For the most part, heroes are just the people who appeal to us when we’re young: random custodians we nominate to represent our nascent sense of self, to associate our being with the things we have begun to consider worthy. Nobody knows the person their hero elect really is, and there may be many, breaking down one’s worship into less obsessive morsels. As we grow older the notion of a hero/heroine becomes less relevant. Assuming you are of sound mind, these totems become superfluous. There will be people we still admire, and we might venerate them openly, but it forms reverence of a less partisan kind.
“Heroes” come in all shapes and sizes, but amongst the callow they’re normally fished from quite a narrow caste. They may be sports people – and often are – although musicians and actors are not uncommon subjects of adoration. The more politicized may look towards nobler folk, whereas some youths cherish those of a more creative bent, such as authors, artists, poets. film-directors. But it is amongst the light-hearted stuff that the young generally look.
As an adolescent the people I held in high esteem conformed to type – sportsmen and musicians mostly. Gary Lineker was probably the first person I placed on a pedestal, because he played for Everton and then won the Golden Boot at my inaugural FIFA World Cup – Mexico '86. No sooner had that tournament ended and Gary was off to Barcelona for a cool £2,800,000. I was in need of a fresh, domestic subject to fill the void. Up stepped Kevin Sheedy and his left foot – the perfect candidate on account of him playing for Everton and me being left footed. Indeed, I canonised many an Everton player back then: Trevor Steven, Graeme Sharp, Adrian Heath – even Neville Southall.
In parallel, I made musical heroes of collectives, rather than individuals: the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Gangstarr, Brand Nubian, KMD. Mostly black, these rap artists seemed far cooler than the over-stylised pop and rock acts I’d grown up with. I'd admired Prince too, but I had always been a bit bothered by the clothes he wore. Come the end of the 1980s, and I wasn't particularly enamoured with the look of “baggy” or “Madchester” either. Rap artists, on the other hand, dressed conservatively by comparison, sportswear being their staple – I could get on with that.
When I reached the second half of my teenage years I started behaving a little more responsibly and lent my support to Plymouth Argyle, my local team and the team I really ought to have been supporting all along. I still needed a hero and it was Dwight Marshall to whom I turned. A short, pacey striker, who resembled some of those hip-hop dudes I was obsessed with, it was an instinctive choice. My friend and I used to watch the occasional reserve game down at Home Park just to get our fix of Dwight. Once, as he was leaving the field, we called his name and he rewarded us with a sly wink – it quite made our night.
A few years later, when Dwight returned to Argyle for a second spell, we bumped into him in some licentious Plymouth nightclub and bought him a drink by way of thanks. He left for Kingstonian soon after that, but Argyle’s glory years were just around the corner, offering a whole host of prospective alters to worship at: the French pairing of David Friio and goalkeeper Romain Larrieu; the Canadian Jason Bent; local “bey” Paul Wotton, or Argyle legend Mickey Evans. Mickey Evans remains one of the most gifted footballers I've ever had the privilege of watching in a real, live match environment. His appearance was slightly shabby, he lacked pace, but his first touch was impeccable and his hold-up play first rate. He’s probably the last footballer I've genuinely held in such high esteem.
It wasn't just football players who felt the pinch. As I hit my twenties I grew less factional in all my interests; I’d just like a lot of people, groups and things. Mark E Smith is a good example of this. I'm still very interested in his musical output with The Fall (he is The Fall) but the myths that surround him are of no great concern to me. He is still possibly the closest thing I have to a hero, but you won’t find his picture hanging on my wall, and I'm quite accepting of the fact that he’s a bit of a pissed-up mess – or more to the point, just a “man”.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that there aren't personalities that arouse my curiosity in a manner that goes beyond mere appreciation. For illustration, I buy into the myth completely that David Bowie has made for himself. I take stock in his persona just after he recorded Station to Station – maybe my favourite Bowie album – turning his back on his more outlandish selves, and, in turn, Los Angeles, cocaine and the Thin White Duke, before then moving to Europe to paint himself anonymously, but still with a certain style. I like that he was slim and I am slim, and that we share a fondness for the idea of Europe being a thing in itself – a mind-set. I like how he describes his album Low as being him trying to articulate how he had nothing to articulate. I like that he took/takes himself seriously but maintains a strong sense of humour; it’s what good art’s all about. That and provocation.
In my early thirties I entered into a period of being seriously intrigued by the actor and musician Vincent Gallo. He came across as well-dressed, amusing yet cantankerous, and something of a renaissance man – with good hair. But he is just another man, and I can see very little of myself in him – no physical resemblance, no skill-set, nothing – and potential heroes need that kinship on which to base a sense of aspiration.
And then there are intellectuals and writers – Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Meades, Ian Svenonius – whom I greatly admire, and maybe there’s still room for the odd sports personality too: Ronnie O’Sullivan certainly contributes to my enjoyment of snooker, although I watch the game whether he’s taking a sabbatical or not (or ‘retiring’ as he calls it). O’Sullivan is a hero par excellence. He’s got a great all-round game, tactical awareness, and plays with a visually pleasing fluidity. O’Sullivan also has personality and a charming oddness that is fascinating to behold. In fact, his glum disposition and ambivalence toward his own sport suggests he’s all too familiar with the concept of Weltschmerz, although maybe not consciously.
