From Hell

Imagine a behemoth of a bike race, 263 km in length (163 miles). Standing out is not only its length, but the nature of its roads. Contained in it are 28 cobblestone sections, all of which pose a unique and real danger; of crashing, of puncturing, of breaking equipment, of breaking the body, of breaking the will. Imagine a race where just finishing is an accomplishment in itself, and the line between glory and agony has become a blurry grayed line, stepped on by the men who entered small and left giants. Tripped on by the men who entered stars and never left. 

The race is Paris-Roubaix. 

Racing through the Arenberg Forest, Paris-Roubaix, 1968

It’s Easter Sunday, 1981. 

There’s a six-rider breakaway formed off the front of the main group, and it’s cast is full of legends. Four-time winner Roger de Vlaeminck, three-time winner Francesco Moser, the 1976 victor Marc Demeyer, and the relatively unknown Hennie Kuiper and Guido Van Calster sitting in. The last rider is one everybody knows, the World Champion, Bernard Hinault, and it’s obvious that he’s not here to place second. His feelings of the race are clear, he hates it;  He’s here to prove himself. 

“I believe I’ve already shown that I am the strongest rider, and now I have to prove that I’m also the best on those wretched cobblestones.” -Bernard Hinault 

After winning the World Championships, Hinault came under public scrutiny, as it was considered etiquette for the World Champion to contest Paris-Roubaix, The Queen of the Classics. In the months after his Championship, the pressure only rose until, early in 1981, Hinault announced that he would race Paris-Roubaix, but only for one reason; to silence the armchair critics. 

………………… 

Hinault is known the world around for being a rider with the capacity to win anything. Who could forget his win at the 1980 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege? In a blizzard, he won by more than 10 minutes in a race where only 21 riders finished. He was unable to move his index and middle fingers on his right hand properly for the following three weeks (and would be plagued by pain in his bones in cold temperatures for years). The race elevated him to a God-like status. 

Hinault leading at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 1980

………………. 

Through the deafening  screams of the thousands of fans lining the narrow roads, word gets through that Hinault has had two flat tires and a few crashes. To avoid a pileup on the cobbles he shouldered his bike and ran through a mud-filled ditch. Despite this, he’s still in the breakaway. 

It’s clear that Hinault is answering only to Destiny, and riding like a man from Hell. 

Hinault is off the front of the breakaway

With less than 10 miles to go, Hinault is down again. A poodle runs into his wheel and causes the crash. Out of spite, Hinault kicks the dog back to the side of the road, and unbelievably rides back up to the breakaway. With less than 3 km to go, he slides out in a right-hand turn. With no luck involved, he bridges the gap and again rejoins the race. 

As the group of six reaches the steeply banked race track in Roubaix, the cheering of the crowd is reaching critical mass. Hennie Kuiper is the first on the velodrome, but Hinault quickly steals the show. Quick to get into his big gear, the Frenchman slowly winds up to speed with his breakaway companions surrounding him. 

With one and a half laps around the track, it’s going to be a long sprint. In what seems like slow motion, Hinault makes his way to the front with one lap to go. On Turn 1 and 2, Demeyer makes his pass on the left, but is no match and slips back. Not even the legendary Roger de Vlaeminck, Mr. Paris-Roubaix, is able to pass Le Blaireau, The Badger. 

The race is his. 

The Aftermath

When presented with his trophy, a cobblestone mounted on a plaque, he shoves it into the hands of his team manager and says “Take it, here’s your cobblestone, it will wind up in my cellar.” 

With the race finished, Hinault feels it necessary to clear up his feelings toward the race. ” I’m not going to tell you that  I like this sort of race now that I’ve won one, it has too many pitfalls, too many motorcycles, and too much dust.” 

While so many racers took years, some even a decade to find success, Hinault had entered the race out of spite, overcame misfortune, and beat the overwhelming favorites at their own game, while still maintaining his hatred for the race. It was like punk rock. He showed up against his will, played one song, smashed his guitar, spit on the crowd and left. 

…………………….. 

“When I entered the track I was sure I would win. What cost me the race was that Bernard Hinault took off in front. I was not able to catch up with him, given that the track is a ring where one can fly around in high gear. That said, Hinault was strong as a beast.”  Roger “Mr. Paris-Roubaix” De Vlaeminck, Record 4-time winner  

Mr. Paris-Roubaix in 1973

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~ by Mitcholo on January 20, 2010.

2 Responses to “From Hell”

  1. Hi Mitch, It was great chatting with you at K&C Meats today, Friday! As I said, don’t hesitate to e-mail me….I didn’t get your e-mail address.

  2. Hi I very much like this site, especially the pics. But, as a dutchy I really have to correct you: “relatively unknown Hennie Kuiper”? Back then, in 1981 he had been world champ and #2 in the tour the france, in 1981 just before thie PR he won Tour of Flanders!

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