It was Roger Legeay, Greg LeMond’s directeur sportif who made the comment to journalist Sam Abt: “What we really want for Greg is for him to leave cycling.. like the great champion his is, with some good victories. We want him to leave by la grande porte.”
Yes, what all cyclists presumably dream of, to leave the sport by the big door, at the peak of their powers, instead of slipping away, barely noticed.
As we have seen, though, LeMond was not able to leave by the big door and retired without the late career victories he had hoped for. In doing so, he was following a venerable tradition set out by great champions. Even Eddy Merckx, the champion of champions, held on a little too long in his career. In 1974, his tenth season riding as a professional, he won the Tour, the Giro, and the world championship title. It would have been the perfect time to step aside, la grande porte was wide open.
But he continued to race. And possibly rightly so – the early season in 1975 saw him win Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, the Amstel Gold, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and a 2nd place in Paris-Roubaix – an incredible start. But then illness kept him away from the Giro, and while his 2nd place at the Tour was not helped by random incidents during the race, even Merckx himself could see he was struggling.
“There were unmistakable signs that the decline was setting in,” he said. “My best days were now behind me. All the effort and concentration I had been putting in for so long were beginning to take their toll.”
The season of 1976 was the turning point, although Merckx opened it with a major statement by winning Milan-San Remo for the seventh time. Then the decline set in, with Merckx himself noting that, “the peaks became increasingly rare and the troughs more frequent; I had lost most of the old sparkle.” Incredibly, though, despite illness and recurring back pain, Merckx raced another season in 1977, finishing 6th at the Tour de France and winning the Mediterranean Tour in an otherwise lacklustre year. Finally, after riding five minor races in 1978 he called it quits after 14 seasons as a professional and the exit door was certainly not as large as he might have hoped.
In contrast, Bernard Hinault had his retirement plans all worked out. By his account, after he won the world championship title in 1980 he decided to retire aged 32 (the end of the 1986 season). That was his plan and he intended to stick by it. And he intended to leave in fine style by winning the worlds title again: “If I’d won the title I’d have hung my bike up that very evening and been the happiest man in the world.”
But 1986 was not his year to win again – Charly Mottet was the best-placed French rider in second behind Moreno Argentin (Hinault said he sacrificed his ambitions to work for Mottet and Laurent Fignon). Had he had been pushed into second place in that year’s Tour de France by Greg LeMond, one of the epic years of the race where the rivalry between the two supposed teammates overshadowed the whole race. Hinault fought for the entire Tour, and even if he finally conceded to help LeMond win, his pride kept his fighting spirit alive. At one point, on the Col de Vars, Hinault said he overheard a photographer tell his moto to stay with Hinault, as he was about to abandon. “They wouldn’t have missed such a moment for anything,” Hinault said. “They wanted to see me give up when I was suffering like an animal, but nothing would have made me quit then. The pain was unbearable and yet I continued. I’d rather have died.”
Yes, Hinault left by le grande porte.
Your correspondent has been mulling the topic of this post for some time, as it has become increasingly clear that he does not have the time amidst and increasingly busy schedule to keep up the effort of regular posting. Perhaps it was time to hang up the, er, keyboard and look for the door, be it grande or petite. This blog is now in its fourth year and there have been many adventures along the way and plenty of classic stories to recount and current developments to comment on. The fervent intention has been to provide some little-known, or not widely-discussed, history and other perspectives on our great sport and hopefully this has been partially successful.