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Re-Cycle: Hinault soloes to glory in 'Neige-Bastogne-Neige'

Re-Cycle: Hinault soloes to glory in 'Neige-Bastogne-Neige'

26/04/2019 at 10:55Updated 26/04/2019 at 12:39

In the second of our Re-Cycle series, Felix Lowe looks back at the freezing 1980 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in which Bernard Hinault braved blizzards and snow to win by almost 10 minutes from a field of just 21 finishers.

If man-of-the-moment Julian Alaphilippe continues his fine Ardennes form and wins the 105th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, he will become the first Frenchman in almost 40 years to tame The Old Lady.

The last French victor of La Doyenne – long before Alaphilippe was even born – was Bernard Hinault, doing so in conditions he would later describe as "hellish".

Hell, and its connotations of perpetual fire beneath the earth, couldn't be further from the freezing temperatures and driving snow faced by the peloton on 20th April 1980. But Hinault was not wrong: C'était infernal.

This one race perhaps more than any other underlined Hinault's credentials as "le patron" of the peloton. It represented a day that the Badger, then 26 years old, showcased his ability to suffer for the sport which he dominated; a day that Hinault braved the elements to show the world that he was in a different class from his peers; a day the frostbitten Frenchman gave the metaphorical two fingers to his rivals – and almost paid by losing two fingers of his own.

After more than seven hours in the saddle battling what has been described as the worst weather in Ardennes history, Hinault was the first of just 21 riders to finish the race. The man who came second, Hennie Kuiper of the Netherlands, crossed the line 9 minutes 24 seconds down; the Lanterne Rouge, Norway's Jostein Wilmann, came home a massive 27 minutes in arrears.

There's no two ways about it: Hinault's astonishing win in 1980 is a sporting feat that will probably never be matched again in cycling.

1980: A very cold spring

It wasn't as if the frosty conditions came as too much of a surprise. The spring of 1980 had never really progressed beyond winter, with March's Paris-Nice – the so-called Race to the Sun – playing out in intervals of snow, rain and wind.

There were calls for the fourth stage to Saint-Étienne to be cancelled amid heavy snow but the riders were nevertheless sent out. In his autobiography, Hinault recollects "the trees bending under the weight of the snow" as the riders edged forward "in what seemed like the night-time".

Worried that too many riders would abandon, Jean Leulliot, the race organiser, announced that there would be no eliminations. So, Hinault did what most of the others did: "I rode on simply to keep warm and to shake free the snow that stuck to my clothes."

Hinault arrived at the finish forty-five minutes behind the stage winner, Pierre Bazzo of France. The next day, he rode in support of compatriot Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, the yellow jersey, even though they were not team-mates.

Things did not improve at the Critérium Internationale, where Hinault won the time trial but struggled in the cold with a sore knee. His Renault-Gitane boss Cyrille Guimard was starting to get agitated with his riders, many of whom he felt were not pulling their weight.

Bronchitis, a calf strain and a crash combined to see Hinault withdraw from Gent-Wevelgem, but he finished fourth in Paris-Roubaix, fifth in the Amstel Gold Race and third at La Flèche Wallonne. But if his good legs were returning, the weather was not improving.

The 66th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège would go down as one of the most legendary examples of racing in extreme weather, up there with Eddy Merckx at Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 1968, Eugène Christophe in Milan-San Remo in 1910, Charly Gaul at Monte Bondone in 1956 and Andy Hampsten on the Gavia in the 1988 Giro d'Italia.

Snow from the get-go

With temperatures near freezing point and the first snowflakes falling as the riders rolled out of Liège, leading commentators were already dining out on the Neige-Bastogne-Neige pun as scores of riders threw in the sodden towel on the ridge to the south of the city.

By the time the riders passed through Sprimont after 10km they had a full-blown storm on their hands. In his book The Monuments, Peter Cossins says Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe pulled over to the side of the road and pleaded with the driver of a car heading north to give him a lift back to Liège.

"The withdrawals multiplied," Hinault said in his autobiography. "Everything doubled up as a refuge. A service station, a café, a bus shelter… even the front door of a stranger's house."

Eurosport's Sean Kelly, who would go on to win La Doyenne two times, was among the withdrawals that day. In William Fotheringham's biography of the Badger – Bernard Hinault: The Rise and Fall of French Cycling – Kelly tells the author that many riders who had their families watching on the roadside quickly joined them in their cars.

" One of my team-mates rode back to Liège after forty kilometres, straight to the hotel, but he couldn't get his clothes off because his fingers were so cold, so he just got in the bath with everything on."

An hour in, the countryside was covered by a blanket of snow. After two hours, just 60 riders from the 174 starters remained leaving only one third of the field. Those left were riding in the tyre tracks of the race cars because the snow was too thick elsewhere on the road.

Hinault's final team-mate

Among those who had abandoned were the entire Renault-Gitane squad except the leader, Hinault, and his trusty right-hand man, Maurice le Guilloux.

"I also wanted to abandon," Hinault admitted in his autobiography.

