What's Cool In Road Cycling

Interview: Richard Moore Talks ‘Slaying the Badger’

With the Tour de France less than two weeks away, what better way to get primed for the Grand Boucle than a look back at the best edition? Richard Moore says that the 1986 Tour de France was the greatest in history, an epic battle between team mates Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. With VeloPress releasing a new edition of his book recently, PEZ had the chance to speak with Moore.

I get the email early in the morning here in Vancouver from Richard Moore, asking for a one-hour delay to our interview. I’d scheduled it for his late afternoon, wanting to sneak it in before the early evening and his likely other commitments. But a delay is no problem, as I can watch the last kilometres of the third-to-last day of the Giro. Ryder Hesjedal grabs a few seconds more to close in on the maglia rosa. It feels like something momentous is happening for Canadian cycling. At our group ride the week before, a passing observer comments: “You look like you’re ready for the Giro d’Italia”. Ryder is interviewed on the breakfast show of the national broadcaster; at the supermarket, the checkout talk is not of hockey but of cycling and the Giro – when did that last happen?

As it turns out, Moore has been watching the Giro as well, hence the delay. Now at a cafй, we connect over Skype and discuss Ryder’s fortunes. By the time you read this article we will know the outcome, but for now there’s the excitement of anticipation. Suddenly cycling seems to mean something larger than just racing, and it’s exciting to think that this edition of the Giro will be exceptional, that it will be some sort of occasion, representing some kind of shift in the sport – the first Grand Tour win for Canada, but more importantly a ‘clean’ win by a team that is looking to change cycling for the better and still win races.

For the interview, though, we are talking about Moore’s book ‘Slaying the Badger’, having been just released in an edition for North American readers by VeloPress. It seems timely to be talking about the 1986 Tour de France – the subject of the book – as this was another race that had larger significance and seemed to mean something more than just some sum of its stages. It was also Canada’s – and North America’s – first Grand Tour jersey when Alex Stieda pipped Greg LeMond to wear the maillot jaune for just one afternoon. It was also a race that marked a shift in eras, the Old World of cycling opening up to the New World, new and more money coming into the sport, and one of a series of gripping races in the 80s before the style of the era was crushed in the 90s and beyond as racing became more of a team effort (and an EPO-fuelled one at that).

Moore has been writing much since the original publication of ‘Slaying the Badger’ last year, including an update to his book on Team Sky and a new book on athletics (more on that later). With the VeloPress release, however, it has been a chance to revisit the original work and the new edition includes a new afterword. I was interested to know if it had been interesting for Moore to come back ‘Slaying the Badger’ and to look again at his original conclusions.

“It has, and coming out in America there has been a bit of interest, which has been great,” Moore said. “I did a wee afterword for the new edition so I re-read it and re-acquainted myself with it. And I had a bit of reaction to it as well – an amazing reaction from people who had read it, even in America from people who had gone to some lengths to get a copy as it was not all that available there. I had a lot of correspondence about the book. Partly, for a lot of people, it was the first Tour they paid a lot of attention to, because of LeMond. And I’m particularly fond of that edition, obviously.”

VeloPress has made the new edition available for North American readers more used to long-distance mail ordering and this commitment had Moore impressed. “They’re doing a great job of promoting it,” he said. “It’s quite nice to work with them because cycling books is what they do. They have some really great ideas. During [this year’s] Tour, we’re going to replay the ’86 Tour on Twitter and the website using reports from the day. It was an idea they had a while ago – and it should be great fun as well. I’ll be reporting on this year’s Tour and the ’86 Tour! And if we get as good of a Tour this year as we did back then I’ll be doubly happy.”

If the title of the book, ‘Slaying the Badger’, was not attention grabbing enough, Moore subtitled the original edition, ‘LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France’ (subsequently changed to ‘Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault and the Greatest Tour de France’ in the VeloPress version). In the book, as an explanation for the title, Moore is unapologetic about his bias. It was the first Tour he saw on TV with Channel 4 in the UK broadcasting it in English for the first time – featuring Phil Liggett – and the drama between LeMond and Hinault captured his imagination. While his initial explanation was subjective, the new afterword hints that he now thinks, in an objective sense, that the ’86 edition may indeed have been the greatest.

“I was put on the spot by a lot of people, who felt quite violently that it wasn’t,” Moore explained. “As I say in the afterword, when I challenged them, when I asked them to nominate their favorite, there was always some equivocation – they would suggest ’89, a common one, or another year. For me, ’89 was brilliant. It was close but your judgment can be clouded by the finale, what happened on the final day, so you have a memory that it was a great Tour. What was great for me about the ’86 Tour was that it was really great from start to finish. It was great before the start with the intrigue about what would happen [Hinault’s promise to LeMond from the year before to help LeMond win] and also having Hinault; while LeMond and Fignon were great champions, for me Hinault was the ultimate champion. If anything he tends to be second to Merckx, but having spoken to a few people I do wonder about that. For me, I feel lucky to have been able to watch Hinault race in his prime, albeit just on TV. It’s a bit like people now able to watch Mark Cavendish today, one of the – if not the – greatest at what he does. It’s a real privilege. I did appreciate it at the time, especially watching the ’85 Tour when he crashed and had the two black eyes. I remember thinking, ‘this guy’s a bit special; he’s a bit different’. That also made the ’86 Tour – it just nudged it.”

