WE knew that Bernard Hinault was very strong. His overall successes in the two last Super-Prestige Pernod trophies, the event which rewards the most consistent rider of the road season, were indisputable marks of his domination over the international scene. At the end of August last year, to crown it all, he proved to everyone his valour by donning the rainbow jersey at Sallanches, winning on his own after freeing himself from his last companion Gianbattista Baronchelli.
His last two seasons had been really fruitful, his honours list in less than twenty months grew richer by one Fleche Wallonne, one Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one Tour of Spain, one Tour of Italy, one Tour-de-France, one title of French road champion, one Tour of Lombardy, one Grand Prix of the Nations.... etc., etc.
He began to monopolize the major events but we knew, and he as well, that he missed one string to his bow. We all thought he would never be able to win Paris-Roubaix, the queen of the classics for his first contacts with the cobbles had been disastrous. Very often, as soon as he entered the hell at Neuvilly, he lost all his chances.
It took him more than three years to get used to the pave and last year, at last he finished fourth at Roubaix, behind Moser, Duclos-Lassalle and Thurau. In spite of all his ardour he had been unable to rival the three men who preceded him to the line, without forgetting Roger De Vlaeminck who was at the head of the affairs when he crashed and was obliged to give up.
During the Tour of France he began to make us change our minds. The stage from Liege, in Belgium, to Lille, close to Roubaix, run on the roads of the end of Paris-Roubaix and on other ones almost as bumpy as those of the classic. And here Bernard Hinault, under the pouring rain, performed in style. In a masterly manner he displayed his class, beating in the sprint at Lille. Hennie Kuiper, the other riders being well out-distanced. But after all, it was only a stage of the Tour de France, it was in July, and the riders tried to retain some strength to remain in the bunch until the end of the Grande Boucle.
Hinault's victory in Lille was in fact unconvincing. The 1981 season had well begun for the reigning World champion with a surprising victory in the Dutch Amatel Gold Race following with 3 victories In 3 stages at the Criterium International in the south of France, but for Paria-Roubaix Roger De Vlaeminck, Jan Raaa, Marc Demeyer, Francesco Moser were also there to win and would offer a severe resistance and according to the experts they were more fit to fly over the cobbles than Hinault, expecially Roger De Vlaeminck and Francesco Moser, victor of the 2 last issues of the event.
Ghent-Wevelgem the previous Wednesday confirmed the form of the Belgian I mentioned and the former World champion of Italy. For Hinault it would be hard to reach Roubaix in the leading echelon. In fact it was indeed hard but this time Bernard Hinault was to prove he was the best of all.
I know he doesn't like the comparison but Hinault is now as good as Eddy Merckx when the Belgian was at the top of his career. Misfortune constantly dogged him. Seven times he crashed, the last time at the worst possible moment, crashing into a dog just at the end of the cobbled sections, but each time he got back on his feet quickly, making light of all the obstacles he found on his way. He never left his opponents a single chance anywhere, particularly on the finishing track of Roubaix which was the most important place of the day for they were still six ahead wanting to win. Against Roger De Vlaeminck, Francesco Moser, Guido Van Calster and Marc Demeyer, Hinault could certainly worry. As for Kuiper, victor one week before on his own in the Tour of Flanders, he need not fear, Kuiper being the slowest of the six, nevertheless Hinault won. He really was the best.
On the starting line in the morning at Compiegne the Frenchman had already received a bouquet for his victory in the Sedia trophy of 1980. It was auspicious but Paris-Roubaix is such a strange race where anything can happen, nobody is able to forecast the result of this event.
Until the first cobbles at Neubilly (km 109)
nothing really serious happened. Only Jean-Francois
Pescheux and a bit further on
Stephen Roche had cleared themselves from
the bunch during more than five kilometres
but the group was once more intact at the
gates of the hell of the North though several
crashes before Montray (km 100) had already
split the bunch.