" Crystals of snow were stinging my eyes so much that it felt like I was crying. The other riders around me were also suffering. Maurice le Guilloux, as so often was the case, rode alongside me. I warned him: 'If it's still snowing at the feed zone, I'm getting off.'"

But Le Guilloux urged Hinault to keep peddling. The sun had appeared briefly as the riders rode through Bastogne, although fresh snow started to fall on the return loop to Liège as the race headed back north.

Le Guilloux was also battling frozen eyes. The excellent Inner Ring blog reveals that Guimard handed him his expensive Ray Bans from the team car and told Le Guilloux to wear them to keep the snow out. "Be careful, they cost one thousand francs!" Guimard warned. But they proved a priceless gesture for Le Guilloux's eyesight was restored and he was able to pace Hinault up the St-Roch climb at Houffalize.

"I think that if I hadn't been there, The Badger would have abandoned," Le Guilloux told L'Équipe some years later. "I think he wanted to be the last one on the team in the race, the final one to abandon the sinking ship."

Sunshine on a snowy day

Hinault's threat that he would abandon at the feed station at Vielsalm came to nothing because of a timely reappearance of the sun.

Maurice Champion, Renault's second directeur sportif alongside Cyrille Guimard, was waiting with dry clothes, two bidons of piping hot tea and a new bike with a 23-toothed ring at the back, which would help Hinault maintain traction in the slush on the climbs that peppered the return to Liège.

Wet weather gear wasn't the same as it was today. For instance, gloves were made of wool and within minutes were soaked through. Carrying no spares in the car, Guimard occasionally asked Hinault to take them off so he could wring them out and attempt (in vain) to dry them out on the car heater.

Remarkably, although Hinault wore gloves, shoe covers and, at times, a red balaclava which at one point ended up perched on his head like a tea cosy, the Frenchman never covered his knees with leg warmers that day.

His job done, Le Guilloux joined the list of withdrawals leaving Hinault, his teeth still chattering, isolated. "Until then, I hadn't really paid any attention to the race," Hinault later said. "I decided the only thing I could do was to ride as hard as I could to keep myself warm."

In his book, Hinault explains how he got a little helping hand here from his tyrannical directeur sportif…

" A bit later on, Cyrille told me to take off my rain cape. Despite the cold, I took it off and, to warm myself up, put myself to work at the front of the peloton. I rode without turning around. At the summit of the Stockeu, there was no one left in my wheel."

Soloing through the slush

By the time Hinault started to race, he was riding in a greatly reduced peloton who trailed Belgian duo Rudy Pevenage and Ludo Peeters by 2'15" going onto the Stockeu. By upping the tempo, Hinault rode clear with Italy's Silvano Contini and Dutchman Henk Lubberding, catching Peeters and then Pevenage on the Haute Levée climb (neither of the escapees were among the 21 riders to reach Liège).

With 80km remaining, Hinault put in another acceleration and soloed clear. None of the other riders would see him again. The snow had by now stopped but it was still icy cold. As he passed over the climbs of Rosiers, La Redoute and the Côte des Forges, his advantage grew: 2'10" with 70km remaining, rising to 5'00" with 40km to go.

"I didn't look at anything. I didn't see anything. I only thought about myself," he later said, before sparing a thought for the few fans who had braved the cold: "It must have been extremely tough for them."

The red balaclava which he had pulled over his face during the worst of the snowstorms had long disappeared. With Liège on the horizon, the sun even started to peek through the clouds. The roads were dry and there was little evidence of the cataclysmic conditions the riders had been forced to endure. Some of the survivors, indeed, had even removed their arm warmers.

Cossins writes that many of those who abandoned earlier were there to cheer Hinault across the finish line on the Boulevard de la Sauvenière. There was no celebration from Hinault – but not, as was assumed, because of any supposed anger he felt towards his plight.

" I didn't raise my arms, partly because everyone knew I had won, but also because I was completely done. If I had raised my arms, I would have fallen flat on my face. Journalists came to congratulate me. They were talking about Neige-Bastogne-Neige. It was only then that I realised the feat that I had just accomplished."

Runner-up Kuiper has his say

It was nine minutes and twenty-four seconds before Dutchman Hennie Kuiper beat the Belgian Ronny Claes in the consolatory sprint for second place. But it could have been so different were it not for an incident on the Stockeu climb which derailed Kuiper's race.

"The Stockeu is a very important place in the race," Kuiper told Eurosport this week. "There's always a sprint to get in the good position because it's a bit like the Koppenberg: a lot of hectic [sic], domestiques riding for leaders, the TV cameras waiting for images but too close to the peloton."

Pushing things to the limit, Kuiper was forced to slam on the brakes to avoid a race motorcycle which had blocked his way. "I slipped in the slush and had to take my foot clips out. It made me crazy because I was really good that day."

The Peugeot-Esso-Michelin rider, who was then 31, was forced to push his bike up the steepest part of the climb before remounting and battling back into the fold. By the time he'd reached the main pack, Hinault had already ridden clear in pursuit of the leaders.

TI-Raleigh's Peeters was up ahead and Kuiper found himself with four of the Belgian's team-mates. He made the call not to lead the chase and make them work, but it backfired.