Which brings me on to cycling and the personalities involved: are any of them hero material? Would I, as a youth, feel inspired by its protagonists and have their pictures plastered across my wall? Impossible to say, but Bradley Wiggins – the most obvious contender – just doesn’t quite do it for me. He really should: he’s svelte, slightly sardonic, and something of a Mod. I’m not an actual Mod but I do like a Fred Perry, and it’s nice to see a sports person who doesn’t sport the collars of their polo shirts pointing upwards, or who wears earrings or advertises expensive wrist-watches. And I like his sense of humour, and I’m all for people who wear their thinness well… but there’s just something about him that doesn’t sit quite right with me.
Mark Cavendish I like, although he’s not the sort of rider I could ever imagine myself to be – a sprinter. I couldn’t ever conceive of idolising Chris Froome because, although he seems a nice bloke and is undoubtedly a rider of great strength, he’s just too conservative in his demeanour. I warmed to David Millar over the course of his book but he’s nearing the end of his career. Also, he does a lot of adverts.
Abroad, I find Alberto Contador strangely appealing (he looks like Prince) but the whiff of doping hangs around him, as does a Michael Schumacher type dedication that’s off-puttingly impenetrable. Cadel Evans seems okay, but he’s another one whose career has obviously peaked.
If I was a 16 year old cyclist, then, I’d like to think that Cavendish would be my main man, but I’d probably be rooting for Wiggins with the rest of them. It’s moot and not something that overly concerns me. Still, it would nice to be able to connect with the personalities of the sport on some level.
But it doesn’t just come down to who’s racing now. After all, I wasn’t around when Bowie was hitting his stride, or when Johan Cruyff was tearing it up on the world stage (if I could have been any footballer it would surely have had to have been Cruyff). I reach into cycling’s past, then, to find myself a “hero”, but who could it be?
I contemplate first Jacques Anquetil, because it’s as far back into the annals of road cycling as I’m prepared to look and because he was the first really big hitter the sport ever had. The Frenchman triumphed in the Tour de France five times – the first cyclist to achieve this feat – the Giro d’Italia twice and the Vuelta a España once. Only five cyclists have won all three Grand Tours and only three others have won the Tour de France five times: Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain (Lance Armstrong had registered seven victories until they were annulled because of proven and admitted doping offences). More significantly – for I’m not normally swung by the number of victories any particular sportsperson clocks up – Anquetil was a rider admired for his elegance, his style and the smoothness with which he rode a bike. He was also said to have liked a drink, was eminently professional and possessed an intellect that he imposed upon his cycling to great effect.
Seems like perfect hero material to me, but I find a weird family arrangement rather dissuading. After trying for a child, but failing, it was agreed that Anquetil’s wife’s step-daughter would offer her services as some sort of surrogate. To this she agreed, but rather than abandoning the arrangement once the child was conceived, they continued with their ménage à trois until Anquetil’s step-daughter’s jealously toward her own mother drove her away from the family home. The truly odd thing is that this scandal appears to have done Anquetil’s reputation no harm, then or now.
Anquetil and Merckx take time-out
Eddy Merckx is widely considered to be the greatest cyclist there ever was. As well as his five general classification triumphs in the Tour de France, he added five victories in the Giro d’Italia and another in the Vuelta a España. Merckx also built up an impressive list of victories in the Classics, including seven in the Milan-San Remo, five in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège, three in the Paris-Roubaix, two in the Tour of Flanders and the same in the Giro di Lombardia. Such far reaching ability kind of makes him the Pele of his sport. His passion extended to manufacturing his own bikes, and those who worked for his company speak well of him. Sounds great, doesn’t it, but most of this happened before I was even born. By saying that, I discount two other cyclists by implication: Fausto Coppi and Tommy Simpson. Actually, I discount a whole raft of cyclists, but these are two chaps I feel a visceral affection for.
Fausto Coppi was a wiry Italian who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour twice. He was idolized by the Italian public until he fell for another woman. Italy was consumed by its Catholicism at the time and Coppi’s adultery was not received well – in fact, his adoring public turned on him and Coppi’s career spiraled into decline.
In 1959 Fausto Coppi fell ill with a particularly virulent strain of malaria, after visiting Burkina Faso at the then president’s behest, and died soon after. Italy mourned emphatically.
Tommy Simpson’s death is even more tragic, despite him never having won a grand tour. But then, he was English, and the English never had – or not back then – that sort of pedigree. In fact Simpson had been relatively successful as a rider, winning four Classics – the Tour of Flanders in 1961, the Bordeaux-Paris in 63, the Milan-San Remo in 64 and the Giro di Lombardia in 65 – and, in 1962, becoming the first Briton to ever wear the maillot jaune, heading the general classification of the tour briefly after stage 12.
