Climb like a badger

In the bucolic British children’s fable, ‘Wind in the Willows’, the character of Mr. Badger is a rather gruff fellow, a no-nonsense practical type, rather solitary in the winter off-season and sticks close to home, but generous – if not somewhat paternal – to his friends, but sometimes prone to outburst. “Now the very next time this happens,” he scolds. “I shall be exceedingly angry.”

In the somewhat more recent French version the Badger, le blaireau, is not an entirely different character.

“I’ll be the badger forever,” Bernard Hinault wrote after his retirement. “It doesn’t bother me.” Hinault was at a loss to explain the nickname and suggested that it was a commonly-used nickname that seemed to suit him and stuck to him somewhere around 1977.

“Very little is known about badgers,” he said. “And that suits me.”

What people did seem to know about badgers, however, was their ferocity. “As long as I live and breathe, I attack” was Hinault’s most famous quote.

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Le blaireau proved to be an apt nickname

True to his word, Hinault was an aggressive rider. He attacked his opposition unrelentingly, sometimes attacked his teammates (Greg LeMond in 1986), and he even attacked off the bike: once in a brawl with protesters blocking the road during Paris-Nice.

“He didn’t care at all what people thought of him,” 1973 Tour winner Luis Ocana apparently said, on their first meeting at a Dauphiné Libéré. “I liked him at once.”

But there were limits, though. “I never rode like a cannibal,” Hinault said, in perhaps an oblique reference to the all-dominating Eddy Merckx.

Yet dominate he did. Hinault’s palmares read like the riders of old, and he was perhaps the last of the year-round champions that contested races across the whole season, before the current era of specialization.

He won the Tour de France five times, with twenty-eight stage wins (behind only Merckx with thirty-four), and the Giro d’Italia three times – twice in the same year as his Tour wins (1982, 1985). He took the Vuelta a Espana twice, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré three times, a brace of spring classics (including the race he hated most, Paris-Roubaix: “C’est une connerie!”) with Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1980 a legendary solo exploit in atrocious wintry weather: “My hands were frozen to the handlebars,” Hinault said after the race, “I went to the limit.”

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Climbing the Peyresourde in the Tour ’79


He showed his gruff, paternal side in the peloton, quickly becoming le patron with a style not seen since. He slipped easily into the role, leading the protests to the mayor of Valence d’Agen in his first Tour de France in 1978 (aged only 23 and in the French national champion’s jersey). “Mr Mayor, when I’m talking to you, just shut up and listen,” Hinault said. “You can reply later.” He had to pause, however, to ‘sort out’ some protesters who had been throwing tomatoes at the riders.

As much as he could, he dictated the terms of stage races, controlling attacks on difficult days when the peloton was tired by simply chasing them down. It is not too far a stretch to imagine him taking the same scolding tone of Mr. Badger from ‘Wind in the Willows’.

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The Giro in 1980


Still, with his dominating personality he was a controversial figure among the French public. His early years of dominance left some feeling cool towards him and he developed a reputation for petulance. “In the eyes of the public… he is a great champion but a small man,” L’Equipe wrote in 1982. His méchant, or spiteful, nature was well known, although Hinault himself shrugged it off, saying: “I can’t understand how a racer cannot have this trait… All winners have it.”

It would take defeat in 1984, a comeback the following year to equal the record number of Tour wins, then the edge-of-the-seat drama of 1986 (his final Tour, announced years earlier) to re-warm French hearts, ushering in his current stature as the Tour’s ambassador.

Hinault was not a natural climber. Like all great champions, his overall power, demonstrated in time-trial dominance, translated into a fearsome presence in the mountains. His reliance on power changed over time, however, as he evolved into a more all-round rider with a different riding position and climbing technique. Perhaps fittingly, in his final Tour de France he won the maillot à pois rouges.

Riding position and gearing

Like many pro riders, perhaps most-famously the meticulous Eddy Merckx, Hinault was particular about his bike set-up.

