' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: Slaying the Badger

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

30 for 30: Slaying the Badger

Recently I labeled Lance Armstrong, once a seven time Tour de France champion, now an excommunicated pariah of the sport (except in Iowa where, as always, my native state proves its willingness to turn the other cheek), an asshole, and I stand by that comment. Yet watching "Slaying the Badger", the most recent 30 for 30 documentary, directed by John Dower and based on a book by Richard Moore, which centers around the 1986 Tour de France and a friendship between American Greg LeMond and Frenchman Bernard “The Badger” Hinault turned rivalry, I sensed an understanding of Armstrong’s mindset. It happened around the time LeMond's wife, Kathy, interviewed on camera right alongside her husband, often providing assessments of the past we know must be accurate because her husband so forcefully bristles at them, recounts how the two of them and LeMond's father were forced to literally buy LeMond's food themselves ahead of the various racing stages and taste it. They did this for fear that members of Hinault’s team or perhaps even a deranged supporter of his might tamper with it. I thought: cycling is surreal. No, no, no, that's not it. I thought: cycling is batshit insane.

The film forgoes backstory aside from the most fundamental to focus exclusively on that ’86 Tour, though it also forgoes cycling specifics for any newcomers that might not immediately grasp terms like “peloton” or understand precisely how the world’s pre-eminent bike race is scored. Then again, I don’t know how the world’s pre-eminent bike race is scored, but I understand Winning and Losing and Heroes and Villains and that it’s always more complex than those capital letters would imply. “Slaying the Badger” portrays the Tour as a sort of asphalt-set soap opera where hubris and grudges duke it out amidst the majestic French Pyrenees.


Coming to Europe from America at a time when cycling was “counter-culture” in the States, Greg LeMond was a patriotic outlier, a prodigy, so damn good that cycling's pre-eminent figure, Hinault, shrewdly negated the necessity of defeating him by enlisting him and bringing him aboard his all-powerful Team Renault. And while they began as friends, their role as teammates was specifically what made their conflict flourish. The seeds of discontent were sewn at the 1985 Tour de France where Hinault was gunning for his fifth championship and LeMond was his second-in-command, expected to aid the general’s ascent. Yet when LeMond had a chance to go for the win, the team and its director, Paul Koechli, interviewed and seemingly so slippery I was surprised he didn’t slide out of his chair, shouted him down. His was not to win, his was to help Hinault win, and he reluctantly agreed, based on the verbal stipulation that in 1986 the racing cleat would be on the other foot.

Alas, at the 1986 Tour, Hinault, devious like Peter Lorre, aided LeMond until he stopped aiding LeMond to try and win himself until he couldn’t win himself and resorted to re-aiding LeMond even if he might not technically have been re-aiding him at all. He claims on camera today in interviews that are awesome for how little he really says even though you can sense him saying EVERYTHING with his impish grin that he helped LeMond because he legitimized the LeMond win by making him work for it. If you honestly believe that then have a Lance Armstrong Approved EPO Juicebox.

Yet Hinault’s reasoning intrigues me. He expected LeMond to help him in ’85 and LeMond expected Hinault to help him in ’86. You must adhere to unwritten cycling dogma, like Adam Wainwright grooving a pitch to The Captain. This is how they do. It also once and for all refutes that Dollar General philosophical hooey about there being no “I” in team. The doc's thesis essentially takes the words of sportswriter Sam Abt, that cycling “is an individual sport practiced by teams.” Indeed, their teammate, personable American Andrew Hampsten, is reduced to a grunt, doing heavy lifting for no glory, forever in the midst of these ten speed duels of machismo. It is not merely “not a sport for the weak” because it is a sport in which psychological warfare is waged while peddling the hell all over France. It is, in the words of Koechli, “a game”, a game he defines in a classic WTF? Ethos this way: “The enemy of the enemy is my friend.”

What’s that modern day urban slang? Hate the game, not the player. Should you/we hate Lance Armstrong for playing the game as the game is? Because the game in cycling, it seems to me, based upon the evidence submitted by “Slaying the Badger”, is lies and deception as much as feats of strength. It's espionage for the endurance-inclined.

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