“The snow was driving so hard into our faces, on a crosswind, that we had to protect our eyes with one hand. We needed ski goggles. I couldn’t see a thing.”
Bernard Hinault talking after Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Sunday 20 April, 1980. The race was 245 kilometres; after 70km, 110 of the 174 riders had already quit.
Approaching the feed station at Vietsalm, at 149km, Hinault told his directeur Cyrille Guimard that if it hadn’t stopped snowing by the time they got there, he was climbing off.
As if Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance herself, was eavesdropping, the sun came out. Hinault, being the sort of man he is, was obliged to ride on.
“I went to the front and started to go [roule] because that way I could get some heat into my body and legs.” (The French word rouler can mean to lick someone, as in a fight, or, in the slang, to stand on the pedals.)
He caught and dropped a small group of breakaways, and, 80km from the finish, he was on his own.
“My mind was blank – I couldn’t see anything. I was locked up in myself. I looked at the pine trees – everything was white. I was riding in the furrows left by the car tracks.”
He finished 9min 24sec ahead of Hennie Kuiper, his second victory in the doyen of Classics (Hinault had already won in 1977 and was second in ’79).
By the time Kuiper arrived everyone had gone – television and radio reporters included. It’s as cogent an example as there is of Hinault’s sheer class, his willpower – the rage à vaincre of which he’s spoken – and his style, the panache, the exploit, the dominating spirit, what he called “une morale terrible”.
“Since that day,” he said 30 years on, “I have no feeling in two of my fingers. As soon as the glass drops below eight degrees, I get a pain there.”