Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

16 July 2015

Why We Don't Have Any More Hinaults or Mercxes

Retrogrouch's excellent posts about Bernard Hinault and the 1985 Tour de France got me to thinking about how professional racing has changed. As a result,  I came to the conclusion that racers like Hinault or Eddy Mercx simply could not exist today.

There are a number of reasons why no one races, let alone dominates, the way Hinault and Mercx did.   One is this that the organization, sponsorship and training of riders and teams are very different today from what they were three decades ago, when Hinault achieved his final Tour de France victory, let alone when Mercx won his last title a decade earlier.

In those days, cyclists rode in a much greater variety of events than they do now.  The greatness of Hinault and Mercx--and of cyclists like Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi before them--was that they rode (and won) many of the one-day "classics" (including such races as Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix) as well as races against the clock and on the track.  Most of the current generation of cyclists won't even enter as many races as Mercx or Hinault won. 

In other words, cyclists of Hinault's and Mercx's generations  did not focus all of their time and energy on winning the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana.  And, when they won those races, they did so by being among the top riders in all aspects of those races:  They won mountain climbs, sprints, time trials and long road stages. 

Bernard Hinault

Now, to be fair, it isn't necessarily the racers' fault that they're not riding as many events and that the best riders on each team are focused on winning the long stage races.   That has been driven, I think, in part by the sport's changes in sponsorship.  Hinault's generation was the last to be sponsored by bicycle companies (which are not nearly as big as, say, automobile, athletic-footwear or soft-drink makers) and businesses of one kind and another that had little name recognition outside their home countries.  Few people outside of France had shopped in a La Vie Claire store, and few outside of Italy had eaten a Molteni salami, before Hinault and Mercx, respectively, wore team jerseys with the names of those companies on them. 

The landscape was beginning to change late in Hinault's career, when global companies like Coca-Cola and Nike began to sponsor teams and races.  While it meant bigger budgets for equipment, training and such, it also meant that those companies wanted as much exposure as possible--for themselves and cycling--for the money they spent.  Most Americans (or casual fans in other countries, for that matter) couldn't have told you who finished fourth in the Dauphine Libere or whose hour record was just broken--but everyone knew who won the Tour de France, especially if the rider came from his or her own country. 

Again, in the interests of fairness, I should point out that by the time Greg LeMond won the Tour for the first time in 1986, few Americans had grown up following the sport of cycling.  A true fan of any sport not only knows the results of his or her hometown team's games, but follows other teams and, most important, the players on those teams.  Even more important, they understand the intricacies of playing or participating in the sport:  few basketball fans anywhere in the world can appreciate Tony Parker's "floater" as much as the ones in New York, even though TP has never played for the Knicks.  That is because New York basketball fans follow all of the NBA as well as international and college basketball. When LeMond came along, few Americans born after the era of the six-day races followed cycling in a similar way.  Few things will get the attention of would-be fans like a dominating victory in a major race.

Also, it must be said that Americans had a greater variety of sports and leagues already vying for their attention than most Europeans had for theirs.  It's quite a challenge for a sport like cycling to compete against leagues like the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball, all of which grew tremendously during bicycle racing's dormancy in the US.  A story about a one-day race in a foreign country simply would not distract most Americans from baseball or basketball or football playoffs.

Finally, I will offer one more reason why I think the cycling world will not produce more Hinaults, Mercxes, Coppis or Anquetils.  Such riders--like the great English footballers of the past--were usually the sons of native-born farmers, factory workers, miners, other blue-collar workers and small business owners.   People in circumstances like those may not grow up with much, but there's enough money--or enough can be saved--for a bicycle.  Sometimes there isn't much else, and that is what motivates a talented rider. 

(I read somewhere that when Eddy Mercx was going off to race with the Peugeot team, his father tried to stop him. "Who will mind the store?," he protested.)

Eddy Mercx

That class of people is disappearing in Europe, as it has been in the US.  Some who would have been members of such a class found ways to improve their economic (if not social) lot in life.  Thus, their kids grow up with electronic gadgets and other distractions an earlier generation never had.  Becoming a first-rate cyclist requires many hours of training, which can only be done by someone who either doesn't have distractions or has the mental discipline (which few have) to ignore them and get on his bike.  Also, a rider needs a similar kind of discipline to forego, say, ice cream or other foods that, while pleasurable, will not enhance performance.

Increasingly, in countries like France, the ones who are most motivated to develop their athletic talents are immigrants or their children.  And they are not becoming cyclists.  For one thing, they are poorer than the native European working classes were, and can't afford a racing bike or the other necessary equipment.  On the other hand, it takes hardly any expenditure for equipment to play futbol (soccer) or basketball, or to become a track-and-field competitor.

The Africans, Arabs and other third-world immigrants (and their children) who live in Europe also share a trait with Americans at the time of Hinault:  Most haven't grown up following the classics and other bike races.  Sure, they know who won the Tour and Giro, but like an earlier generation of Americans, they might draw a blank if someone  mentions Milan-San Remo.

(I also can't help but to wonder whether some of them see cycling as a "white" sport, and are thus discouraged from competing in it even if they or their families or friends can afford a bike.)

So, increasingly, competitors in the major European races are coming from outside the region in which those races are held.  Many riders have come from former Soviet-bloc countries, which had strong racing programs that were sponsored by the state.   Today's corporate sponsors can offer them better equipment and training facilities than their parents could have dreamed.  Even so, it's harder for someone from Russia to spend a whole season going from race to race in France, Italy, Belgium, England and other western European countries.  So they find themselves focusing on particular races and specialities (which is what they did under the old Soviet system:  then, as now, a disproportionate number of Russian riders are sprinters), just as other riders have done in recent years. 

All of this will lead me to my (though not the) last reason why we won't have another Hinault or Mercx, or the racing scene that produced them:  Much of the fire one saw in "The Badger" or "The Cannibal" when they rode came from racing in front of their compatriots.  Or, when they weren't performing in their own homelands (or the nations in which their teams are based), they were fueled by rivalries with countries that bordered their own.  So Mercx could be driven as much by the ire of French fans, who hated him for winning "their" races, as by the support of fans in Italy, where his Molteni team was based.  A cyclist--no matter how great or simply flamboyant--from a faraway land will never draw such love or hate, and can thus never be motivated in quite the same way as earlier riders were.

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