What's Cool In Road Cycling

Laurent Fignon Remembered

Two times Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday, and at only 50 years of age, his time came much too soon. PEZ offers this humble remembrance to the only racer who could carry off a nickname like “The Professor’ with dignity.

Following are contributions from Ed Hood, Alastair Hamilton, Gord Cameron, Chris Selden, and Richard Pestes.

Fignon returned to le Tour in 2010 and joined Bernard Hinault at stage 15. His thin hair evidence of his fight with cancer.

From Richard Pestes:
I’ve just finished reading his book and it changed my opinion of him.

I’d first come to know of Laurent Fignon when I became a Tour fan in 1986, and stumbled upon the race’s finale in Paris while back-packing around Europe after university. My knowledge of him was based purely on what I read in the media, but I mistakenly considered his being Parisien a mark against him.

Cold, aloof, arrogant. He was portrayed like a lot of the Parisiens I’d met that summer (and some since), but I admired the way he raced a bike. And I thought his look was cool – the John Lennon glasses and pony-tail, the blond hair, few men could pull that off, but he did it with not only style, but panache too. It wasn’t affected, or put-on, it was just him.

In 1989 I was pleased that he was going to win the Tour, and shocked when he didn’t. I wish I’d started following cycling a couple years earlier so I could have better understood, and enjoyed his racing exploits at his prime. Twice winner of le Tour, destroyer of the great Bernard Hinault… impressive stuff.

In 2003 I joined the Tour de France in Lyon for a stage finish, and saw him in person for the first time. He was inside a vip area, and was laughing and joking with some fans. It occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all…

This summer I read his book, in just a few nights. His stories and views on cycling were both refreshing and inspiring. In the early 1990’s, when he and the rest of his ‘generation’ seemed to ride as pack fill, it was surely because he was from a time when riders actually rode clean. His ignorance of the EPO use infecting the peloton seemed consistent with his strong personality, of choosing to see and believe things his own way.

I felt some pity for him and his contemporaries, having been robbed of who knows how many victories by riders whose natural talents wouldn’t get them the last seat on a Fignon-driven hammer session. I grew to admire him for his work to buy Paris-Nice as a last holdout against the ASO’s monolithic consumption of the big races, and I could feel his pain at having to finally sell the race to the very organization he’d sought to protect it from.

But most of all, he did things his way. He wasn’t always right, or popular. Understanding his story as he told it, revealed for me a man of great depth and character, who I strongly admired long before I’d turned the final page.

I’d thought about meeting him and what I might say should I get the chance. I’d been thinking that we need to interview him on PEZ, because he’s the kind of guy we like. Now I wish more than ever that we had.

From Ed Hood:

‘Unluckiest man of the race was Laurent Fignon (Renault) who escaped alone on the climb of the Cote de la Madelaine, only to crash when leading by 37 seconds with only 18 kilometres to go.’

That was how Britain’s Cycling Weekly magazine recorded my first ever memory of the man; cycling on British TV was rare back then but those producers know a good image when they saw one and I must have seen that footage of the Frenchman’s bottom bracket axle breaking and catapulting him over the ‘bars to end up sitting on the tarmac a hundred times.

The race was Blois-Chaville 1982 – one of the incarnations of Paris-Tours – and the winner was Jean Luc Vandenbroucke, uncle of the late, great Frank Vandenbroucke.

And it’s with sadness that we record the passing of another great, the man who landed on the tarmac that October day and who, not for the last time would sit stunned at the end of a race which should have ended in triumph for him – Laurent Fignon.

The French National Championship was also on his trophy shelf.

In those days before the internet it was hard to get continental race results but if I had been paying attention, beneath the Cycling Weekly headline that read ‘Yates seventh in Cannes despite crash,’ back in March of that year, I’d have observed that Fignon had wasted little time in grabbing his first pro win – and yes, it was Sky DS Sean Yates taking that seventh spot.

And by the end of that month, the headlines were reading ‘French find another star’ as the 21 year-old held off no less than Sean Kelly to win the Criterium International.

If his first year as a pro was good, his second was spectacular with stage wins in Tirreno, Tour d’Armorique, Tour du Limousin, Criterium International and the Vuelta dwarfed by his winning the Tour de France at his first attempt at the age of 22 – all French riders must have a nick name and ‘le professeur‘ did indeed seem appropriate for the Parisian with the round, gold rimmed spectacles.

