Friday, September 03, 2010

A Tribute To Laurent Fignon

French cyclist Laurent Fignon died this week which, if you’re a cycling fan, you already know. Fignon was an ambassador for the sport who was involved in cycling for his entire life. He was a two-time winner of the Tour de France but, in America, he’s remembered for the guy who came in second in the greatest Tour in history.

My memory of the man comes from how that particular race changed my life personally. I’d always liked cycling as a sport. I follwed the Tour as well as an American could in those days, which meant that I knew most of the big name grand tour riders, had heard of Eddie Merckx, and knew that the USA finally had a rider who had won a Tour in Greg LeMond. LeMond, however, had been accidentally shot and his career was supposedly over (according to the press) when the Tour began in 1989.

During the Giro d’Italia, just two months prior, LeMond was so far behind the major riders that “the leaders literally could have stopped for a cappacino and not worried about him(sic)”, a line that stuck in my head, I recall, because I was so disappointed we wouldn’t be getting much Tour coverage without an American challenging for the win. Then LeMond won the stage 5 time trial, taking the yellow jersey, which ensured we’d get some race coverage. It also succeeded in turning me into a cyclist. Inspired, I cleaned up an old bike and, as the race progressed, did longer and longer rides until I was finally riding Tour-worthy mountains.

LeMond and Fignon spent the next three weeks trading the yellow jersey back and forth. In between they swapped psychological barbs. The press and the fans ate it up. It was epic; each day would present a new twist. And just when it seemed to settle in, one of the two would crack and the jersey would change hands again.

On one stage in the Alps LeMond was clearly stronger going up hill. And since he was besting Fignon in the time trials the race seemed over. But less than 24 hours after being clearly inferior on a summit finish, Fignon counter-attacked LeMond on the famous climb to Alpe d’ Huez. Legend has it that Fignon’s coach, Cyrille Guimard, saw a weakeness in LeMond’s pedal stroke, assumed his attack was a bluff, and told Fignon to counter. It worked, and LeMond found himself out of yellow and 26 seconds down.

At the finish, LeMond did the math and said on TV that he could still win the race in the final time trial. None of the stages leading up to it seemed to be difficult enough to make a difference amongst the leaders. Fignon, too, must have been doing some math because the following day he rode one of the coolest races in the history of cycling.

Fignon had been taunting LeMond throughout the race that he didn’t behave like a leader. He felt, in the old school tradition, that the man in the yellow jersey should stamp his authority on the race. Panache dictated this was how you rode. He had no respect for LeMond’s strategic style. To prove it he attacked the entire peloton on a lumpy stage. Today the the thought of seeing the yellow jersey alone in front of the race on anything other than a big mountain finish is like fatansy. But in ’89 Fignon did it; riding alone and putting time into LeMond, which is even more astonishing because LeMond knew that every second he lost was massive.

But on the final time trial panache did Fignon in. LeMond used a new technology, triathlon aero-bars and an aero helmet. Fignon felt this was an affront to the sport. Not only did he ride sans aero equipment but he didn’t wear any sort of helmet, which allowed his blond pony tail to fly in the wind. It was the ultimate act of defiance to modern sport and technology. Fignon surely thought the Tour winner should finish with his face uncovered for all to see. Instead, he lost by 8 seconds—closest margin in Tour history—and fell to the ground in exhaustion. He’d ridden over 33mph, very respectible for the day. To beat him LeMond had to ride what was til then, and for 15 years after, the fastest time trial the Tour had seen.

All these years later and I still can’t watch my old video of the 1989 Tour without getting chills, or wanting to get on my bike. And, while I rooted for LeMond, whenever things turn grim and I need inspiration my thoughts always turn to Fignon, in yellow, riding away from the peloton.


Josh said...

Way better Friday pscyhe than last week.

Ahhh . . . bike racing in the late 80's and early 90's. Dope in the form of meth. Yellow Jersey attacking. John Tesh music. Phil reading his commentary from cue cards.

Makes me want to slip on some wool shorts, cinch down the toe straps and start crunching a monster gear on the hills.


postmaster said...

Unbelievable video. I did not know this story.
I was climbing at Ceuse this summer and got to watch the end of a Tour stage come into Gap. Watching this video was far more exciting. And an excellent written tribute to Laurent. Keep up the good work

Mike Ryan said...

Steve-I'll never forget following that race either! If Fignon would have zipped his jersey that day, it could have made the difference. Crazy! What an epic race!! I was 17, working in my brother's bike shop, it's all anyone talked about. To think Lance was in high school at the time having just completed his first Ironman. Who else was watching this on TV and being inspired? Indurain? DelGado?Freire? So many were touched by these guys!

Steve Edwards said...

Freire, I'm sure, was watching it but Delgado and Indurain were racing. Delgado had won the year before and showed up to the prolong late and lost nearly 3 minutes. Then couldn't keep with his team and lost 4 more before the race had done anything significant. He clawed back two within 2 minutes but finally cracked in the alps and couldn't get any more time. Indurian was his chief lieutenant. The next year, in fact, Indurain waiting for Delgado as LeMond went away and then, later, beat LeMond up Luz Ardiden. Had he not waited his winning streak may have started in 90.

steelmonkey said...

Steve - I've sort of read your blog from time to time over the years. Nice summary of the LeMond-Fignon battle of '89. I whacked up a two-DVD set of coverage from the '89 tour. If you'd like to have a copy, send me an email and we can work it out. (steelmnkey @ aol dot com).