The son of a French railway worker, who used to deliver the village mail on a bicycle, arrived in Washington this week to announce that he soon will be riding his bike here as well.
No longer a pedaling postman, Bernard Hinault now is the $800,000-a-year, four-time winner of the 2,200-mile Tour de France, the annual Super Bowl-World Series of bicycle racing.
The coming of the famed Hinault and the world's top bike racers to the Nation's Capital, for a major "Tour of America" to be held in Virginia and the District next spring, is expected to be announced at a press conference today by Virginia's Gov. Charles Robb and District Mayor Marion Barry.
Being heralded as the start of an American revival of big-time bike racing -- perhaps the nation's most popular sport at the turn of the century -- the three-day, 275-mile race will be a miniversion of the Tour de France. But it will cross Virginia hills, Tidewater towns and Washington streets instead of the Alps and cobblestones of France.
Along with Hinault and top European cyclists, the American Tour also is expected to feature the small but hustling pack of two dozen U.S. professional riders, including Greg LeMond, 21, whom Hinault calls his successor as the world's top cyclist, and Jonathan (Jacques) Boyer, a 27-year-old Californian and only American ever to compete in the 79-year-old Tour de France.
LeMond just won the prestigious French Tour de L'Avenir and placed second in this summer's world bicycle championships in England. Boyer placed fifth in the worlds and 32nd in last year's Tour de France and 23rd in this year's.
On this trip, Hinault astounded members of Washington's National Capital Velo Club by appearing unannounced for a Sunday morning ride in Rock Creek Park, where the amateur racing club regularly practices. Hinault said the American riders he's seen "have a lot to learn and often have poor riding positions," but are young and enthusiastic, he added through a translator.
Of the more than 25,000 miles that Hinault rides every year, only a few thousand are in races for money, he says, the rest is training. And the money is not as much as it sounds, Hinault said.
"Taxes take about 75 percent" of the more than $800,000 he earns from Renault and its Gitanes bicycle subsidiary, and from endorsements, he said. "I pedal five revolutions for taxes and one for me," Hinault said, based on calculations of his wife, an accountant who handles the family financing and their two small boys. The first year Hinault turned pro, at 18, he earned $6,000, he said.
He shrugs off questions about "the pain," the strain of what many believe is the world's most grueling sport. Climbing mountain roads spectators can barely stand on and racing down hairpin turns at 50 and 60 miles an hour, often racing when ill, sore and scarred from falls, Hinault says "if you love the sport you don't notice so much."
It's France's most popular sport because it is exhilarating to do and is a "sport de pauvre," he explains, inexpensive to pursue and open to the poor in every country. Bike racing died in the United States, he believes, because of overcommercialization of the six-day races. "If a sport gets to be too much business, money grubbing, the sport itself is forgotten."
But at 27, in what is considered the relatively brief prime of a bike racer's life, he is looking ahead to retirement from the sport he took up as a teen-ager when he entered amateur races in his Breton village of Quessoy. It will be "exactly on my 32nd birthday, Nov. 14, 1986," he said, a day when he will see more of his family and fewer spinning wheels.