Moore has been doing some historical Tour research – more on that later – and suggested that he would now have a few more editions that could be considered in the mix. But he’s standing by ’86 as his choice. “For lots of reasons I would still argue for ’86,” he continued. “It was part of the modern era, but it was just prior to the EPO era, which I think took a lot of enjoyment away. It was an epic battle and there was so much more that just what happened on the road. I remember 2009, with Contador and Armstrong, which added tension and drama and intrigue into the story. As it turned out, though, those two were not that evenly matched on the road so it was more interesting away from the race than in the race. In ’86 it had both: it had the imagined drama in the hotel at night and it had the real drama on the road with this fragile, young American up against this battle-hardened badger. So I still stand by the claim, but it’s not objective by any means. It was maybe slightly silly as a subtitle, but it did get people’s attention!”

If there is a central character to the book it is Hinault rather than LeMond. In his first autobiography, Hinault suggests that “not much is known about badgers” and he likes it that way. As it turns out, Hinault in ’86 at first appears as a complicated man of many layers but then it starts to become apparent that maybe he is not; perhaps he is actually more like a black-and-white cartoon character from ‘Wind in the Willows’, like his namesake – a gruff badger that needs to be slayed.

“I was desperate to find some other side to Hinault, to paint a more rounded picture of him,” Moore said. “You do get an impression, only reinforced by his conduct in recent years – getting involved in pushing people off the podium [two cases where interlopers got on stage] where you can see that aggression rise to the surface. So I was keen to paint that more rounded picture, but it was quite difficult. So I was pleased to get the testimony of Andy Hampsten, who talked about how generous he could be as a teammate. And I also loved Paul Kochli’s reminiscing about him reading science magazines in bed at night, a side of Hinault that I was not aware of. When I put that to LeMond, he poured scorn all over that idea; he could not believe there was more to Hinault than an interest in farming and a rage that took over him when he was racing. Most of the anecdotes I heard from people reinforced the idea of him as coarse, rough, and surly.

“But there was definitely another side to him inside his own team, which makes ’86 a little bit ironic because in races other than the Tour he could be the perfect teammate, incredibly generous – such as when he gave Andy Hampsten, as he said, an ‘armchair ride’. That’s not something that Merckx would have done, for example. So there was that other side. He was smart, in a sense. But when it came to the Tour, and other races that he wanted to win, he was pretty one-dimensional; it was all about winning. That was the struggle he had in ’86.”

As Moore works through this in the book, the reader is also taken along for an armchair ride as Moore delves deeply into Hinault’s motivation, trying to understand him. I was interested to know whether he was happy with the outcome, whether he had got to know Hinault as best he had been able to under the circumstances.

“The question is really, does he know himself, why he rode the way he rode?” Moore replied. “And I’m not sure he does on a conscious level and whether he’d be able to articulate that. David Millar made a good point, that he was working at an unconscious level, that the only way he could not be seen to be riding in the service of LeMond was to go down in flames. That dictated his tactics, but whether he was consciously aware of that I really don’t know. I hesitated and didn’t want to put too much of my opinion in there, but the publishers wanted a little bit. I was keen for people to be presented with the evidence and make up their own minds. Again, I didn’t want to make it a simple open-and-shut case. I think it’s hugely complex and the central difficulty is Hinault. He’s been consistent over the years: he’s not a prevaricator – he makes up his mind and then that’s it. But how much conscious thought he’s been able to put into some of his statements I really don’t know. He’s always insisted that he helped LeMond, but everyone can see that it was a very odd way of helping. He said one or two contradictory things at the time, but you don’t know whether that was for the benefit of the French media because of the huge pressure in France to not help LeMond and to go for number six [his sixth Tour title], so he may have been playing to the galleries.”

Moore interviewed LeMond and Hinault, as well as a host of other players (a research exercise in itself), surely making it the definitive account. The book opens with a delightful – if a little graphic – story about LeMond, a bad peach, a campervan, and boxes of postcards. Best not to spoil the story for those who have not read the book, but it is a classic way to open and I was interested as to whether Moore had heard all the details of the story before, or whether it was the first of new details that he had obtained through interviewing LeMond.

