Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Slaying the Badger": The Campy Only Review

The Tour de France has never been a "clean" race. It takes only a cursory glance at the race's history to find that, even a century ago, racers were doping (and often getting caught) in an attempt to grab cycling's biggest prize. The current controversy over Lance Armstrong's alleged use of a variety of techniques to ride his way to seven Tour wins is only the latest episode in a storied history of cheating--and it won't be the last.

In the midst of all this hand-wringing about drugs and cheats, comes a book that hearkens back to a (somewhat) more innocent time, when the three-week rolling soap opera that is the Tour was dominated by two men: Breton Bernard Hinault and American Greg Lemond. "Slaying the Badger" (Velo Press) provides a compelling insight into these two men and the Tours of the 1980s that cemented their reputations as two of the sport's greatest riders. The fact that they did it (as far as we know) without doping makes the story all the more remarkable, and serves as a lesson to today's riders: Yes, it's possible to have an incredibly compelling race that doesn't rely on illicit drugs.

Author Richard Moore spent months tracking down and interviewing the main protagonists (several dozen in all) in the story of what may have been the greatest Tour of all time: the 1986 battle between Hinault and Lemond, two riders at the top of their profession, each capable of winning the race, competing on the same team. Looking back, it's hard to appreciate how much the dynamic between these two riders in this particular race captivated the cycling world. Hinault, who had won the Tour in 1985 with Lemond's help (Lemond placed second), had promised to repay the favor by riding in support of his teammate in '86.

Or did he? He certainly left doubts in the minds of many, attacking Lemond on critical stages, and making it seem as if he meant to win the race again in this, his final season of professional racing.

Slaying the Badger peels apart the layers of legend, hearsay, and story in a way that recalls The Onion Field. What was the true story of the '86 Tour? What were the riders thinking? What did Hinault really say? Slaying the Badger examines all of these questions in compelling detail.

We see Lemond, with wife Kathy, speaking from their comfortable suburban kitchen, still upset more than two decades after the fact about that one race. We listen to Hinault, interviewed in the rustic kitchen of his muddy, wind-swept farm in Brittany, recalling his own version of the story--one which intersects with Lemond's but doesn't quite match. These and other interviews are fascinating, in part because of the extreme detail with which the protagonists still recall those July days some 25 years ago.

Just as interesting is the book's retelling of the role of coach Paul Köchli in the creation of the La Vie Claire team of 1986 and, to a large extent, the world professional cycling today. Years before Billy Beane became famous for his "moneyball" approach to professional baseball, Köchli filled binders with detailed statistics on dozens of riders, and used the information to dispassionately create a team that dominated the sport. Eschewing the traditional scouting methods that Beane would also discard, Köchli relied on numbers and analysis to design his own "dream team" and then find the riders to fill that roster. It's a contribution to cycling that isn't as well known today as it should be.

"Taming the Badger" is a compelling read, and a great antidote to the cynicism of 21st Century professional cycling. Highly recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in the Tour or the history of cycling.

For information on buying the book: click here, then scroll down.


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