It's hard to imagine a more 'explosive' start to a book about a rivalry between two of the greatest cyclists than the story of LeMond heading back to the team bus with diarrhoea only to find the portaloo removed and instead having to take an enormous shit in a large box of promotional postcards bearing his rivals face – literally shitting on Hinault himself! Brilliant!
What follows is Richard Moore's exhaustively researched story of the 1986 Tour de France battle between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. Hinault, the Badger of the title, is the defending champion; LeMond, L'Américain, his team mate and also his rival. Normally, you would expect team mates to work together and Hinault, who is close to retirement, had at the end of the previous tour appeared to promise that in his final year he would work for LeMond to win the race. Moore has spent some time interviewing everybody involved in the story: Hinault and LeMond obviously, but also other team mates, directeur sportifs and rivals from other teams. While that level of research shows throughout the book in the details that really bring the story alive to the reader, it is also the book's only slight weakness – at times, the book risks reading as page after page of quotes lifted directly out of his interviews. You start to wonder where the voice of Moore is in all this.
The book is split into three sections. Like a mini-Tour de France itself: a Prologue where the scene is set, the rivals are introduced and the two main interviews are begun; the rest of the book is split into two halves – the Départ delves into the history between the two riders starting on the Renault team under Cyrille Guimard up to the 1985 Tour de France back together again this time in the La Vie Claire team, and the Arrivée describes the events of the 1986 Tour de France, stage by stage, attack by attack. Early comparisons are made between Hinault and LeMond, one French Breton, stepped in the history of cycling and European (French) tradition. The other American, new to Europe, barely speaking French with no real idea of what he was getting into. Such different people and such different such different styles of rider, they were never going to be friends, having read the book it is surprising they managed to work together even as much as they did. In a way, Hinault's dominant personality and LeMond's more submissive side led into the patterns of behaviour that they never quite manage to break completely.
The 1986 race itself takes up only half the book, each stage gets it's own section and much coverage is made of the psychological battle between the two riders. While I was aware of the result of the race and the story of the broken promise, I wasn't aware of the detail, nor of the ambiguity of that broken promise. It seems Hinault was always hedging his bets and never promised to directly help LeMond win. Promising to mix things up so that LeMond can win is not the same thing at all. Hinault attacks LeMond, several times, but still can't seem to make up his mind. Maybe if he wins he can say that LeMond just wasn't strong enough and he had to take over, if LeMond wins he can say he kept his promise. More likely I think, Hinault just isn't the kind of rider who can gift the Tour to somebody. He needs to know that you deserved the win. Did he want LeMond to show more initiative and to counter-attack (or even attack first). LeMond and Hinault were just such different types of rider. Even approaching the end of the book, and knowing the ultimate result, I was still sucked into that feeling of urgency. I needed to get to the end to see who won! In the end I think Hinault won, LeMond may have won the Tour, but Hinault totally outclassed him in the battle of style and psychology.
Interestingly in today's climate, drugs are briefly mentioned. It seems that while their use was pretty widespread in the peloton at the time Paul Köchli, the directeur sportif, shows repeated evidence of a very strong anti-drugs stance on the La Vie Claire team. How able he was to enforce that remains open to debate. Especially in light of the team owner's, Bernard Tapie, apparent blatant disregard for rules or ethics in his other businesses or sponsorships.
Ultimately, it's not a definitive explanation of why what happened happened. Moore presents Hinault's view of things, and he presents LeMond's view of things. The two don't match up and there's not much Moore can do to pick a line between them. He presents his own view very briefly at the end, but like all of our opinions it's a cop-out because nobody really knows what Hinault was thinking.