Hair got me into cycling. I know it sounds ridiculous – the leap from barnet(1) to bicycle is not an easy one to imagine – but it’s true. The ponytails of firstly Robert Millar and then, and more importantly, Laurent Fignon bewitched me more than any lofty mountain pass or low-profile time trial machine. Who were these sportsmen who exhibited such flair with their hair? It is said that the aero disadvantage of Fignon’s follicle affectation cost him the 1989 Tour, which he lost to the tousled golden locks of the American Greg Lemond by just eight seconds, but (and I realise that it would have been scant consolation to the distraught Frenchman) it won my undying admiration.
Fignon and on and on.
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In a sport where written newspaper reports defined the action for the first six decades of it’s existence, nicknames were an important tool for sketching the rider profiles and bringing the faceless coureurs to life in the imagination of the readers. Many nicknames mocked the riders as much as they celebrated them – consider Elefantino, Dr.Teeth, The Dwarf and Clogface – but they have retained their power through the years and many are still used today despite their owners being either long retired or buried. Sadly, cyclist’s nicknames have diminished in modern times as television has superseded the need for the floridly descriptive writings of those early years. Here are three of my favourites from across the decades:
3rd spot: Thor Hushovd. The God of Thunder.
Hushovd’s nickname gets on the list because it effortlessly works in many different ways. It’s Nordic heritage quickly convey both his Scandinavian roots and blond haired, blue-eyed, muscular build. The reference to Thunder evokes his powerful sprinting style and the deification is well-suited to a former world champion. It’s a near perfect encapsulation of the man and his work.
2nd spot: Charly Gaul. The Angel of the Mountains.
The lyrical aspects of nicknames have rarely surpassed that of 1950’s climber extraordinaire Gaul. Prepared to concede massive time gaps on flat stages, the Angel simply took flight when the road went upwards and twice overhauled enormous deficits to win both the Giro and the Tour in this way. He was able to operate on a completely different level from his rivals and it must have seemed like he was ascending to Heavenly Glory as he exploded away from them. Sadly the Angel of the Mountains later turned into the Hermit of the Forest as he became totally reclusive in his later years; living alone in a hut deep in the Ardennes for almost two decades until re-integrating into society a short time before his death in 2005.
1st spot: Bernard Hinault. The Badger.
In it’s French rendering “Le Blaireau”, Hinault’s nickname also captures all the core elements of his ancestry, his physical looks and his racing style. His Gallic-ness was best embodied by his forthright stance in the French champion’s jersey in his debut Tour in 1978. Simultaneously battling his rivals, the parcours, the weather, the system, and occasionally the fans as well, his face was eternally set into a glowering granite grimace; eyes blazing and teeth permanently bared like a cornered Brock who knows that ‘Fight’ (and not ‘Flight) is the only option. His ‘never surrender’ attitude was always to the fore, but never more so than in his Monument wins at Paris-Roubaix 1981 and through the much mythologised blizzard of the 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Devastatingly simple, Hinault is now so synonymous with his nickname that it has come to define him more than any other in cycling history.
A good list of nicknames can be found here. Let’s hear your favourites and your suggestions for the current peloton.