The Tour de France, which ended with the victory by Geraint Thomas, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first of five victories by Bernard Hinault. But the first Grand Tour won by the French champion was the 33rd edition of La Vuelta in the spring of 1978. Since then, no winner has won the Tour and La Vuelta in the same season until that was accomplished by Chris Froome last year!
History remembers that, according to the race plan drawn up by Cyrille Guimard, his mentor, Bernard Hinault wisely waited until he turned 24 to participate in his first Grand Tour, without going through any apprenticeship phase. Asked to search through his memories, he recalls that “In anticipation of the Tour de France, we did La Vuelta in April to see if I could endure the 21-day race. And I proved that it wasn’t a problem.” It was raining in Gijón on April 25th, 1978, the day of the prologue (8.6 km) that the Breton won with a huge number 31 on his back, ahead of Belgian Ferdi Van den Haute who would relieve him of the yellow jersey three days later. “I was especially worried about the Spanish climbers who were coming from several stage races, which was not our case,” he said.
It was still raining between León and Valladolid for stage 4, in which the peloton only covered 21 km in the first hour of racing. This represents half of the triumphs of Patrick Lefévère, the most successful manager of the last quarter century: as a rider, the boss of Quick Step had only earned a victory in the Vuelta a Levante, in the Valencian Community, in 1976. Upon arrival in the capital of Castile and Leon, the Belgian teammate of the race leader on the Marc-Zeepcentrale squad, observed ironically, “I had just gotten over three weeks of bronchitis and I came to Spain to soak up some sun…”
If the 1978 Tour de France was famous for the cyclists‘ strike to protest the half-stages, walking across the finish line instead of sprinting in Valence d’Agen, Hinault, the ringleader of the protest, understood that in León, the riders could further their cause against the authorities. Under the leadership of Txomin Perurena, the peloton threatened not to return unless the five riders who were disqualified for having drafted behind the chaser cars were reinstated.
The Spanish climbers concerned Hinault, but the echelons made life difficult for them and condemned Enrique Cima while the Belgians had a field day. Back then, they were never as devoted as after having received their piece of the cake by winning a stage. That’s how the Renault-Gitane team came out ahead in Ávila and Calafell, with Willy Teirlinck prior to the second time trial in Barcelona, in which the distance, barely half that of the prologue (3.8 km) did not allow Hinault to create major gaps. “I knew nothing about the passes the following day” he said.
In 1978, La Vuelta had 99 starters and was held in the northern quarter of the country. Returning from Catalonia to the Basque Country with the yellow jersey claimed once and for all in Santa Margarita de Montbuy (stage 12 of 19), the Breton was not yet known as “The Badger” in Spain. “Hinault, maestro y puntillero” (Hinault, master and puntillero) was the headline published in the sports newspaper AS. In bullfighting, the puntillero is the one in charge of finishing off the bull.
He picked up bonus seconds in all the intermediate and final sprints, outpacing even the sprinters for the stage victory in Logroño. On the eve of the last weekend, he led the overall standings with a 40-second advantage over Catalonian José Pesarrodona, having reaped 56 seconds of bonuses. Did the pride push him to spare himself the criticism of a cut-rate victory? Against the clock on the last day, he would logically establish his dominance. He was not expected to go on the attack the day before in the Ortuna pass, 98 km from the finish line in Amurrio while Spanish rider Andres Gandarias and Italy’s Leone Pizzini were well in the lead, with a five-minute advantage. “I took off a little haphazardly, just for fun, and I saw that no one could follow me, so I continued to the finish line.”
It seemed so simple, cycling as told by Bernard Hinault. Shortly before his death last May 27 in Durango, where the Sunday morning stage was neutralized following incidents, A. Gandarias, who competed in his last Vuelta in 1978 after taking part in several others, finishing 5th in the 1969 Tour de France won by Eddy Merckx, who has this to say about the few minutes he tried to draft behind the young French rider: “I suffered like a dog.” “Incredible!” remembers Van den Haute. “I rode full speed behind him, otherwise he would have finished ten minutes ahead of us.” The results of the time trial in San Sebastián did not count and Hinault came in first in the overall classification, 2’52’’ ahead of Pesarrodona and 3’47’’ ahead of his teammate Jean-René Bernaudeau, who was making his pro debut at 21 years of age and who is the current manager of Direct Energie.
In terms of La Vuelta statistics, years ending in 8 are great vintages, with prestigious champions: Bernardo Ruiz (1948), Jean Stablinski (1958), Felice Gimondi (1968), Bernard Hinault (1978), Pedro Delgado (1988), Abraham Olaño (1998) and Alberto Contador (2008). The 2018 edition is therefore eagerly awaited.
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