They say that Flandriens, that other great cycling nationality, are born with a brick in their hearts. What it means is that sooner or later they settle down close to where they were brought up in order to build a home of their own. In that respect, Bretons believe they are no different.
For centuries, men and women from the far west of France have left their little corner of land to travel the world as buccaneers or entrepreneurs out to make their name and earn their fortune. These days, ambitious young Bretons often head to Paris. Coffers full, reputations forged, they come home sooner or later.
The young Bernard Hinault was always destined to outgrow his surroundings. Ever since he raced his older cousins on the bike ride to and from school, he was like an angry animal bouncing around inside a cardboard box trying to fight its way out.
He can’t remember the first time he got into an actual punch-up, although he says it probably involved some kids from the neighbouring school. What he can remember is his father’s response any time he came home with bumps and scrapes: “did you hit him back?”
The Badger – le Blaireau – was probably there from day one too. Hinault will tell you that it was a friendly, throwaway nickname given to him by his amateur riding mates and seized upon by the press, but the reason it stuck was simple. Grumpy, short-tempered, tenacious, aggressive and sometimes curmudgeonly: Bernard Hinault was The Badger.
“When badgers are hunted they hide away in their burrow and they watch the dogs circle round in front of them,” Hinault explains. “When they finally come out, they attack all out. And they die.
“It was the same thing for me. When the press said ‘you didn’t do this, you couldn’t do that,’ it’s back into my house I go. I prepare. I attack. And after that? What do you say about me now?”
The badger personality seemed a natural fit, although playing that particular role in a turbo-charged, hyper-macho, month-long French Wind in the Willows had its advantages too. There was the cuddly creature that roams the woods and adorns bike shop signs. There was the rabid, snarling devil that bites hard and won’t let go. Hinault could toy with the idea that you never knew which one you’d get. People were afraid of Bernard the Badger.
“What, riders were afraid?” he asks.
Well, yes Bernard. And other people too. Some people thought that the Badger could be a bit of a… you know… a bit of a bastard.
“No,” he says. “I think that the rivals I had respected me, and I respected them… but it’s true that there were some journalists I got hung up with. They were afraid to come back to talk to me again. But that’s not my problem.”
Hinault’s eyes light up with fire when he recalls the source of his personal (and ongoing) vendetta against French rolling news channel BFMTV, which began when a journalist requested an interview at the Tour’s 2013 start, purportedly about Corsica rather than the then scandal involving Lance Armstrong and doping in cycling.
“Whenever they [BFMTV] come back now I say, ‘get lost!’ Your word is your word, if you don’t respect that…”
You can still find the video of that particular live TV interview online. It makes for uncomfortable viewing. Hinault is clearly furious. He’s still fuming about it now.
“I had been screwed over. First question: doping. I took everything off and I said it was finished. And now whenever I see anyone at BFM, I say ‘nope, you don’t get anything.’
“It was a betrayal of trust. And when [BFMTV] reporters come up to me now and say that they weren’t involved in that, I tell them that they’re part of the same shit. Clear off.”
Hinault is certainly forthright in his opinions and doesn’t shy away from giving his views, from the nature of racing these days (“it’s missing spice, it’s missing killer blows”) to smaller teams in Grand Tours (“if you carry on with that theory you might as well just stop cycling altogether and play it on the Playstation”).
He’ll happily discuss Chris Froome’s ongoing anti-doping case (“Froome is no conman but he should be banned. I don’t see how we can do anything else”) and the abuse of TUEs (“if something is banned, it should be banned. If you are sick, go home”).
The Badger’s reputation precedes him. There’s a joke that goes that whenever Hinault appears on the airwaves during the live transmission of a Tour de France stage, he will only ever say one thing: ‘I would have attacked by now.’ The punchline is that he’d still say that, even in a prologue time-trial.
He can come across as blunt and brash but hearing it from the Badger’s mouth, it seems like Hinault just wanted to be honest. There was no playing the Badger. Hinault was just being himself.
“You never think about whether you should do this or that because people call you the Badger,” he says.
“I didn’t think about it. I did what I did. I did whatever I wanted to do.”
It’s tempting to take these big sporting stars and extend their hyperbolic careers from the sporting arena into real life. But Bernard Hinault isn’t living the high life on a yacht moored off Monte Carlo, sporting those same badass aviator sunglasses from 1985. Life isn’t like that. It’s never like that.
Normal life can be bland. It can be problematic for someone used to high-speed thrills, adrenaline and competition, not least daily exercise in abundance. No wonder some riders struggle to go cold turkey. It probably explains why so many end up as sports directors not long after retiring. It’s like going on methadone after they have had to give up the real thing.
It must be particularly hard if you forged your identity based on rivalry and competition. Bernard Hinault is no longer duelling Joop Zoetemelk or Greg LeMond. He’s no longer throwing protestors off the Tour de France podium with a hearty shove. The Badger has no more dogs left to fight. Monsieur Bricolage is taking out the bins.
“But when you are a countryman, you fight to be the best. It’s the same thing. You fight to win, because if you do nothing you have nothing. All the time, it’s combat.
“I can’t just say, ‘oh I’m Bernard Hinault, life is good, pfff, I don’t care any more.’ No. You still need to fight. It’s another battle, and another way of fighting, but you still have to line up, fighting all the same.”
Behind the battle lines there’s a softness to Bernard Hinault. The badger’s soft centre. Maybe it’s a fear: a fear of not being able to do what he wants to do and a fear of not being able to be the Badger he wants to be.
That’s the fight today. Out here in the Breton countryside the Badger is still scrapping away to do things on his terms. Scrapping to remain the Badger. Fighting himself to be himself. He’s still winning.