“No, I hadn’t heard it before,” Moore said. “I’d only read what is in Paul Kimmage’s book, ‘Rough Ride’, that he’d seen LeMond suffering with diarrhea, and I met Paul and he elaborated a little bit. I asked LeMond about it and he seemed quite surprised to be reminded of it; I’m not sure if he knew it was in Kimmage’s book. And he came out with this absolutely delicious anecdote about the postcards, which really I had to open the book with. But there was a serious point behind it, which Kimmage himself said; there was a perception about LeMond, false in my view, that he was a bit soft and a complainer and a whiner. Well, he was in a pretty bad way that day and it shows what these guys suffer and it was significant in that respect. But it’s also quite funny and LeMond relished telling me!”

‘Slaying the Badger’ is a flashback to racing in the mid-80s, when there were no helmets, no radios, and no EPO, as well as a host of other differences (positive and negative). It seemed to be an era of attacking racing, though, and – Andy Schleck’s attack on the road to the Galibier in last year’s Tour aside – I asked Moore why today’s racing appears to be so different.

“It’s tempting to blame EPO for that,” he said. “Which put a larger group of riders on an equivalent level. I don’t know. Maybe more is at stake and people are less inclined to gamble. Back then, if you bombed at the Tour, you could save your season at the Worlds or Lombardy, there wasn’t this big discrepancy between the Tour and everything else. So that encourages racers to ride the Tour more conservatively, so that’s one factor. And it’s become more of a team sport: teams are stronger. So that may have something to do with it, I suspect. Andy Schleck’s ride was a throw back, and so was Alberto Contador’s the next day. Perhaps we might start to see more like that, which would be great as that’s what we love, really.”

It is easy, of course, to pine for the good old days and to see the past as being a simpler but more invigorating time for cycling. I suggest to Moore that the phrase from Douglas Coupland of a “legislated nostalgia” for the racing of the era might be appropriate.

“That’s a good point,” Moore agrees. “Especially if it coincides with a time when you fell in love with the sport, because you’re very impressionable at that age and very vulnerable to develop a fascination with people. As you get older, all the ones who come later are struggling to live up to the original heroes.”

Happy times atop Alpe d’Huez for Hinault and Lemond.

Moore’s book on Team Sky, ‘Sky’s the Limit’, covering its formation and development, has also been updated this year with new material covering Mark Cavendish joining the team (he was not on the team when the book first came out) and Bradley Wiggins so I was particularly interested in Moore’s views on the latter’s chances at this year’s Tour.

“There’s a lot on Cavendish joining,” Moore explained. “There was a lot about Cavendish in the original book, which I was pleased about as the team was formed with Cavendish and Wiggins in mind. Those two characters are central and you can see the project really clicking into gear and they will go to the Tour with the favorite actually – for most people Wiggins is the favorite, which is remarkable when you think about where they came from. It’s a remarkable achievement. The emphasis will be on the yellow jersey and the fact that Cavendish is going to finish the Giro suggests he will not finish the Tour; they’ll target maybe three or four stages, and help him win them, and the rest of the time will be all about Wiggins.”

The latest book from Moore’s pen is ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’ covering Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis in the 100-metres final at the Seoul Olympics. It is another provocative title – one that Moore explained had been used in print by various media before he adopted it for the book – but a step away from cycling. I wondered if he had been tempted to use the same title but to choose from the menu of bike races that might fit the bill and write about them instead.

A pleasant looking Bernard Hinault.

“Too many to choose from for that title,” he joked. “I was keen to do a non-cycling book just to prove I could do it and also to tie in with the Olympic year. And this is a story I was really fascinated in since it happened and it made a very deep impression on me so it was one I really, really wanted to do. To be honest, I’ve got another couple of cycling books lined up but the interest in cycling books in Britain is huge at the moment so it’s silly to turn your back on that and there’s still a lot of great stories to be told. It’s a brilliant sport to write about for lots of reasons.”

One of the books will be a historical look at the Tour to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the race in 2013 and Moore explained that he had been doing extensive research into past editions and would be using some of the old historical photographs as launching pads for his prose. As well, he had also identified some older races that could almost contest for the title of best Tour ever.

While I was a bit disappointed, one must confess, at the thought of yet another historical Tour book, Moore’s publishing record to date suggests that he is unlikely to put a pedal stroke wrong in his work. In the interim, we have a number of his current books to enjoy. ‘Slaying the Badger’ is a reminder that even in the age of extensive digital coverage of pro cycling, including seemingly endless Twitter updates from the participants themselves, there is still value in stepping back and considering long-form, book-length investigations. Perhaps it helps if the subject matter is a few decades old (one could perhaps imagine LeMond on Twitter, but not Hinault), and that time allows for new perspectives, but Moore is surely correct – cycling is a brilliant sport to write about and we do want to keep reading about it.

The cafй is closing and Moore has other appointments. I want to press him on whether his other cycling book will be on Wiggins winning the Tour, or to talk about his biography of Robert Millar, or perhaps assess the implications of a Canadian rider winning the Giro – the result of which we now know – but our time is up. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure.

For updates on Moore’s Tour coverage, follow him on Twitter: @richardmoore73

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