This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Monday, July 20, 1987
Valreas to Villard-de-Lans
185 km/115 mi mountains
Verses was soigneur to the Toshiba team, whose leader in 1987, after the retirement of Bernard Hinault and the serious injuries suffered by Greg LeMond in a hunting accident in April, was Jean-François Bernard. “Jeff ” Bernard was 25; he had won a stage in 1986 and was the great hope of French cycling, the man who might fill the void left by Hinault.
Verses was waiting for Bernard at the finish of stage 19 in Villard-de- Lans. She was the only soigneur from the Toshiba team with an “A” on her accreditation, the only one allowed at the Arrivée (finish). She was also Bernard’s personal soigneur. It was his first day in the yellow jersey.
When Bernard finally appeared, after a dramatic, calamitous day, Verses sprinted to meet him. The photographers followed. She got to him first. “The photographers crowded around me so hard and so fast; I was short, there was a crush, and I couldn’t get the towel around his face. When I saw that he was starting to cry, I got his head down and I scooshed water on his face, so it looked like that was why his face was wet.
“We got away from there as quick as we could,” Verses continues. “My hotel room was on the ground floor. They always put the soigneurs on the ground floor because we had a lot of equipment, massage tables and all. The journalists were banging on my window from the outside. They knew Jeff was on my table. Jeff was still crying. I left him on the table, pulled the bedspread off my bed, and draped it over the curtain rod so they couldn’t see through the crack. And every time a tear came out of his eye, I just dabbed it.
“I told him to stay sharp as a knife. ‘Sharp as a knife, Jeff,’ that’s all I said.”
What happens when a leader of men retires? When a mafia boss is murdered or a dictator dies?
Bernard Hinault retired, as he always said he would, on November 14, 1986, the day of his 32nd birthday. And with that, the peloton was deprived of its patron. “He was Mussolini, he was Stalin, he was Hitler, he was all of them, rolled into one,” said Verses. “They had to ask Hinault if they wanted to stop for a piss.”
Hinault’s fifth and final Tour victory came in 1985. In his final year, he was second to his teammate Greg LeMond, but LeMond’s win was on Hinault’s terms. Hinault attacked relentlessly, seemingly breaking the promise he had made to help LeMond. One interpretation—Hinault’s— was that Hinault made his American teammate work for it. Another—Le- Mond’s—was that the Badger was trying to win his sixth. Hinault said that he was “stirring the pot” and having fun. “I never had so much fun as I did in my final Tour.”
Not only was Hinault missing in 1987 but so, too, was LeMond, the victim of a freak, nearly tragic, accident in the spring. He was shot by his brother-in-law while they were out hunting turkey. His life almost ended, his career curtailed in its prime.
Yet here was the strange thing: While many complained about Hinault when he was around, they missed him when he was gone, because the control exerted by the rider known as the Badger was also gone. Laurent Fignon, the winner in 1983 and ’84, was riding in 1987, but with his aura diminished, his authority reduced by his years out with injury.
Nobody was in charge. There was a vacuum. There was anarchy.
In Hunger, his autobiography, the Irishman Sean Kelly described the opening week of the 1987 Tour as “like being back in the amateurs with everybody thinking they had a chance. Fignon was the only former winner in the field but he didn’t have the authority of a patron. He was yelling to the guys at the front that they should let the lunatics go, but no one was listening.”
During one stage, Kelly told Fignon, “If Hinault was here, this would be stopped immediately.”
“We’re going to kill ourselves if we carry on like this all the way to Paris,” Fignon replied.
By 1993, having settled into the role of super-domestique for Indurain, Bernard told L’Équipe: “I’ll never be a leader. I can’t be someone that you can count on one hundred per cent, and if you ask that of me I lose half my power.”
So what happened to France’s great hope in 1987? Well, it was anarchy.
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