IT STARTED with a nasty bout of diarrhoea and ended in a film. We’ll return to the unfortunate incident but, as I write, I am bound for New York and my first and probably only experience of a red carpet.
Today, a film based on a book I wrote is premiering at Tribeca, the film festival set up by Robert De Niro. It seems almost certain that, when the legendary actor conceived this event, he dreamed that one day it would showcase a documentary film about cycling called Slaying the Badger – so today is a special day for Robert De Niro, too.
It was a miracle that the publishers approved the title, and that the producers of the film retained it. My impression is that they were scrabbling around for an alternative but nothing quite worked like Slaying the Badger (I did tell them).
The Badger is Bernard Hinault, five times the Tour de France winner and one of the toughest and most uncompromising and charismatic of men, not just in cycling, not just in sport, but in any sphere. If the dark and handsome Hinault were to be cast in a feature film then it would be a part made for, oh, I don’t know, maybe Robert De Niro.
Little did Hinault know, when he won his fifth Tour, in 1985, that before another Frenchman would win, two Brits would. In fact, Hinault had designs on claiming his sixth in 1986, although he was vague about that in the presence of his young American team-mate, Greg LeMond, who believed he had been promised Hinault’s support.
The tough Frenchman had been vulnerable in the second half of the 1985 Tour after crashing in Saint Etienne and breaking his nose. He crossed the line with his face covered in blood, which – as we learn in the film – alarmed his young son. Hinault picked the boy up, told him to give his nose a good squeeze, and somehow endured the prodding to tell him: “See? There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Hinault battled on with his battered face, complemented by two black eyes, then contracted bronchitis. LeMond, his team-mate on the La Vie Claire squad, was by now clearly stronger and, during one stage, when he had escaped with Stephen Roche, was ordered to sit up and wait for the struggling Hinault.
The film includes remarkable footage from the aftermath of this stage, when LeMond lets rip at team director, Paul Koechli. When someone tries to intervene, he explodes: “Do you want a punch in the face?”
It is a vignette that illustrates why I was so keen to tell the story of the 1986 Tour. On the face of it, Hinault was the villain, LeMond the good guy. Because he had needed LeMond’s help to win in 1985, Hinault made a pledge to come back the following year and repay the favour. But, by relentlessly attacking LeMond throughout the three weeks, he plainly didn’t.
Yet it isn’t as simple as that. As I set out to try to find out what really happened, by interviewing LeMond, Hinault and the others, a complex picture began to emerge. That picture was of Hinault’s brute strength, courage and recklessness and LeMond’s sublime talent but also his cautiousness – a tentativeness that Hinault, consciously or not, exploited. More than this, however, I think it revealed the complexity of a sport that celebrates the individual but demands loyalty to the team. No race illustrated the difficulties and contradictions served up by this paradox like the 1986 Tour.
Funnily enough, the film version of Slaying the Badger was “born” as an idea on the eve of a Tour that would raise the same fascinating questions as 1986. We were in Liege the day before the start of the 2012 race and I was in a car with John Dower, who was in the middle of directing his documentary about Bradley Wiggins, A Year in Yellow.
Wiggins was starting as favourite, but there was a fly in the ointment, a fly by the name of Chris Froome. Some wondered whether Froome might prove to be Wiggins’ toughest opponent, despite being in the same squad – Team Sky. And we know what happened. Wiggins played LeMond to Froome’s Hinault. It was a Tour that Wiggins won, yet which also laid bare his insecurities.
John has done a brilliant job with the film – his second (and last, he promises) cycling one – that, after our conversation in Liege, was commissioned by American broadcaster ESPN as part of their 30 for 30 series and produced by the Oscar-winning production company, Passion Pictures. If you’re not familiar with the 30 for 30 series, familiarise yourself immediately. Among the highlights are The Two Escobars and The Price of Gold, although most are incredible sporting stories given proper cinematic treatment.
For me, the stars of the film version of Slaying the Badger are Kathy LeMond, Greg’s wife, whose warmth and love for her husband are a joy to behold, and the Badger, who John, armed with an expensive bottle of wine and battling to overcome a degree of trepidation, interviews in a suitably austere bar in Picardy. Hinault is, well... Hinault is Hinault.
Oh yes, the diarrhoea. This refers to the episode that opens the book, when LeMond, early in the 1986 Tour, just as he is getting an inkling that Hinault might be doing the dirty on him, suffers a nasty bout during a flat stage.
After eating a bad peach he endures an uncomfortable and humiliating couple of hours, before, at the finish, hurrying to his team’s motorhome, which has a toilet.
When he gets there, the toilet has gone. It is being used for storage. LeMond is desperate. In front of him is a large box. He tears the lid off to reveal thousands of postcards. On each is the handsome, smiling face of Hinault. LeMond barely has time to think as he yanks out the cards, creating a borehole, pulls down his shorts, finds relief amid – and upon – all those images of Hinault.
It conjures up quite an image, of LeMond crapping on Hinault who, many thought, metaphorically crapped on him.
It is not, however, an episode that is shown in the film.
• Slaying the Badger will be broadcast by ESPN during this year’s Tour de France and is likely to be shown at selected cinemas.