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.