Claire that season, either because Hinault saw him as a great rider of the future and altruistically wished to give him a chance to learn and develop (say Hinault's fans) or to prevent him becoming a rival in what was likely to be Hinault's final realistic attempt to win the Tour (say those who believe Hinault incapable of altruism, many of whom are also fans). Hinault at his peak was all but unbeatable on a flat mass-start race or time trial and, once, had been able to rely on his sheer brute strength to muscle up the climbs; however, he was now 31 and sufficiently wise to realise that younger riders were going to beat him in the mountains - especially the Colombians, who were new to European racing but grew up training on mountains with foothills higher than Galibier, so he made an unwritten, unofficial agreement with them: he would sit back and let them win as much as they wanted without challenge on the mountain stages and in return they would not challenge him for the General Classification. He also made an agreement with Lemond: for the first part of the Tour they would see who stood the better chance of winning and the lesser man would then ride in support. It soon became apparent that Hinault, still able to do as he pleased on the flat stages and still good enough on the climbs to carry him through, was the better rider. Lemond graciously accepted, Hinault set about winning his fifth Tour. Then, in the last kilometre of Stage 14, Hinault and five others crashed. His nose was broken but, after being checked over by a doctor on the roadside for several minutes, he was able to continue. The photographs of him covered in blood taken immediately afterwards and with two black eyes over the following days have become some of the most iconic images in cycling, but the crash left Hinault in a precarious position: while his nose gave him breathing difficulties, he could still win so long as Lemond helped. The trouble was that if Lemond refused and pulled out all the stops, he was now in with a chance too. The American showed himself to be an honourable man by agreeing to support his leader and, thus, Hinault became the third man in history to win the Tour five times; in return, he agreed that in 1986 he would ride in support of Lemond.
Of course, being the man that he was, Hinault wasn't going to ride his final Tour as a humble domestique - to do such a thing was simply not in his nature and there are still those who believe that he planned to go back on the agreement and win for himself until it became obvious to him that Lemond was going to beat him. Hinault, however, says that he did not and that his plan all along was to grind down the opposition; either way, his chances ended with a spectacular, suicidal attack on the Alpe d'Huez. The two men rode to the finish line hand-in-hand before Lemond let The Boss take the stage, knowing that the yellow jersey he'd won the day before would remain his and that he was going to be the first American to win the Tour. Shortly afterwards, Hinault announced his retirement from road racing; no other Frenchman has won the Tour since.
November the 14th also marks the anniversary of Hinault's final race, a cyclo cross event followed by a party in his honour. At the party, he hung his bike up on a specially-provided hook to symbolise that his career was over. He claims that he did not ride a bike again for many years afterwards.
Born in Boulder, Colorado on this day in 1985, Mara Abbott - in common with a probable majority of female professional riders - didn't intend to make a career from cycling. She was, in her teenage years, a swimmer, and she took part in competitions while she was at college. Cycling was just a handy addition to her springtime training regime, when she she needed to get back to race fitness after winter.
It didn't take long before someone noticed how fast she was on the bike and suggested she join the college's cycling team - which, with her onboard, won the team time trial and the omnium. Then, in 2005, she won the bronze medal in the Under-23 National Championship (which makes you wonder how many world-class cyclists - and other athletes - are never discovered here in Britain and other countries where colleges don't have such well-financed sports programs, doesn't it?) In addition she won the infamously difficult Mount Evans Hill Climb with its finish line at 4,308m - 1,506m (roughly equal to the total height of the Col du Grand Columbier) higher than the Cime de la Bonette, the highest point ever reached in the Tour de France - that year, and again in 2006 when she would also take fifth place in the Elite National Road Race Championships.
In 2007, Abbott turned professional with Webcor and got her season off to a promising start with victory on Stage 1 and second place overall (behind Amber Neben) at Redlands, then won Stage 2 and overall at the Tour of the Gila. She was second at the Nature Valley GP, beat Kristen Armstrong and Amber Neben to become National Road Race Champion and came second at the Tour de Toona to round off the year. Having graduated and signed a contract with Columbia, she won no General Classifications in 2008 but took stages at San Dimas, Redlands, Mount Hood, the Krasna Lipa Tour and the Giro della Toscana - the latter two proving to be the first of many successes still to come in Europe, from the next season onward: in 2009, Stage 3 and second place overall (behind Claudia Hausler) at the Giro Donne; Stage 4 and second place overall and in the Mountains classification at the Tour de l'Aude, Stages 8 and 9 and overall at the Giro Donne in 2010 (and, back at home, another National Road Race Championship, then a stage and overall at Cascade).
Suddenly, without obvious cause, Abbott began to perform at first less well (though not badly - tenth at the Giro Donne could never be described as bad) and then worse. In 2012, she announced that she would be retiring, and gave two reasons. One was her concern at the environmental impact of professional cycling (cycling is seen as a "green" activity, and in almost all cases it is. Professional cycling, which requires a rider such as Abbott to travel around the world by airliner in order to attend races where large numbers of vehicles - as many as four thousand, not including five or six helicopters, at a race like the Tour de France, though most races including women's races will have many times fewer - follow the peloton, is rather questionable). The other was that she had developed an eating disorder.
