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Vitré, Bernard Hinault and the 1985 Tour de France

By Owen Mulholland

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Dirty Feet: Early days of the Tour de France

Les Woodland's book Dirty Feet: How the Great Unwashed Created the Tour de France is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Owen Mulholland was the first American journalist accredited to the Tour de France and he followed and reported on the big race for years. Here he tells of the day the Tour came to a small town in Brittany.

1985 Tour de France

Sitting beneath the castle walls of this village in the heart of Brittany, it's not hard to feel the depth of time when a thousand years of stone look down on you. Even in a country where the tradition and pride of one's region are profound, Brittany remains purposely parochial. Le Bretons are not really French, but Celtic (like the Irish and Welsh), and their roots go back into the mist of prehistory. And like Jews, Basques, Kurds and other embattled minorities, Bretons have a fierce attachment to their land and their ways.

Along with a certain style of fortification and church, festival and language, the people of this north coast peninsula have embraced a relatively modern phenomenon—cycling. More races are sponsored in Brittany every year than in all the rest of France. It's a sport that suits the Bretagne personality. The need to express stubborn individuality and still hold onto a larger world than oneself is never more perfectly balanced than on the world of two wheels.

This is Bernard Hinault country. He comes from the nearby town of Yffiniac. The locals have watched him for over a decade now, climbing through the ranks, holding their collective breath when he slipped from the top the last couple of years, and now roaring him back to victory during the opening days of the Tour.

Bernard Hinault riding the prologue time trial.

For the arrival of their monarch Vitré has spared no efforts. One wishes they would. Thirty-six hours before his arrival the town is totally wired and there is no place to hide from the omnipresent disco. Every street is an open air market. The cobbled lanes are packed with people slowly shouldering their way from no particular place to another.

Vitré is still jumping when I pass out around midnight. In the morning all is refreshingly quiet, but not for long. By 8 am the Tour's set-up crew has arrived. Bang! Slam! Pound! Two thousand fences are linked, banners strung, stands erected, hundreds of of phones, telexes, desks and chairs are installed in the temporary salle de presse, 150 policemen deployed, and so it goes. Gradually the streets fill with people. Gendarmes stop all car traffic at 10 am (the race doesn't arrive until 4:30). Vendors set up their sidewalk concessions as the first vehicles in the publicity caravan arrive. Each one blares a sales pitch superimposed on a background of accordion music. Children dive for the freebies tossed to them.

Just after 2 pm sirens scream and the curtain raising act begins. The women's Tour rolls into town. Jeannie Longo is in the lead. They roll by and the even longer queue of support vehicles beeps and roars its cacophonic way through the narrow streets which haven't seen such commotion since Henry II and his boys marched through here chasing elusive Eleanor.

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The swelling hoards of spectators are getting in the mood. Radios report the latest developments in the men's race still two hours away. Each move is animatedly discussed with whoever is closest.

"Bagot and van der Poel are 15 seconds up on the peloton!"

"So what, they'll be caught."

"No they won't, Hinault doesn't want the lead this early in the race."

"How can you be so stupid? Vanderaerden of the Panasonic team wants to win today so he can wear the yellow jersey."

And so continue the arguments among the knowledgeable fans who appreciate the endless intricacies of the Tour.

More and more race vehicles fly into Vitré (what speed limit?). Loudspeakers throughout the village now report the blow by blow. The lead entourage of 20 motorcycle mounted gendarmes storms into town, their five-tone horns warning everyone about what they already know. The race is imminent.

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Race director Jacques Goddet's special Peugeot follows, sprouting its human periscope, the old man himself, standing through the sunroof. He must be pleased. His 83 year old child, the Tour, is obviously still in the best of health.
A gap…and then…

"Les coureurs!" "Les coureurs!" The cry goes up and necks grow out in a frantic effort to catch a glimpse of the riders. Le Bago and van der Poel are still in the lead. They are absolutely flat out, desperation and concentration written all over them. Voices yell, "Voici, le peloton!" and heads swing back to see Vanderaerden and his teammates thundering away at the head of the 177 man peloton. The white noise of 354 tires at 45 mph drowns every competing decibel. In its wake a mini-cyclone full of dust and flying papers forces people to squint.

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Ears tune in to transistors again. Hope to the small fry out front tugs against the likely reality of their being swallowed by the wheeled whale.

Reality wins, Bagot and van der Poel are engulfed. But wait. At the last millisecond Rudy Matthijs usurps the expected victory of Vanderaerden.
Those who can, rush to the finish; not to see upstart Rudy receive his bouquet, but to see their beloved Bernard one more time.

There he is, inches away. Of course he'll sign your autograph book. Of course he'll hold still for one more photo. In him are embodied all the projections of fame and greatness the fans have had for themselves. He is Bretagne. He is theirs.