Saturday, October 31, 2009

Musings: Revisiting Armstrong, LeMond and Hinault

I used to believe Lance. I respected Greg LeMond but thought he turned churlish in recent years. I liked Bernard Hinault because I have a soft spot for crusty, pugnacious, anti-social, extremely talented people who don't really give a damn what others think of them.

Now, my opinions of them are changing.

I'm not so sure about Lance anymore. I don't want to get into a debate about the issue, but I have my doubts now, especially about the first couple of years of the comeback. Still, I won't deny he's an incredible athlete and symbol for the sport.

I'm a big LeMond fan again because I think he's just an all-around likable, good guy. This article influenced my new appreciation of LeMond. It's wonderfully written. The author shares my favorite observation of LeMond. In most of the photos I've seen of him winning a race, he's crossing the line with this wonderful "Jeez, I can't believe I won!" expression of wonderment on his face. The article also points out that the French public loved LeMond because he had a certain panache. He often found himself in some sort of crisis or trouble and managed to dig his way out of it. I wish the article explored why LeMond decided to speak out against Lance. He did it at a great cost. Perhaps LeMond knew something that he couldn't publicly bring up because of libel issues.

One more thing about LeMond. If you haven't yet, check out this clip of LeMond beating Fignon in the Worlds in 1989. Fignon attacks on a hellish climb and Phil Ligget says it appears that the Frenchman is going to win the race. Then, seemingly out of no where, LeMond pops up on the screen and catches Fignon. Ligget pronounces, "That is a fine piece of riding by the American."

Now for the "Badger." Lately, I've been watching the three-disc set of the "Red Zinger/Coors Classic." It has been fascinating for me because I know a bit about Euro racing in the late 70s and 80s, but I've never paid much attention to the race scene in the U.S. during the time. Last night, I was watching the 1986 edition of the race, with Hinault riding in the last stage race of his career. He's on LeMond's team, of course, and they battling it out again. LeMond says something like he spent the Tour fighting with Hinault, and he was hoping to come to the U.S. to just race without all the extra drama.

There's a classic scene in a mountain stage where Hinault is in a three-man breakaway with Davis Phinney and someone else I didn't recognize. I don't think the third guy was on Phinney's team. Anyway, Hinault declines to pull and spends the entire time sucking wheel. In the final few meters, he rockets off Phinney's wheel and wins the sprint. He crosses the line with a huge grin on his face, as if it's the first victory in his career (It is his first win in the US). In the post-race interview, Phinney is obviously angry and agitated. As he wipes his face with a towel about 20 times in five seconds, Phinney says something like, "If you want to win a race like that, you can win like that." When Hinault is asked why he didn't help out in the breakaway, he says something like, "It would have been stupid to do that. I wanted to save my energy for the end."

I'm not an expert on race ethics and honorable cycling behavior. But Hinault was already a legend, and his tactics seemed desperate, far beneath him. For me now, Hinault = Jerk.

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