On the smooth ascent from Neuvilly to Inchy it was imperitive to keep one's place ahead. Didi Thurau, Francesco Moser, Marc Demeyer, De Wolf and further back Hinault, De Vlaeminck, Duclos-Lassalle were in command. Jan Raas risked his skin to join the head after a crash just before Neuvilly but the bespectacled Dutch rider quickly lost his chance. The first cobbled section was not yet finished but he was already out, in the dust he didn't see a hole and he was the first rider to give up on the cobbles. Already one of the favourites was on the absentees list.
After a long purge ahead between De Vlaeminck, Hinault and all the other favourites, Graham Jones attacked before Valenciennes with the blond-haired Italian of Famcucine Marco Cattaneo stuck firmly to his back wheel. Jones stopped his effort and it was then Cattaneo who carried on on 0a own. The brand new professional of Danguillaume, Frederic Vichot and a little further the former Belgian champion Gery Verlinden and Jean-Rene Bernaudeau caught the Italian and the longest breakaway of the day was on its way.
It was to last some forty kilometres. Behind the four men all the riders were regrouped and all in close attendance, waiting for the predictable failure of the first group. Near Ennetieres, with 50 kms to go, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle and Roger De Vlaeminck counter-attacked. They quickly joined the disheartened leading group from which Verlinden had dropped back after a crash. When Duclos-Lassalle and De Vlaeminck caught the three remaining leaders, Bernaudeau and Vichot did not work anymore. Only Cananeo hung on with Hinault, Moser, Kuiper, Demeyer, Kelly and Co. never losing more than one minute on the three men.
For thirty kilometres the courageous Peugeot leader held out against Hinault, Cattaneo, De Vlaeminck, Demeyer, Kuiper, Moser, Chassang, Van den Haute, Bittinger, Van Calster. Eddy Planckaert who had joined forces to make Duclos see reason.
Then the lone leader punctured just when Van den Haute and Hinault had piled on the pressure, and his misfortune was complete when he crashed with 18 kilometres to go. With Bittinger, Eddy Planckaert, Chassang and Van den Haute dropped back the vital move was on. The sex men I mentioned at the beginning of the story were now dashing towards Roubaix, losing for a couple of minutes Bernard Hinault busy crashing into a small poodle on the straight and narrow path.
Back at the front Hinault, not sure of his sprint, staked his all with eight kilometres to go but Kuiper acting for De Vlaeminck quickly hauled him back. The sprint was now unavoidable. Hennie Kuiper entered the track at the head of the group to favour the sprint of Roger De Vlaeminck with Hinault and Moser on his rear wheel DemeYer and Van Calster bringing up the rear.
It didn't last long for with one lap to go Hinault was in command, De Vlaeminck having chosen to follow the World champion's wheel. Van Calster, Kuiper, Demeyer and Moser behind.
In the penultimate banking Demeyer tried to overtake the leading men on the inside but he was at the end of his tether and when Hinault pushed harder on the pedals he did not respond. Into the last banking with 200 metres to go Hinault began the real sprint. Van Calster was already out of the reckoning, Moser seemed completely exhausted, and De Vlaeminck, up on the pedals began his last effort, in the last straight just as he reached Hinault'a front wheel he sat on his saddle and immediately lost two metres. Hinault carried on strongly never having a look behind. And Paris-Roubaix 1981 was for him. At last a French rider on the honours list to succeed to Louison Bobet victor 25 years ago.
1 B. Hinault (Renault-Elf-Gitane) 263 km in 6h 26' 7" (40,866 km)
2 R. De Vlaeminck (Daf-Cote d'Or-Gazelle)
3 F. Moser (Famcucine-Moser)
4 G. Van Calster (Wickes-Splendor)
5 M. Demeyer (Capri Sonne-Koga Miyata)
6 H. Kuiper (Daf-Cote d'Or-Gazelle)
7 F. Van Den Haute (La Redoute) at 1'1
8 R. Bittinger (Miko-Mercier-Vivage)
9 J. Chassang (Puch-Wolber) at 2' 09
10 F. De Wolf (Vermeer-Thijs-Gios) at 2' 35
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