Twenty-three-year-old Bernard Hinault yesterday put on the prized yellow jersey of the winner of the annual Tour de France, Europe's most prestigious and grueling bicycle race.
The young Breton was only the seventh man in the history of the 65 tours to win the 2,500-mile race in the first year, he was a sportscaster on the tour, saying he did not think he was ready to complete.
This year, the bike-race-crazy French were already talking about his being in a category with such repeat winners of the classic as Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merchx.
Hinault beat out Joop Zoetemelk, who looks like he is becoming the tour's eternal bridesmaid. It was the fourth time that the Dutchman came in second (1970, 1971 and 1976, previously).
In yesterday's 22nd day of racing, Hinault did not even try to break away from the pack and did not place among the first 10 in the colorful final sprint on the Champs Elysees. His concern was to avoid an accident and to preserve his overall lead. So, he rode majestically down the Champs toward the head of the pack surrounded by his protective teammates, all wearing the jersey of their Renault (autos), Gitane (bicycle) and Miko (ice cream popsicles) team.
Hinault, who finished ahead of Zoetemelk by 3 minutes 56 seconds after 108 hours 10 minutes of racing, had displaced his adversary from the lead on Friday during the 75-kilometer timed lap between the eastern French cities of Metz and Nancy.
Third was the Portuguese Joaquim Agostinho, who finished 7 minutes 14 seconds behind Hinault.
One of the few racers considered capable of beating Hinault this year was Belgian Michel Pollentier, eliminated last week for cheating on a urine test to mask the fact that he was taking a banned drug. He had taken the lead in the race before being banished.
The immediate reaction was a rash of headlines along the lines of one saying, "The Tour of Shame." But all that seemed largely forgotten yesterday as thousands of Parisians turned out for the final sprint - six laps up and down the Champs Elysees and around the Tuileries gardens.
Yesterday's was almost an all-Dutch affair. Four racers, three Dutchmen and a Belgian, pulled away from the pack - reduced to 78 from the 110 who started June 29.
Yesterday's winner was Dutchman Gerrie Kneteman, who finished 1 minute 3 seconds ahead of the first part of the pack, and one second ahead of Belgian Rene Martens and his own teammate, Henk Lubberding.
Like most supersprinters, Kneteman never had a chance in the overall race that goes through the highest passes in the Alps and Pyrenees. It is rare that sprinters are also good mountain climbers, and Kneteman is no exception.
Despite Hinault's win for France, the French were not entirely satisfied with the results of the last day. "The French," said a French sportscaster, "had to give in on the Champs Elysees. They let themselves be outmaneuvered by foreigners."
It was probably just as well under the circumstances that Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, an ultranationalist, was off touring the French islands of the South Pacific instead of being present for the final lap.
In Chirac's stead, former Prime Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, the local national assemblyman from the Champs Elysees area and actually no less of a nationalist, passed out prizes to the winners at city hall.
Also very much present were all the tour sponsors, for whom getting their trademarks seen for hours on television during the tour is a lot more effective than all the paid advertising their budgets could muster. So, Derma Spray provided all the ambulances. Longines the stop watches, Adidas the racing shoes and so on, until the Champs Elysees looked like one of those billboard-laden turnpikes that used to send Lady Bird Johnson into fits of environmentalism.
Paris also got in on the act, providing more police for the security than for most visiting heads of state.
As the racers spun past the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre museum and the Arc de Triomphe at 30 miles an hour, they looked more like a herd of cattle being penned in by all the outriders in cars, vans and motorcycles than independent racers. If anyone had fallen seriously behind, he would have run the risk of being run over by an accompanying car painted with advertising slogans or by one of the many press motorcycles with helmeted photographers riding shotgun.