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Laurent Fignon, RIP

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The great French cyclist Laurent Fignon died on Tuesday at the age of 50. As the obituaries noted, he is best known for the Tour de France he didn’t win rather than those he did. In reading more about him, I realized I have long been guilty of insufficiently appreciating him. It’s unfortunate that I started following the Tour closely in 1985, the year after his greatest victory.

Fignon turned professional in 1982, at the age of 21, in the midst of countrymate Bernard Hinault’s reign as the world’s dominant cyclist. Hinault had already won the Tour de France in 1978, 1979, and 1981, as well as the Vuelta a España in 1978 and the Giro d’Italia in 1980. In the 1980 Tour, Hinault won the Prologue and two additional stages, wearing yellow for four days, but a knee injury forced him to drop out. He would win the Tour again in 1982, with Fignon as a teammate, so had he not had the knee injury in 1980, he might have won five consecutive Tours, a feat no one had accomplished before. (Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx had won five Tours, but not in succession. Later, Miguel Indurain would win five in succession, and Lance Armstrong seven.)

In 1983, Hinault once again was unable to ride in the Tour, because of knee surgery. Without the team leader, the 22-year-old Fignon was free to ride for himself, and was the surprise winner of the Tour. Hinault returned in 1984 as the leader of a different team, allowing the two of them to compete head to head. I regret that I didn’t follow this Tour — not that it was easy to follow at that time in the US. Fignon won decisively, with a margin of 10′ 32″ over Hinault. Sharing the podium another 1′ 14″ back in third was American rookie Greg LeMond.

Alas, Fignon was the one with a knee injury who couldn’t compete in 1985. That’s where I entered the picture. Well, you know. I wasn’t competing. But I was following. It was our honeymoon and we were visiting my sister in Paris. Hinault had enlisted LeMond as teammate to help him win. In retrospect, I now realize that Hinault must have been thinking he better take advantage of Fignon’s absence and win his fifth before he got older and Fignon got stronger. Five was the ultimate, the number of wins Anquetil and Merckx had, the mark of greatness. Hinault succeeded, with LeMond supporting him and finishing in second, 1′ 42″ back. As I have written elsewhere, I was there on the Champs-Elysées for the final day of the Tour, watching Hinault and LeMond zip by, embedded in the peloton.

The 1986 Tour is famous for Hinault’s reneging on his promise to help teammate LeMond win in return for LeMond’s help in 1985. That’s how I remember it. I had forgotten that Fignon entered that Tour too, but because of injuries he dropped out halfway through. Hinault wore yellow for five days before succumbing to the stronger LeMond, who would win the Tour with Hinault 3′ 10″ back in second.

Fignon finished 7th in the 1987 Tour and abandoned the 1988 Tour, but finally, in 1989, he entered the Tour at full strength. So too did LeMond, recovered at last from the 1987 hunting accident in which his brother-in-law shot him. The greatest battle in the Tour’s history ensued. See, for instance, the wikipedia account, where merely looking at the list of daily yellow jersey winners gives you a sense of how close the race was. LeMond took the yellow jersey after stage 5, only to lose it to Fignon in stage 10, regain it in stage 15, and lose it in stage 17. The oft-written-about final-day stage to Paris was an individual time trial, not the usual ceremonial ride. Going into it, Fignon’s lead over LeMond was 50 seconds. Fignon, as the leader, went off last, with LeMond the penultimate starter. LeMond, using new aerodynamic handle bars and a special, aerodynamic helmet, rode the greatest time trial in tour history. Fignon couldn’t match his time. But could Fignon stay within 50 seconds? He was, after all, a great time trialist himself. No one will forget the look on his face when he came across the finish line to discover he had fallen short. LeMond won the Tour by 8 seconds.

And that is what Fignon will always be famous for, being on the wrong side of an historic ride. From the NYT obituary:

LeMond was the next-to-last starter and Fignon the last, starting two minutes apart. LeMond, helped by an aerodynamic helmet and new triathlon handlebars, kept up an almost superhuman pace in the time trial and averaged 33.8 miles (54.4 kilometers) an hour, still a Tour record.

Fignon, his blond ponytail blowing, could not match that pace, and LeMond won the trial by 33 seconds and the Tour by 8 seconds. The Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, speaking to The Associated Press, said of Fignon, “I remember that lost look in his eyes on the finish line at the Champs-Élysées, which contrasted with Greg LeMond’s indescribable joy.”

In 2003, a survey of Tour journalists, authors and former riders voted the time trial the Tour’s greatest race.

The defeat effectively ended Fignon’s career, though he did not retire until 1993.

I wish I had followed Fignon’s career more closely. And I wish I weren’t so wrapped up in LeMond worship that I didn’t give Fignon the attention he deserved.

Categories: Cycling, Obituary
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