Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bad Guys - From Hinault To Zabka

One of the most intriguing elements of sports is that it allows the viewer to openly and honestly declare favoritism and disapproval with a passion rarely found in normal life. Because of my upbringing, I will always root for the Giants, Niners, Warriors, and Buffaloes as if I were a member of the team. Consequently, I will always dislike the Dodgers, Cowboys, Lakers and Cornhuskers with equal vigor. The Good Guys aren’t as good if there isn’t a Bad Guy to compete against. Cycling is no different.

In professional cycling, one can fortunately choose to root for or against riders, teams or even countries. There may not be historical rivalries on par with the Giants-Dodgers, but there are plenty of opportunities to pick sides. These choices are largely arbitrary and superficial but they can make following sports a bit more exciting. And at the end of the day, they don’t really mean anything. Spontaneous emotion and excitement without consequence. It’s great. Unless you are a Colombian soccer player.

Anyway, I would like to start off by saying that I love France. I really do. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and has contributed as much to the higher culture of Western Civilization as any. When it comes to art, wine, architecture and scenery, France is about as good as it gets.

But for various reasons, I don’t like many of the country’s professional cyclists.

It all started with Bernard Hinault in the mid-80’s. Oh, how I disliked The Badger, with his snarling grimace and hairy arms. His cheesy Ray Ban sunglasses even reminded me of Mike Ditka, another sports villain from my early teens. Hinault epitomized everything that I questioned about bike racing and his dethroning symbolized the dawn of a new era in cycling. My era, of cool guys wearing Oakleys and Giro helmets. Not grumpy, old, hairy men in Ray Bans.

I recently watched the DVD of the 1986 Tour again and it confirmed all of my initial feelings about the crotchety and conniving Hinault. The aging Frenchman was at the peak of his Badger-ness during the first Tour that I was able to follow as an 11 year old and I still find myself getting annoyed with his antics at 32. I’ll write more about the ’85 and ’86 Tours soon. That DVD is almost like a comedy at this point. It’s incredible.

In terms of my all-time Bad Guys, I would liken Bernard Hinault to the legendary Billy Zabka. If you recall, Zabka (Czech for “Little Frog”) had a remarkable string of Hall of Fame Bad Guy roles in the mid-to-late ‘80’s and still sets the standard by which all others are measured.

Most recognize Zabka as Johnny Lawrence, the quarterback of the Cobra Kai butt-kicking team in the Karate Kid and ultimate witness to the power of the Crane Technique. But just like Hinault, Zabka had a number of other great Bad Guy performances that are often overlooked. I personally think that his portrayal of “Chas” in Back To School was similar to Hinault in the 1985 Tour and the role of Audrey’s boyfriend “Jack” in European Vacation was kind of like the Frenchman’s Coors Classic rides.

Following Hinault in the growing legacy of unlikable Frenchmen, Laurent Fignon came around to challenge the far cooler LeMond in 1989. The silly ponytail and nerdy glasses put Fignon at an immediate disadvantage but there was just simply no way that I could like the guy when he was going up against the greatest comeback story in the sport.

The other HUGE factor in my disapproval of Larry Fignon was his startling resemblance to Robert Preston, also known as the villainous “Kent Torokvei” from Real Genius. While not quite as popular as some of the other ‘80’s movies, Real Genius provided one of Val Kilmer’s better roles as well as a startling glimpse of a Fignon look-alike playing the evil, laser sabotaging Kent.

Needless to say, a few years later when Larry was flopping on the ground after having lost on the Champs Elysees, I couldn’t help but think that Val Kilmer was smiling somewhere. I sure was.

Solidifying this theme of French guys I could do without was the emergence of Richard Virenque. The Festina scandal was just the beginning but let’s just say that Tricky Ricky was not someone that I was rooting for, whether or not he was wining polka-dot jerseys or lying for a couple years about doping.

Virenque’s success in the mountains of the Tour de France forces the comparison to Roy Stalin, the ski racing Bad Guy from Better Off Dead. Not to mention that Stalin stole John Cusack’s girlfriend and Virenque was always called The French Housewives Favorite.

Ironically, Cusack's character in the movie ends up with Monique, a French girl. I don't recall seeing Aaron Dozier in many future roles but then again, he was really just a Zabka wanna-be. Billy must have been busy when they were casting Better Off Dead because he would have been a lock for the Stalin role.

