Paris — For much of the race, he looked as much like a boxer on the ropes as a victorious cyclist. But Bernard Hinault, his teeth gritted in determination as he called on all his reserves in the final stages, still won this summer's 72nd edition of the famed Tour de France. It was his fifth victory in cycling's most prestigious and demanding event -- a total reached in the past by only two other riders, Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and Belgian Eddie Merckx.
As Hinault mounted the winner's platform at the Place de la Concorde at the end of the 22-day, 2,500-mile trek around France, many of the nearly half million spectators chanted his name, and the the military band broke into ``La Marseillaise.'' Although the victor's radiant grin somewhat obscured the signs of his injuries from a bad fall midway through the race plus the overall strain of this classic endurance test, no one forgot these things.
``Before he was just a champion,'' one spectator said. ``Now look at him: he's a hero.''
To the small American contingent, the praise sounded just a bit chauvinistic. After all, next to Hinault, 30, on the victory platform stood his Vie Claire teammate Greg Lemond, the only North American ever to win a stage in the tour. Many observers said the 24-year old American could have won the race himself if he had been allowed to sprint full-out in the Pyrenees. Instead, team managers commanded Lemond to protect Hinault. Lemond obeyed, even though he later complained in an outburst, ``I coul d have made my move.''
No matter. The anger soon passed. On the victory platform at the end of the race, Lemond put his arm around his older teammate and gave him a huge grin. ``I got a little carried away,'' the American admitted.
This year's tour remained Hinault's hurrah despite Lemond's ascension. Before the race, the Frenchman had much to prove. Following knee surgery that kept him out of the 1983 tour, he struggled through the early part of last season and never seriously troubled eventual champion, Laurent Fignon. Even though a knee injury made Fignon unable to defend his title, the whispering went that Hinault was too old to dominate professional bicycle racing again.
But Hinault does not give up easily. The son of a poor farmer from a small village on the north coast of Britanny, he is used to adversity. In 1977, while competing in the Dauphine Libere, he was knocked off the road, falling into a ditch. He picked up his bicycle and sped off, catching his opponents to win the race.
This year, Hinault diplayed even more of the same grit. Near the end of the July 13th stage, while spinting to the finish, he brushed against another rider and crashed to the pavement, sustaining injuries to his face and forehead. He scrambled back on his bicycle and pumped the remaining 200 yards to the finish.
At this point, the tour headed into the Pyrenees and Hinault struggled. Bothered by his injuries and having trouble breathing, the Frenchman looked fatigued, but thanks to Lemond's help combined with his own rare courage, he was able to stay close to the head of the pack. By the time the tour moved back onto the flat ground, he had conserved his lead -- and completed his legend.
``Hinault's possibly the greatest ever,'' concluded tour director Felix Levitan. ``He has the legs and the heart.''
Hinault's secret recipe throws in a good measure of common sense. When he started racing, many Frenchmen snubbed him as an unsophisticated young upstart from the country. Hinault soon showed that he possessed a remarkable tactical sense, rationing his strength to its best use over the month-long race. Instead of trying to win individual stages, he produces consistent performances in the sprints as well as the climbs.
Hinault also possesses more business sense than most of his fellow riders. Traditionally, cyclists were treated like second-class employees. Hinault refused such treatment, and like an American athlete, cashed in on his reputation, endorsing a myriad of products.
Two years ago, he quit Renault to team up with industrialist Bernard Tapie and form the new La Vie Claire team, which immediately began challenging cycling's stuffy old traditions. Lemond was signed to a three-year, $1 million contract, and Paul Koechli, a renowned Swiss manager, was hired to direct the dynamic duo.
It was the best team money could buy -- and it shows how money is changing the tour. During some stages, riders used advanced, and expensive, wheels in which cymbal-shaped discs connect the hubs to the rims. This creates much less wind resistance than the old spokes.
Other corporate giants such as Panasonic and Shell, ready to pay large salaries, have joined the old automobile companies as sponsors. And this year, Coca-Cola replaced Perrier as the tour's official drink.
The biggest change, though, comes from the riders themselves. Traditionally, Dutch, Belgians, or Frenchmen have dominated. But this year the next four finishers after Hinault speak English as their mother tongue -- Lemond, Ireland's Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly, and Australian Phil Anderson. And behind them stood two riders from Spain and two from Columbia.
One of these eight riders should win the next tour, and most experts pick Lemond. If Fignon comes back, of course, he too would be a prime contender. But Hinault, who plans to ride one more season before retiring, pledges to return the favor he received this year and help his teammate in '86. Obviously, he thinks the American soon will be ready to assume superstar status. ``I'm at Greg's service,'' he says. ''Only he is up to my level.''