Hinault conquers the blizzard


Results:

1st: Bernard Hinault, 244km in 7h 01' 42" (34,72km/h)
2nd: Hennie Kuiper, @ 9' 24"
3rd: Ronnie Claes, @ same time
4th: Fons De Wolf, @ 10' 34"
5th: Pierre Bazzo
6th: Ludo Peeters, both same time
7th: Herman Van Springel, @ 12' 05"
8th: Guido Van Calster, @ 12' 35"
9th: Johan Van De Velde
10th: Eddy Schepers
11th: Gilbert Duclos Lasalle
12th: Silvano Contini, all same time
13th: Henk Lubberding, @ 16' 03"
14th: Stefan Mutter
15th: Pascal Simon, both same time
16th: Jan Jonkers, @ 17' 59"
17th: Bert Oosterbosch, @ 18' 35"
18th: Paul Wellens
19th: Fritz Pirard, both same time
20th: Jean Toso, @ 24' 06"
21st: Jostein Wilmann @ 27' 00"

(21 finishers from 174 starters)

Liège - Bastogne - Liège, 1980

What makes an "exploit?" A great event, certainly, is needed, to ensure a proper setting, or else (like Anquetil's incredible double), a sequence of victories in great events - Indurain's five consecutive Tour victories would fit this definition. A great race will automatically bring along a quality field, from which the winner will certainly have to be a rider of the greatest quality. But on top of those criteria, something else is needed, a level of victory that can brook no doubt about the quality of the winner. Bernard Hinault's victory in the 1980 Liège - Bastogne - Liège fits all the criteria. Merckx, Kelly, Van Looy notwithstanding, this was perhaps the most crushing performance in a classic in the modern era of the sport.

"La Doyenne", as it is known, is certainly a great event, the oldest surviving classic. Lining up at the start line on 20 April 1980 were the cream of the sport's top riders: as well as Hinault, Guiseppe Sarroni - winner of the Flèche Wallone three days previously, where Hinault had been third - was on the line, along with Kuiper, Peeters, Duclos-Lasalle, De Wolf, Baronchelli, Gavazzi, Knudsen, Nilsson, Pollentier and Willems - class riders, all of them. Within an hour, most had retired; by the first feeding station over one hundred riders had departed for an early bath.

The reason, as is often the case in the Ardennes, was atrocious weather - the riders had woken up to a blizzard, conditions so severe that many commentators considered them to be the worst ever seen for the Ardennes Classics. Hinault never liked the cold at the best of times, but stuck with the race, along with his only remaining team-mate, Maurice Le Guilloux. Indeed, it was Le Guilloux who managed to persuade Hinault to keep going at least as far as the feeding station in Bastogne, with 140 kilometres still left to race.

Up to this stage in the race, Hinault hadn't really even bothered to follow what had been happening; instead, he had just ridden with his hand in front of his face to deflect the snow. Out in front, Rudy Pévenage led on his own. Hinault was in a small bunch, 2' 15" down by the Stockeu wall, now with only 80km left to race. On the Stockeu, Hinault moved clear - not so much an attack, more just force of character. On the next climb, Pévenage was caught, and as unceromoniously dropped. From here on in, Hinault just rode steadily to the finish, picking his way carefully over the frozen roads. "I kept telling myself that the riders behind must be in the same state and if they could stand it, so could I", he was to write later in his autobiography.

By the finish, the result behind was carnage. Hinault won alone; it was to be more than nine minutes before Hennie Kuiper came in second - just imagine, Hinault had taken 12 minutes back in just 80 kilometres! The remainder of the riders came in in dribs and drabs; the last of just twenty one of them nearly half an hour down. It was victory in the grandest manner possible: destruction of a quality field by a rider incomparably stronger than any other rider that day.

Hinault's bath was well-deserved that day, and indeed his team-mates had prepared one for him, as they watched the drama unfold on television. Alas, for Hinault, he could not take it until it had cooled right down, such was his state of cold. It took three weeks before his index and middle fingers recovered, and ever after, he was always amongst the first in the peloton to don gloves in cold weather. Such is the price for claiming one of the great classics victories of all time; an exploit in the truest sense!