Monday 14 November 2011

Daily Cycling Facts 14.11.11

Bernard Hinault
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 Giros 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.

Hinault's nickname among fans - Le Blaireau ("The Badger") - is usually attributed to his aggression and fearlessness, though he argues that it was a common name used among local cyclists in his youth. The aggression that famously drove him to punch a striking docker (who, with a large number of others, had disrupted the race as a protest) at the 1984 Tour de France is still evident - when a protestor climbed onto the stage after Stage 3 in the 2008 Tour, Hinault had tackled him and thrown him off before security had even had time to react. In the peloton he was known as Le Patron, "The Boss," because he ruled cycling both on and off the bike; while many riders fade away and vanish from cycling once they reach retirement, Hinault has increased his control - as a special advisor to the Tour's organising committee the Société du Tour de France, he has a great deal of say in the route that the race takes each year, deciding whether it will favour climbers, sprinters, time trial specialists or rouleurs. He is also vehemently opposed to doping and supports lifetime bans for those proven guilty.

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.

Another very happy birthday to Mara Abbott.  Abbott, from Colorado and currently with Diadora-Pasta Zara, is one of the most successful cyclists in the world today - and among the strongest, her sheer power allowing her to win the brutal  Mt. Evans hill climb (More than 2000m of ascent in 44km) for two consecutive years, the first in 2005 when she was only 19 years old. In 2007 she became National Road Race Champion, won the King of the Mountains at the Giro Donne two years later, won the same event outright the following year and then came 2nd overall in the Tour of the Gila in 2011.

Vincenzo "The Shark" Nibali was born on this day in 1984. Nibali, who rides with Liquigas, came to prominence with an unexpected win at the 2006 GP Ouest France and went on to win the Giro di Toscana the following year. In 2008 he came 20th in the Tour de France and 11th in the Giro d'Italia, improving the next year to finish 7th in the Tour. In 2010, he won the Vuelta a Espana and came 3rd in the Giro, winning two stages, then achieved the same finish in the 2011 Giro. There is every reason to expect a Grand Tour overall win sometime soon.

It's also Petra Rossner's birthday. The German professional, World Road champion in 2002, Olympic gold medallist and winner of the Liberty Classic on seven occasions. She lives in the city of her birth, Leipzig, with partner Judith Arndt - also a highly successful professional rider.

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)

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