At the beginning of the 69th Tour de France, Bernard Hinault gave himself a 95 percent chance of winning. But he wasn't criticized for arrogance. On the contrary, cycling experts and even his main rivals said he was being modest.
And indeed, when the 2,188 mile race spread out over 22 days finished last Sunday with six blazing laps up and down the Champs-Elysees, the only question left was the margin of victory.
Hinault had taken possession of the leader's traditional bright, yellow jersey on July 16 when cycling's most prestigious annual competiton moved into the mountains, then comfortably stretched his lead en route to Paris. This was the expected scenario.
''Hinault just has more energy, more will,'' the tour's director, Jacques Goddet, told the Monitor. ''Every 10 years or so we have a champion like him who controls the course so completely.''
His incredible record attests to this. The 1982 tour victory is the dashing Frenchman's fourth in the past five years. The only time he didn't win in that span was in 1980, when he was leading at the halfway point but then dropped out because of a knee problem.
The 27-year-old racer demonstrated his superiority this year from the outset. He won the five-mile time trial that served as the race's traditional prologue by seven seconds, equivalent to a formidable lead of 120 yards.
From then on, he kept overpowering and outfoxing his 169 opponents. With his handsome face showing only the slightest grimace, the compact 5 ft. 7 in. champion would typically power past much larger, straining riders with seeming ease.
When it was over, he had pedaled a bicycle for three weeks, seven hours a day at an average speed of more than 20 miles an hour.
Yet Hinault did not just overpower other cyclists - he outthought them as well. ''There are always racers capable of beating me'', he said recently. ''But I think what keeps me winning is that I am more tactical.''
The tour is a long haul, so Hinault carefully rationed his strength. Because the winner is the cyclist with the lowest overall time, he did not concern himself with winning individual stages. Still, whether on flat ground, in the mountains, or in time trials, he was consistently near the head of the pack.
Hinault's dominance was so complete that much of the excitement this year came from two protest demonstrations. On July 7 steelworkers protesting the scheduled closing of their factory at the end of the year forced cancellation of the fifth stage of the race through northern France. Later, farmers in the Alps blocked the race with tractors for an hour in a protest over low produce prices.
The tour also has money problems. It is so expensive to caravan 1,800 racers and crew around France - this year's budget was around $3 million - that it has become a losing proposition. Last year it was in the red by $250,000, the tour's sponsors reported.
As a result, Goddet is thinking of moving the start across the ocean in search of dollars. ''There are a lot of American sponsors who are interested,'' he said. ''It won't happen next year, but after that perhaps.''
But the tour's most pressing problem, the director said, remains finding competition for Hinault. To solve this difficulty he announced last week that amateurs will be allowed to race for the first time next year. This will allow strong Soviet and other East European riders to chase the Frenchman.
Hinault isn't too worried, though. He's not the bragging type, but his pride should drive him hard to keep winning. After all it is his never-say-die attitude that first made him a hero here. In 1977, before he was well known, he was knocked off the road by a competitor while competing in the Dauphine Libere, another major French cycling championship. But he scrambled out from the ditch, picked up his bicycle and sped off, amazingly catching his opponents to win the race. The next year he won his first Tour de France - and since then he has never looked back.
One more tour win will tie the record of five held by countryman Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx of Belgium, the sport's kingpins of the 1960s and '70s respectively.
In addition, by winning both the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France this year, he has joined an elite club to win both races in the same year, which includes only Anquetil, Merckx, and the Italian Fausto Coppi, who dominated the sport during the 1940s and '50s.
Hinault gives himself five more years before retiring to his native Brittany to break the rest of cycling's records. ''I will then have been racing for 12 years,'' he said recently. ''That is enough. You must leave some place for the young.''