There is a good chance my first exposure to professorial bike racing was 1986. Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour de France and I remember seeing it on TV in the form of short weekly updates on Saturday Sports Shows. I was fascinated by this because I was seven years old it wasn’t all that long ago since I had learned to ride a bike. In fact it must have made enough of an impact on me that drove me to ask for a “ten speed” for Christmas the next year.
Fast forward about seven more years and the 1986 tour makes an appearance in my life again. I was riding with Snakeman on my first century ride, a challenge I was probably not ready for. Part of the deal Snake made me was a free hat if I could finish the ride. The hat in question was a cycling cap from the La Vie Clair team that dominated the Tour in 1986. I recognized that hat’s distinctive Mondrian design, but I couldn’t place it. Seventy miles into the ride we stopped at an abandoned store and I checked to see if the pay phone worked, it did and I considered making a call for someone to come and get me. Snake said that was fine with him he’d just have to take the hat back. I put the phone down and finished the ride.
Fast forward ten years and I’m reading “Slaying the Badger” by Richard Moore, the story of how Greg LeMond won the 1986 Tour de France. I’ll give you a super short version free of spoilers. Bernard Hinault is the strongest most dominate rider of his day, yet he nearly looses the 1985 Tour and is bailed out by his teammate, young super talented American, Greg LeMond. Greg could have possibly won in 1985 but Hinault made him a deal, if you support me next year I’ll help you win.
You can see where this is going, LeMond delivers Hinault to his 5th tour win in 1985 then in 1986 he seems to go back on his word attacking LeMond and leading to the most tense Tour de France ever.
This book covers the early histories of the two main characters and all the supporting characters involved in the drama, Hinault the patron, a hard man of the sport, a natural leader, a who gets as much more praise from his former teammates then he gets criticism, Lemond a wide eyed stranger in a strange land whose insecurities nearly prove to be his undoing, Kochli kooky profesor type Director with new ideas about racing, Tapie a charismatic and manipulative team owner, and a mix of team mates caught in the cross fire. Not only is the story a detailed look at one of the most fascinating races of the Tour, but also a in depth examination of how the sport began to change in the late 80s.
Cycling was an ultra traditional euro dominated sport, almost like a brotherhood, and then all these foreigners start showing up from Australia, America, The United Kingdom, and they don’t always mesh right into the traditional program. Moore’s story gives us a first hand look at the stress an outsider had cracking open the top levels of the sport.
Slaying the Badger is a page turner, and it took me about a week of reading to finish it, deliberately trying to slow myself down. The book feels exceptionally well researched and the interviews are excellent. I loved how Moore often presented the same story from multiple points of view and how often times not only opinions but actual facts change based on who you ask.
My only negative criticism is that I would have enjoyed more information from a technical standpoint. LeMond has gone down in history as a technical innovator, he was an early adopter of science based training, clipless pedals, aerodynamics, and carbon frames, yet these aspects are glossed over. More technical coverage would have furthered the secondary theme of the book, “The modernization of such a traditional sport. Ultimately though the book is about the humanity of the sport and perhaps more detail into the technical aspects would dampen that.
If you are fan of history and cycling you owe it to yourself to check out “Slaying the Badger.”