His riding position after the 1978 Tour de France was modified by Cyrille Guimard following ergonomic research and wind-tunnel tests at the Renault company. The principal change was a lengthened top-tube: 2 cm longer at 56.5 cm.

The intention was to get the 1.73-cm tall Hinault sitting further back but also higher. As such, his saddle height was raised from 72.8 cm to 73.5 cm, but gradually over a 3-year period from 1979 to 1982 to as not to place too much strain on him, particularly his knees (Greg LeMond also endorsed this higher riding position).

Unfortunately, during one stage of the 1983 Vuelta, his saddle was accidentally set at 74 cm, and this exacerbated the strain on his right knee, which had been causing him trouble since 1980 and he had dropped out of that year’s Tour because of it. In the summer of 1983 it was operated on, causing him to miss the Tour for that year.

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The famous ‘battle’ with LeMond on Alpe d’Huez


The new riding position was partially to allow Hinault to climb better in the saddle. He had a reputation for pushing large gears while climbing, often out of the saddle for long stretches, which was attributed by some as the cause of his knee problem.

This was a sensitive issue for Hinault and he maintained that he always had a smooth cadence, but that he would “choose his gears according to the pedalling cadence that suits me – above this cadence I get out of breath too quickly; below it, my muscles are too contracted”. For him, that optimal cadence was between 70 and 90 rpm, a fairly generous range.

Big gearing for racing started to come into vogue in the 1950s. Fausto Coppi in 1946 reportedly used a 51×15, but Louison Bobet soon took it to a 52×14. Hinault was in awe in his early years over Freddy Maertens’s 53×12, which the latter used to devastating effect, and slowly worked his way up to harder gears for his soon-to-be dominant time trialling.

For climbing, a narrow range of gearing was the norm, but also bigger gears than those used today. Eddy Merckx, for example, was a big fan of the 44-tooth chainring (typically paired with a 53) for climbing with a 6-speed freewheel 13-19; for particularly tough mountain races or stages he would opt for a 13-21.

By Hinault’s time, the chainring set-up was typically 53-42 with a 7-speed cluster. Hinault’s gear evolved from a low gear of a 42-22 to a 42-24 (47.3 inches compared to 45.8 inches for today’s popular 39×23) as he changed his climbing technique to focus more on seated efforts. As he said: “I sit further back and pedal more smoothly.”

Climbing and attacking

As his riding position and gearing evolved, Hinault focused more on his seated climbing.

“I don’t change my riding position except for spreading my arms as wide as possible so I can breathe better,” he said. “I put my hands at the side of the brake hoods or on the top of the bars as far as possible from the centre.”

Staying loose and relaxed while climbing in the saddle was also important for Hinault’s style. “Relaxed shoulders, arms, and hands are very important,” he said. “You have to learn to sense when you’re tense.”

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Halcyon days, before the UCI (wisely) banned headbands


Efforts out of the saddle should be minimized, due to the increased energy requirements, but can be useful for attacking or for working some lactic muscles out of one’s legs.

But Hinault also emphasized the correct technique for these efforts: “When you’re out of the saddle you should avoid moving your body in all directions, otherwise you lose power.”

“Even when climbing out of the saddle I try to be relaxed as possible,” he said. “It’s the legs that should work.”

On the subject of attacking, Hinault was less than keen to share his secrets.

“If you notice that a dangerous opponent is looking tired, and the if terrain is favourable, it might be worthwhile to attack,” he said in his book, Road Racing: Technique & Training.

Note the ‘might’. According to Hinault, it was sometimes necessary to attack on the flat, or on the climbs, to wait for the right breakaway companions, or go it alone. Sometimes it was necessary to counter-attack, to bluff, or to force the pace.

“I rarely have a plan,” he said, “I decide according to the circumstances.”

But as le blaireau himself said, very little is known about the true nature of badgers anyway.

This post was originally published on May 30, 2007.