The most prominent current member of the French cyclists that I don’t particularly care for is Le Chien, Christophe Moreau. More than anything, I have found myself questioning his tactics and generally not liking his style on the bike. He will forever be linked to Festina and getting popped for steroids at the Criterium International and his knee-high socks aren’t helping either.

Actually, one of the main issues I have with Moreau is that he looks exactly like a skinny version of a former employer I had back in the Bay Area. I got along quite well with this person but it’s still weird to see a guy that looks like your boss chasing worthless mountain points and generally wasting energy in the Tour. Off-putting at best.

Anyway, beyond all of these things, Moreau kind of reminds me of Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore in that he’s just a guy that is easy to like to dislike. It’s an interesting quality.

And isn’t that really what being a fan of athletic competition is all about? Taking certain qualities, defined or not, and determining a hierarchy of preference? It is a fact that making a certain emotional investment in the success or failure of the athletes or teams enhances the entertainment value significantly.

Truthfully though, compared to other sports, there are really very few cyclists that I dislike. Overall, I think most professional riders are a pretty agreeable bunch. If Terrell Owens, Jeff Kent and Kobe Bryant were bike racers, I would probably not have any of these Frenchmen very high on my list of Bad Guys.

Again, I don’t have anything against French cyclists in general but Hinault did kind of set the precedent of villainy for the following generations of riders. I do have some French blood in me though, so maybe I should go easier on them. Then again, maybe that's why I'm so slow. In that respect, I will always hold a grudge.


Sebastian said...

Aren't all of your reasons for hating Hinault -- the highway-cop grimace, the highway-cop sunglasses, the "my way or the highway" 'tude -- reasons to hate Armstrong as well?

Personally I can't watch that old 86 Tour without rooting for the Badger and finding myself vaguely bored with Lemond. Hinault comes out and lays it on the line, day after day, while Lemond just lurks there behind Hererra and Zimmerman and Millar, waiting to pounce . . . which he did, with perfect timing, on the road to Luchon. So to the victor go the spoils, but I sorta suspect that if Hinault had just contented himself with the five minutes he gained in his first big attack, and not gone again the next day, he would have won #6 easily.

(As for 1985: people who say that Hinault was weaker than Lemond that year seem to forget that he got dropped on Luz Ariden because he'd broken his nose in two places and couldn't breathe. There was no reason for Lemond to attack: all he had to do was mark Roche's move, not work with him, and then if Hinault lost enough time he would take over the GC anyway.)

And, dude, why are you picking on the kid with the funny glasses? Fignon gets credit in my book for being the last man EVER to target ALL the grand tours and ALL the classics: 1989 saw victory in Milan-San Remo, a serious attack in Paris-Roubaix, victory in the Giro, and a near-miss in the Tour. You can go back and check, but I think his Paris-Roubaix attack that year really was the last time a legitimate TDF contender played his cards in that race.

Not gonna fight with out about Virenque, though. My dad's from a France and even he calls Virenque "that little French weasel."

Baublehead said...

You continue to impress with your writeups. Somehow I'm old enough to get everyone of the movie references, but I have no idea what "The Badger" was like and I barely knew Virenque as he was just leaving the sport as I started watching. So for me, this is kinda a history lesson.

I need to watch the '85 and '86 tour. Has to be done.


CaliRado Cyclist said...


1986 was my first Tour de France experience. It shaped my preferences as a fan and I still think that it is arguably the most interesting of any Tour since.

All the best villains are good. That's kind of the point. Otherwise there would be no satisafaction in their defeat.

The Dodgers, Cowboys, Lakers, Cornhuskers, Hinault and Fignon have all been incredibly successful. They just happened to be rivals of MY teams and...guy.

It's nothing personal. It's the business of sports and competition.

If Johnny Lawrence couldn't whoop up on Daniel-san every once in a while, the Karate Kid wouldn't have been a very entertaining movie.

And Kent kind of got the better of Val Kilmer right up until the tooth-speaker and popcorn took him down.

With that said...I have too much to say about the '85/'86 Tours for a comment box. There are some good points there though. I have heard a number of personal accounts of the events and will absolutely write much more later.

