As long as he breathed he attacked
The great French cyclist, Laurent Fignon, who died this week from cancer, aged just 50, recalled being recognized by a man in the street.
“Ah, I remember you: you’re the guy who lost the Tour by eight seconds.” “No, monsieur,” Fignon replied, “I’m the guy who won it twice.”
After losing the 3,285 kilometre race by a few seconds in the time-trial on the streets of Paris in 1989, it is little wonder that Fignon is most remembered for that year of the event.
Fignon was one of the greats of the modern cycling era. He burst onto the European circuit as a young professional in 1982, having already won 50 races as an amateur.
Aged 21, he was selected by the manager of the prominent Renault-Elf-Gitane team as a domestique for the champion rider, Bernard Hinault, in the Grand Tours. Fignon immediately shone, winning the second stage of the Giro d’Italia and donning the maglia rosa – the pink jersey of the race leader.
After losing the lead in the following stage, Fignon devoted himself to ensuring Hinault won his second Italian Tour.
The following year, the young Frenchman helped Hinault win the Veulta a Espana. He was preparing to assist Hinault take his fifth Tour de France when injury forced the Breton cyclist out of the field.
It was to be Fignon’s opportunity to excel. He was second to Pascal Simon from the famous Peugeot team after the first mountain stage. Simon crashed the following day, breaking a shoulder bone. He struggled on for six more stages before abandoning the race on stage 17.
Fignon held the lead to Paris, where he became the sixth youngest winner of the Tour. Sporting wire-rimmed glasses and a flowing ponytail, the young Fignon became the darling of cycling fans, who nick-named him ‘The Professor’.
A fit Hinault returned in 1984, determined to reclaim his crown. The race see-sawed between the two Frenchmen, with the young challenger out-riding ‘the Badger’, as Hinault was known, in the two time trials, but both still trailing race-leader, Vincent Barteau.
The penultimate climb produced one of the great contests of the Tour. Hinault attacked five times in an effort to shake-off Fignon. “As long as I breathe, I attack,” he once said about his approach to racing. But Fignon responded each time, before counter-attacking and taking the stage. Any suggestions that he had won the previous year by default were extinguished.
Injury and indifferent performances highlighted the next few seasons. In 1989, he returned to his best form, winning a second Milan-San Remo and then taking the Giro d’Italia. The latter was sweet revenge after losing to Francesco Moser previously. Fignon had alleged that in the decisive time-trial in 1984, the race helicopter had flown ahead, creating a buffeting headwind, but - in the case of the Italian star - had assisted with a helpful tailwind by flying behind.
The return of the American, Greg LeMond, to competition in 1989 promised a fierce battle. LeMond had dethroned Hinault in 1986, but was injured in a shooting accident a year later.
History records the conclusion of an epic struggle between two great cyclists. After leading the American in the mountains, Fignon had a 50 second advantage coming into the final 24.5 kilometre time-trial in Paris.
Using then novel tri-bars and an aerodynamic helmet, LeMond gained 58 seconds to win the closest Tour ever. As the Australian rider, Stephen Hodge, recalls the route, “the time-trial was very fast and basically downhill for its entire length, meaning that advantages gained with the aerodynamic position were emphasised.” It is little remembered that Fignon rode the fastest time-trial of his career.
Fignon believed the use of the bars was illegal under cycling’s rules. His argument has some merit, considering the International Cycling Union refused to allow him start in a race two weeks later because he had similar equipment.
He also concedes that he should have attacked earlier in the Alps, putting a greater buffer between himself and the American. But that is now history.
Fignon rode four more seasons, winning a few races, before retiring in 1993. Flambouyant and enigmatic at the same time, Fignon was one of the charismatic riders of the time who helped the transition of cycling to the television spectacular it is today.
As the title of his autobiography - Nous étions jeunes et insouciants – suggests, he was part of the ‘young and carefree’ peleton of the era. His life reflected the age. He later confessed to the use of amphetamines and cortisone that were rife at the time, and was excluded from two races for drug use in the late eighties. He was married, divorced and remarried, but little of his private life is revealed in his book.
Riding his last Tour in 1993, he recounts one of his final climbs. “We climbed up the Col d’Izoard and then the Col de la Bonette, the highest pass in the tour. I can remember it very clearly. I rode up the whole climb in last place. Because I wanted to. I put my hands on top of the bars and savoured it all to the full. I was breathing deeply as I lived through my last seconds in bike racing, which I had thought would never end for me. The col was all mine and I didn’t want anyone to intrude.”
It is the image of Laurent Fignon that cycling fans will remember: a blond ponytail flowing behind a tall, bespectacled figure, rhythmically pedaling into the mountains.
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