She thought she was done with cycling and got a job working in a coffee shop to supplement the income she earned teaching yoga. Cycling, however, was not done with her: "I thought I could quit cycling and solve all my problems. At the end of a year off, I still had all the same hang-ups, the same problems, the same angsty things that we all have. They were all still there, and I missed cycling," she said, soon after she'd approached Exergy-Twenty16 and been offered a new contract. Still recovering from her illness, she and the team coaches carefully planned a program designed to gradually return her to peal fitness, using minor races - certainly not anything on the scale of the Giro Rosa, as the Giro Donne was now known.
By May, she'd come on leaps and bounds and had begun to think she couldn't bear not to with her team at the Giro so, following consultation with her doctors, she was given a place on the squad - and, in what since Lance Armstrong was exposed as a cheat might be the most incredible comeback story in cycling, she won Stages 5, 6 and the General Classification
*Total vertical gain (ie, actual height ascended) on the Mount Evans parcours is 2,008m; Bonette, from Jausiers, is 1,589m. Mount Evans is made even more difficult because, at altitudes greater than 3,500m, severe altitude sickness is a real issue. Symptoms include pulmonary oedema, cerebral oedema, retinal haemorrhage and loss of consciousness.
Girls, as we have seen with Mara Abbott, are rarely encouraged to consider professional cycling as a potential career path - this is partly because of out-dated attitudes in society and partly because of the sad truth that, as things are now, very few of them will ever make a decent salary from their sport (even the very best - even a rider like Marianne Vos, who is widely considered the best cyclist of either sex of her generation - will earn much, much less than any half-decent male Elite rider). For boys, this is not so often the case - especially if they were born and raised in a region where cycling is popular such as Brittany, where Bernard Hinault was born on this day in 1954, or Italy (Messina, Sicily, to be precise) where Vincenzo Nibali was born on the same day three decades later.
Nibali would stay with Liquigas for seven seasons. In 2007, having won the Giro di Toscana, he raced his first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, and performed surprisingly well - he was seventh on Stage 20 and finished in 19th place overall. Later in the same year, he won two stages at the Tour of Slovenia and came second at the National Championships. In 2008 he won the Giro del Trentino and came 11th overall at the Giro d'Italia, then entered the Tour de France for the first time, finishing in 20th place overall and taking third in the young riders' classification. He was third young rider again the following year, but upped his General Classification result to seventh place overall.
Now there was no doubting: Nibali was a potential Grand Tour winner, yet he was not chosen for the Giro d'Italia that year until days before the race when irregularities regarding Franco Pellizotti's biological passport came to light. He came closer to winning than ever before with third place in the General Classification and the Points at the Giro, also winning Stage 14 - his first ever Grand Tour stage win. Though attempting to win the Tour de France in the same season as the Giro is, for most riders, too much, Nibali's victory at the Tour of Slovenia proved the earlier Grand Tour hadn't taken too much out of him; having shown that he had the necessary form, he was allocated a place with the Vuelta a Espana squad - and having finished four stages in second place (and, perhaps, receiving a little boost with the withdrawal of Igor Anton, who was injured in a crash two-thirds of the way through the event), he won overall and was third in the Points competition.
In 2011, Nibali was third overall and in the Points at the Giro, after spending much of the race fighting it out with Michele Scarponi, who was second overall, when it became apparent that neither of them was going to be able to catch Alberto Contador - however, Contador would later be stripped of the win following his controversial doping ban; as a result, Scarponi is listed as winner and Nibali as second place. At the Vuelta, he was settled for seventh - though he achieved many impressive placings, he went without victory in major races that year. It wouldn't take long in 2012 to demonstrate that he was back, however: an early season stage victory and second place overall at the Tour of Oman, then another stage win and victory in the General Classification and on Points at Tirreno-Adriatico did the trick, as did a good showing at the Classics (3rd at Milan-San Remo, 8th at the Flèche Wallonne and 2nd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and third place overall at the Tour de France.
|Nibali leading the 2013 Giro|
It's also Petra Rossner's birthday. The German professional was World Road champion in 2002, an Olympic gold medallist and won the Liberty Classic on seven occasions. She lives in the city of her birth, Leipzig.
Guy Ignolin was also born on this day, in Vernou-sur-Brenne in 1936. He won a series of races from the end of the 1950s through to the end of the 1960s as well as three stages of the Tour de France and two at the Vuelta a Espana.
Today marks the anniversary of the birth in 1927 of Renato Perona, the Italian professional who won a gold medal for the tandem event (with Ferdinando Terruzzi) at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. He died on the 9th of April 1984, aged 56. Terruzzi, born three years earlier, is still with us.
Other cyclists born on this day: Andi Bajc (23), Zachary Bell (29), Lien Beyen (26), David Boifava (65), Timothy Duggan (29), Ben Gastauer (24), Yoshinori Irie (41), Alo Jakin (25), Gianluca Leonardi (22), Adam McGrath (24), Guillaume Nelessen (28), Madeleine Olsson (29), Adam Pierzga (27), Joey Van Rhee (19), Amelie Rivat (22), Jose Alberto Benitez Roman (30), Matthias Russ (28), Pavel Shumanov (43), Marina Theodorou (23), Hege Linn Eie Vatland (32), Patricia Vazquez (21), Nikita Zharovem (19)