"It was a big mistake tactically," he said. "Nobody had realised that Hinault could stay away for so long. But he had gone. There was nothing left to go but continue.

" It was a pity not to be with Hinault when he attacked. He was the best that day, but I could have been there. He was also suffering like hell."

Did Kuiper ever consider quitting rather than ride for second place?

"I never thought of quitting in my career. It was a big race, I was fit, motivated – a bike rider. Sometimes the weather is bad, but I was a professional.

" People were crying but I just rode on."

But there remained much regret on the part of Kuiper, who went on to win the Tour of Flanders and Giro di Lombardia in 1981, Paris-Roubaix in 1983 and Milan-San Remo in 1985 (aged 36).

" What happened with the moto made me so mad. After the crash I was so pissed off. That annoyed me more than the cold. I was the best of the rest. I was in a very good day – otherwise you don't come second in such a big race. But I could have been second in the same time as Hinault."

Hinault bathes in glory – but at what cost?

The Frenchman rated his second Liège-Bastogne-Liège win as his "most beautiful" classics triumph alongside his first victory in the Giro di Lombardia in 1979, where he broke clear with 150km remaining before beating Silvano Contini (who would win La Doyenne in 1982) in a two-up sprint.

But in a post-race television interview – before some of the remaining riders had even crossed the line – Hinault admitted he came close to calling it quits early on.

"I think if it was still snowing as hard at the feed zone I would have abandoned because it was really too difficult," he said. "But it wasn't snowing and there was even a little bit of sun. So I took off my rain cape and that allowed my body to breathe a little and allowed me to climb Stockeu a bit better and all the other climbs to follow."

Back at the team hotel, a hot bath had been poured for the champion. But as soon as he stepped in, Hinault cried out in pain: his frozen body was unable to cope with the heat.

" I had to empty the bath of hot water, get in on all fours and then, with cold water first of all, and then, gradually, a bit of warm water, I erased the stains of the day."

It was during this thawing process that Hinault realised that the middle fingers of each hand remained numb. Over three decades later, he told Fotheringham: "I can still feel it in the second finger of both hands. They are still not right. When it's below four or five degrees and I have to work outside, I need to wear gloves."

What happened next

"That evening," Hinault wrote in his autobiography, "there was no need to go crazy. I dined on a salade niçoise, ham on the bone and a peach melba. I allowed myself a glass of Beaujolais. I woke up at 5:30am the next morning to take a plane home to Brittany in time for lunch."

A month later, Hinault won the only Grand Tour which he had not yet won: the Giro d'Italia, prompting hopes that he could emulate the great Eddy Merckx and win the Triple Crown.

But although Hinault would become World Champion in August at Sallanches, it was not as a triple Tour de France champion after tendinitis in his left knee forced Hinault to retire from the Tour while in the yellow jersey with a week remaining (not before he and Kuiper rode clear of the pack in torrential rain on the fifth stage to Lille from... Liège).

Wearing the rainbow stripes, Hinault would win both Amstel Gold and (despite crashing seven times) Paris-Roubaix in 1981, although he could only take 18th place on his return to Liège.

His mythical victory in that snow-swept edition came when the Badger was at the zenith of his powers but, as Fotheringham states, the first chinks in his armour were appearing: the knee problem that popped up in the 1980 Tour and haunted him in his later years could be traced back to the snowy Ardennes.

Speaking to the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure on the thirtieth anniversary of a race that no French rider has subsequently won, Hinault said: "I still have very good memories of that day, even though I didn't realise how the cold was going to affect my fingers.

" I suffered, but not physically. My legs were in good shape. I was there to win a race that I enjoyed, unlike the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix."

Quizzed again about his thought of quitting, he replied: "When you're in that scenario, when you are at the front, you forget the cold, the snow and the freezing rain. You don't abandon. When you are in form, you can deal with anything. The heat and the cold are tough, but you can deal with them mentally. On the sporting side, it was actually quite an easy win because of the conditions."

Whether we will ever witness anything quite so remarkable in a bike race is unlikely. Today, the UCI's Extreme Weather Protocol means that races are more likely to be cancelled or shortened in such demanding conditions – as reflected in Milan-San Remo in 2013 when the riders got off their bikes on the snowy Turchino Pass before being bused to the Ligurian coast ahead of Gerald Ciolek's surprise win.

"The clothing is also so much better nowadays," said Kuiper. "When he won Liège three years ago, Wout Poels had gloves with a battery and heating inside. But back in my time, it was the same for everybody. Cycling is a sport for people with character. You have to work hard and love your job. When it snows during Liège-Bastogne-Liège you don't even think about your pain or problems."

Now no-one is saying Alaphilippe et al lack character, but it's undeniable that today's stars have it much easier than those in Kuiper's time.

Although, if Alaphilippe ends France's 39-year wait for a Liège-Bastogne-Liège win this Sunday, he'll have to do so against the elements. There may not be any snow on the horizon, but the forecast is heavy rain and even some lightning. Over to you, Julian…

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