Hinault and LeMond ride in to spark memories of greatest battle

The Tour de France is a race, an event, that takes great delight in its champions.

Bernard Hinault guest of local cyclists -

It not only places them on pedastals, their names echoing down the decades from the black and white images of yesteryear, but it also encourages them to play an active role in the annual renewal of the race.

In Yorkshire this week, in the lead up to the Grand Depart of the 101st Tour, two of the most famous of names will be present to help sell the Tour and tell its great story.

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No doubt Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond will have a couple of stories to tell themselves.

For theirs was one of the great rivalries to have dominated the Tour, coming to a head in 1986 when they were team-mates and yellow jersey rivals.

Hinault, nicknamed ‘The Badger’, was a snarling Breton from the north-east of France who was a formidable opponent and fierce competitor.

He loved nothing more than to ride through the pain barrier just to show himself, and his rivals, that he could.

LeMond was the laid-back American who broke up the continental European dominance of the race.

Hinault had a shot at a sixth Tour de France title when he ignored team orders to support team-mate LeMond and battled the American all the way in that 1986 Tour that is to this day considered the greatest of all time.

After withstanding repeated attacks from his team-mate, LeMond took control of the yellow jersey in the final week, a fact that incensed the previous incumbent, Hinault, to the point that they were reportedly at each other’s throats until 4am the following day.

On the fabled Alpe d’Huez, the two raced away alone before approaching the line hand in hand, their admiration for each other’s abilities outweighing any lingering animosity.

LeMond’s 1986 victory was the first by a non-European winner before he added further success in 1989 and 1990, and while the Lance Armstrong era is now tainted, it did much to broaden the race’s appeal.

Hinault and LeMond are back at the Tour de France this week, the latter as a television pundit, the former as a part of the Tour’s organising committee.

Hinault has been a regular visitor to Yorkshire since it was announced a little over 18 months ago that the greatest bike race in the world would be starting in the county.

He has visited schools to open cycle tracks, attended gala dinners and done everything demanded of a race ambassador.

He is expected at Otley Cycle Races on Wednesday to watch the action.

The two rivals are now great ambassadors for the great race, their place in the rich history of the Tour de France assured.

The Tour itself began as a battle for newspaper circulation.

But when the publishers of L’Auto created the Tour de France as a ruse to close the gap to rivals Le Velo in 1903, they can barely have imagined how big the race would become.

The first edition of the race attracted 60 riders and covered 2,428km in just six stages, often starting late at night and spread across 18 days, including a Nantes-Paris leg which alone was 471km.

It was a relatively flat route – the event did not venture into the high mountains which now define it until reaching the Pyrenees in 1910 – but France quickly fell in love with this mildly eccentric race.

So did the publishers of L’Auto, who saw their circulation rise from 25,000 to 65,000 during the Tour, and to 250,000 by 1908, swiftly putting Le Velo out of business. They had created a monster, and that was exactly how Henri Desgrange wanted the Tour to be as he set about devising tougher courses, claiming his ideal race would be won by the sole surviving rider who made it to Paris. The epic Col du Galibier debuted in 1911, while the 1926 route measured a massive 5,745km, while this year’s is 3,656km.

The race leader’s yellow jersey was formally introduced in 1919 although there is some evidence that the lead riders had been asked to wear L’Auto’s distinctive house colour in the final races before World War I to mark themselves out to the crowd.

If the modern-day event has been plagued by doping and cheating, those tough early events were no exception.

Maurice Garin, winner of the first Tour, was among several riders disqualified from the second for catching the train, while fans would beat up the rivals of their favourites or throw nails on the road.

Drugs, too, were abundant. The scale became clear in 1924 when the popular Pelissier brothers gave an interview to Le Petit Parisien in which 1923 winner Henri and his brother Francis detailed a heady concoction of substances that kept them riding all day and dancing all night.

The Second World War brought another halt, and briefly saw the race nationalised when L’Auto was shuttered under German occupation in 1944.

The French government, seemingly uncertain what to do with the Tour, allowed two races to run in 1946, but decided the event run by L’Auto’s successor L’Equipe was the better organised and handed the sports newspaper the rights – which it still holds today through the subsidiary group ASO.

French and Belgian riders had dominated the pre-war years, and that continued when the race resumed with Louison Bobet winning three straight titles from 1953 to 1955 before Jacques Anquetil took four in a row from 1961 to 1964, becoming the first five-time winner after his 1957 success.

Attempts to tackle drugs did not come until the mid-Sixties, when a new French law banned stimulants in sport.

The first doping tests in 1966 were greeted by strikes from the riders, but the scale of the problem became apparent a year later when Doncaster’s Tom Simpson died on the ascent of Mont Ventoux, aged 29, with traces of amphetamines found in his blood.

There were other forms of skulduggery. Eddy ‘The Cannibal’ Merckx, who in the post-Armstrong scandal standings sits alongside Miguel Indurain, Hinault and Jacques Anquetil with a record five wins, was attempting a sixth in 1975 when a punch in the kidneys from a spectator essentially ended his challenge.

Drugs cast such a stain on the sport that many of the winners over the last 20 years have asterisks by their name.

Yet despite the dark clouds, the great names are still revered and the crowds still flock to this most endearing of endurance tests.