I actually stopped disliking Fignon as soon as I saw his vacant, kill-me-now stare on the final podium in 1989. It's not like the guy choked. I think he finished third or something in the final Paris TT but GL was just absolutely flying.

Anyway, huge respect for L-Fig as a rider and guy actually. He's a pretty handy golfer which is a good sign in my book. Hadn't thought about the Paris-Roubaix deal. It was weird to watch him go Gatorade and work for Bugno later on.

I wear glasses. Just not when I ride. And not weird little oval wire-rimmed ones.

And unless you have cultural reasons or your name is Phil Anderson or Steven Seagal...the ponytail should not generally be a style option. Especially not the balding pony. Few excuses on that one.

Thanks for the comments though. Seriously.

Sebastian said...

Wouldn't you love to see one of those Fignon-Lemond golf matches that reportedly take place from time to time?

(They won't let me post youtube clips here, but go to youtube and search for "Lemond + Fignon + Velo Club" -- Greg and Fignewton together on French TV this summer. Apparently Lemond's accent was one of the things that first got Sylvain Chavanel interested in cycling . . . which would be a great story if he were a better cyclist.)

CaliRado Cyclist said...

I can't talk about golf since there is a foot of snow on the ground...but yes, I'd like to see a skins game between them.

The only reason I didn't put Chavanel on the list was because he really isn't that good. No use rooting against someone who never wins anyway.

But I will never, ever forgive him for refusing to ride in that Tour stage with Horner a few years back.

Horner had been in the break all day long, Chovienel bridges with a few k left, then attacks the group and Horner barely manages to hang on to the move.

Then Frenchie looks back, sees that C-Ho is not going to pull through (duh) and then just starts soft-pedaling with a raging pack bearing down on them and a few hundred meters left.

They get caught. McEwen wins the stage.

It was one of the wimpiest things I've seen. And I really wanted Horner to win that stage.

I read that about Sylvia liking LeMond's accent. That was a weird article.

I believe that, for the most part, the more you know about something or someone, the more sympathetic you will likely be toward it/him/her.

But I didn't like Moreau or Chavanel or Madiot any more than I had already after reading those interview features in CS. And that wasn't much to begin with.

sebastian said...

i dunno, i can see why sc thought horner might pull a turn. at that stage of the game you basically have two options: each guy does a turn, the group stays away, both have a 50/50 shot at victory; or you start playing cat and mouse too early, you get caught, chance of victory 0/0. i guess horner thought his chances in the sprint were 0/0 anyway if he spent any more energy at the front.

seriously, though, i give french cycling (cofidis not so much) props for getting their ship in order after festina and suffering the consequences. sure, it's not the _only_ reason france hasn't produced a major cyclist since then, but when you keep in mind the continuing dominance of italy and spain (by all accounts the lands of dope) it all seems a lot less accidental. i mean, spain and france basically switched places during the 90s: thirty years ago spain was the country with lots of big teams and a zillion riders who were all totally anonymous and just showed up to big events hoping to get in a lucky break; now that's france, and it's spain that fills half the top 10 of the tour.

the main problem with french cycling, though, is that it's still very caught up in the working-class gimmee-fifty-and-hit-the-shower ethos of cycling's roots; which is lovely aesthetically but means that they don't know how to train.

Horner said...

Please add Michael Ball to your list.

What a jackass.

Ron said...

i hope the last comment was not from the real horner.

anyway, hinault gets a perfect fit into the villianeous role.

i don't think anyone was as dominating as him in a race.

i have heard through documentaries that he was a man of temper, quite aggressive and would literally question/scold anyone's attempt to break away from him or change the course of a race without his permission. lol. that's just nonsense. i think the fact that the tour was french and he had overwhelming support from the fans made him think he was the boss of the peleton. quite a nickname he's got!

styles have changed since the 80's. times have gone when wearing glasses, cycling caps and substandard clothing and possibly bikes were the norm of the day.

the media has changed the way we see cycling. we all want to emulate the pros, just like in any other sport. any person out of sync with the new trends is probably seen as odd.

Matt said...

This is waaaay late - since it's May and not December..but, great blog. I'm a Calirado'an - go buffs.

Wasn't Zabka the bad guy in "RAD" as well? Though a terrible movie, I saw it b/c it was bike racing, well sorta.

Simply said...

Great blog! I really enjoyed reading it.