[22 July 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“We always called it the ‘race of truth.’ It’s you against the watch.” While cycling journalist Paul Liggett’s celebration of the Tour de France is familiar, it’s hardly universal. Certainly, the 111-year-old event—in process this year through 27 July—is renowned as a difficult and exacting test. But not everyone sees the Tour or cycling more generally as a test of “truth,” and not only since the much-reported doping scandals and, of course, the saga of Lance Armstrong. Indeed, as Slaying the Badger indicates, questions about how fair and how pure and how straightforward the event have circulated for years.
Mostly, these questions have to do with the essential structure of this multi-stage race (and to be fair, other multi-stage races), organized in a way that seems contradictory on its face. Indeed, as journalist Sam Abt puts it here, this is the “strange thing about cycling, that it’s an individual sport practiced by teams.” So, the winner is acclaimed and well paid (in the form of endorsements, at least), but he is only able to achieve these ends with the help of loyal and hardworking teammates, termed “domestiques.” These guys provide shields from air and wind, carry water and food, and offer tactical support during any given stage. So, the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team is mostly known for being Lance Armstrong’s team (the US government is currently
suing him and his teammates for breach of contract).
You’d think a system so hierarchical and so archaic might occasion discontent. And so it does, in Slaying the Badger recalls one rather infamous controversy concerning a French team, La Vie Claire. Based on the book by Richard Moore, Slaying the Badger constructs an exciting, sometimes troubling story of competition and deceit, focused on the 1986 Tour, and comprised of race footage, archival TV commentary, and look-back interviews with journalists, coaches, and racers. Greg LeMond, who was in 1986 the first non-European professional to win the Tour and, following Armstrong and Floyd Landis’ disqualifications, the only American to have won the Tour.
Your first glimpse of LeMond is briefly daunting, as he’s getting into the back brace he’s been wearing since a car accident in 2013, a brace he expects not to need in the near future. For his interview, LeMond is joined by his wife Kathy, partner in a number of causes (including ADHD, sexual abuse, and anti-doping) and during his early years as a racer even though, at the time, such practice was unusual. La Vie Claire was reportedly reluctant at first, but then reconsidered, because, as Kathy remembers, “I think Hinault said [Greg] was better with me there.”
Hinault is Bernard HInault, the team’s star, also known as the Badger. He recruited the brilliant young American in 1985, when HInault had already won the Tour in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982. Journalist Francois Thomazeau says “HInault wanted him on [his] team; it was better than racing against him.” Hinault, as is nickname suggests, was notorious for his competitive spirit “Thomazeau characterizes his attitude as “If you want to beat me, you’re going to have to kill me”), as well as his controlling nature (team masseuse Shelley Verses says they called him their “commandante”).
The decision to bring on LeMond served Hinault well in 1985, when he won his fifth Tour. That was supposed to change the following year, both the LeMonds say, as Greg was the team’s proposed winner, with the other racers designated his domestiques. Apparently this was a difficult transition for the badger, and most of the film sets up a bit of a back-and-forth between his and the LeMonds’ memories of that Tour, with some complications added by the La Vie Claire manager Paul Koechli.
When it came time for LeMond to win, he and Kathy and fellow former teammate Andrew Hampsten express their discomfort with Koechli’s decision, then, to “introduce a revolutionary technique,” wherein La Vie Claire would no longer have a team leader, but would allow for Hinault to pursue his own win, leaving other team members to pick sides. “It was like in-house fighting,” says Verses, “It was like a scary movie.”
The story remains full of drama even in the retelling, as Hinault insists now as he did then, that his battle against LeMond, however unscripted, made the younger rider a better competitor. If Hinault’s help is suspect, LeMond was a great competitor, winning the Tour again (even after he was shot in a hunting accident and out of competition completely for two years). The film more or less footnotes the change introduced by EPO and other doping strategies, with Thomazeau comparing the past to now by saying vaguely, “There were good things about the old school cycling.”
It also underlines Armstrong’s bad, bullying behavior even as he started on the Tour: Kathy remembers—still outraged, 20 years later—that Lance called them to ask if he could rent their house in Belgium in 1994, assuming that Greg was “finished”. Asked to comment about “the American victory”, LeMond says, he had already heard about the cheating. He told Sports Illustrated it was “unbelievable”.
As LeMond tells this story, he and Kathy are seated together, again. And it may be that their relationship becomes this film’s most compelling and most heartening, as they finish one another’s sentences and visibly buoy each other’s spirits. Hinault remains the smooth and unrepentant villain here, still vexing, rather like his sport.