It was on Simpson’s assault of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France that he perished. He had hoped to make an impact that year: to wear the yellow jersey for a stage or two; maybe even finish third or higher in the general classification. Coming into the tour’s 13th stage, Simpson was placed a respectable sixth overall, but he’d been feeling unwell since stage 10, with stomach pains and the troubles that normally go along with that. He was in no shape to push himself to any sort of limit.
It was a very hot day, the day that Simpson died, and he’d prepared with amphetamines and alcohol. He fell off his bike with about 1km to go before the summit, insisted on getting back on but collapsed 460 metres later. He was pronounced dead soon after that.
All these guys raced during an era where doping was tolerated, which is neither here nor there, but the fact that they belong to a different time does sort of preclude their adoption as some sort of latter-day cycling saint. I don’t why but it just does.
Now that Lance Armstrong has been brushed aside, the Spaniard Miguel Indurain remains the most legitimately recent colossus to have straddled the sport, and I remember his name from when Chris Boardman made his respectable impact on the Tour de France in 1994. It is accepted that Indurain rode clean – which is here or there because by then to dope would have meant to cheat insidiously – but his low-key personality fails to inspire.
But there are two cyclists who have very much come to the fore in my recent study into the history of the sport, and I’m finding it hard to choose between them. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond both raced for La Vie Claire for a while, and it was the former that initially drew my admiration.
Hinault has won the Tour de France five times, the Giro d’Italia thrice and the Vuelta a España twice. Again, the number of victories is of no great concern and it is the personality behind them that draws my intrigue. Resembling a 1950s Hollywood star, like Montgomery Clift or James Mason (not so much at the start of his career but more toward the end), Hinault was a Breton farmer who polarized the opinion of the French; he was either arrogantly aloof or shy, depending on your point of view. Nobody doubted his courage, though. During the 1977 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré he fell into a ravine, was helped out of it, got back on his bike and won the race. In the 1985 Tour de France, he came off his bike and smashed up his face, with two black eyes and a broken nose to show for it. But again he rode on, and eventually won the Tour. Then there’s the time he physically attacked striking dockers and trade unionists when they obstructed the road during the 1984 Paris-Nice, and Hinault ploughed into them whilst leading a potential break from the peloton. Man, you didn’t mess with Hinault.
Greg LeMond, by all accounts, is a more mild mannered man. He’s an American, which might make this all the more surprising, and it’s also why I like him. The antithesis to Lance Armstrong, it is said that the latter helped destroy the former’s bike business by “persuading” the firm Trek to wind down promotion and distribution of the LeMond brand (Trek and LeMond had reached a licensing agreement in 1995 according to which Trek would manufacture bikes labelled as LeMond Bicycles). LeMond the man had cast aspersions on the nature of Armstrong’s victories in six successive Tours, and bemoaned the fact that Lance was known to be working with Michele Ferrari, an Italian physician heavily involved in blood doping and who openly advocated the controlled use of erythropoietin amongst athletes. Basically, LeMond guessed that Armstrong was using drugs and called him on it, and Armstrong did everything within his power to shut him down.
The reason why Armstrong might have seen LeMond as such a threat was because of his – LeMond’s – three victories in the Tour de France and the fact that he was the first (and, now, the only) American to have won it. Greg LeMond might have secured more if it wasn’t for a hunting accident sustained in 1987 that left him with 35 shotgun pellets lodged in his body. The trauma nearly proved fatal, but he recovered to triumph in the Tour for a second and third time in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
It is LeMond’s first victory that is the most curious, though, for it was earned riding alongside Bernard Hinault for La Vie Claire. LeMond had moved to La Vie Claire in 1985 from Renault-Elf-Gitane, where he’d played second fiddle to Laurent Fignon (a cyclist who I can’t contemplate revering as a result of him sporting a ponytail). He figured Hinault, who had also been a member of Renault-Elf-Gitane up until 1983, was on the wane and that he – LeMond – would be the main man at La Vie Claire. Turns out that the Breton had at least another tour left him, and LeMond was instructed to hold back and play domestique to Hinault’s team leader. Fair enough, but it was understood that in 1986 Hinault would be obliged to return the favour, for it was reckoned that LeMond might have been strong enough to take the Tour in 1985 but had been manipulated into restraining himself (read Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore for a more detailed analysis).
Greg LeMond did win in 1986 but only after holding off a savage rear-guard action from Hinault himself, something which the American considers something of a betrayal. For his part, Hinault claims that he was indeed serving LeMond’s best interests and that he was merely grinding down the opposition. The fact that the Hinault won the maillot à pois rouges (the polka dot jersey awarded to the “King of the Mountains”), the Combativity Award, and three individual stages (compared to LeMond’s one), suggests that Greg might have had a case.
Hinault and Lemond camp it up - this picture flatters neither
Anyway, both riders have personality, good faces, were almost certainly dope free, and rode for La Vie Claire. These shall be my “heroes”, then, and maybe I will draw strength from them when I’m struggling to get up Ditchling Beacon.