The following year he dominated the ‘84 Tour after taking second in the Giro – behind a rejuvenated Moser after the hardest mountains stage of the race was cancelled due to ‘bad weather’ or Fignon being a much better climber than Moser, the correct choice depending on which side of the Alps you live on – and winning the French pro road championships.

The years that followed were leaner, due to the illness and injury which dogged his career; 1985 saw the Coppi-Bartali as his best win. The 1986 Fleche–Wallonne, a Dauphine stage and the TTT in the Tour would mean a good season for most riders but it wasn’t a great year by his exacting standards.

In 1987 there were stage wins in the Tours of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Spain with home stage wins too in Paris-Nice and le Tour; but seventh on GC was of no use to Fignon.

A brilliant solo win in Milan-Sanremo commenced his 1988 campaign but that was the high light, although he did win the Tour of the European Union.

After being robbed a fair fight by favoratist organizers in 1984, he returned to win the 1989 Giro.

With wins in Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of the Netherlands and the Giro his 1989 season could hardly have started in better fashion and boded well for his hat trick of Tour wins.

That last TT stage into Paris where Lemond clawed back a deficit of 50 seconds and put a further eight seconds into the Frenchman to win has become the stuff of legend.

Whilst much has been written about Fignon’s ‘failure’ it should be remembered that some 21 years later, Lemond’s 54.545 kph average still stands as the Tour’s fastest ever time trial at a distance above 20 kilometres (David Zabriskie’s 2005 stage one 54.676 kph was over 19 kilometres).

The argument has always been that after that Tour Fignon was a broken man; but the record books show that he won the Grand Prix des Nation individual time trial (the then equivalent of a world time trial championship) plus the Barrachi Trophy and Baden-Baden team trials with team mate Thierry Marie in the fall of 1989.

The Criterium International fell to him again in 1990, as did the Grenoble six day; but his best days were clearly behind him, albeit in 1991 he was sixth on GC in le Tour and pulled off his final Tour stage win in 1992 at Mulhouse in the colours of the Italian squadra Gatorade after ten years with the Renault/Systeme U/Castorama dynasty.

The end of the line came in 1993 with a final win – to take his career total to near 100 – in the unlikely Tour of Mexico.

After his career as a rider finished he took on various roles; race organiser, bike tour operator – and the one for which he was best known and loved, that of TV race commentator.

A role he performed, gravel voiced to near the end of his life, through the 2010 Tour.

A young Fignon supports Bernard Hinault at the Giro.

My final memories of the man are eclectic, like the man himself.
The 1990 Escalada a Montjuich hill climb in Barcelona and Fignon is riding back down the hill after his warm up, a gang of tough looking local thugs are pointing at Fignon and poking fun at him in bad French; he switches across the road, brakes, fixes them with a stare and spits spectacularly at their feet – the ‘hard men’ fall silent as Fignon sneers at them and lets the brakes off to freewheel back to his team car.

Some years ago Cycling Weekly magazine decided to do a full colour feature interview with the man and he was allowed to pick the venue – the legendary Cafe de Flore in Paris, hang out of Hemingway and Sartre.

Laurent Fignon, we’ll miss you, RIP.

He won Le Tour at just 22 years of age.

From Alastair Hamilton:

Laurent Fignon was an icon for a certain generation, Hinault was on the way out and the new guy on the block had stepped into the Badger’s shoes by leading his Renault team in his first Tour de France and winning it in grand style. He shouldn’t even have been riding that Tour, he had helped Hinault win the Vuelta a Espaсa, which was held in May in those days, and was though too young to tackle two Grand Tours in one year.

He won another Tour de France, a Giro d’Italia, then added the Milan-San Remo back to back; ’88 and ‘89 and Flиche Wallonne in ’86, making him an all-round performer. He probably should have won the ’89 Tour, but those 8 seconds where just too much.

He did not look like a cyclist with those round metal rimmed glasses and his hair in a pony tail, but when he pedalled a bike he was one of the most aggressive of his time. His attacking style didn’t stop at his bike riding, he was not a favourite with the media, short and sharp, didn’t suffer fools and didn’t like the intrusion, spitting at TV cameras didn’t win him any friends, but he probably didn’t care too much. You have to admire a man who didn’t give a f**k who he told what he thought.

On a personal note: I was working the Raleigh-Banana team in 1989, that year Fignon’s System U team where riding Raleigh bikes. When I went to the Raleigh factory there would always be some of their white frames sat in a corner. These frames were meant to be the same as ours, but they had different angles and were lighter. Fignon’s frame looked right, looked good and had the style the great man from Paris had.

A great Champion, who was scared of nothing.

From Gordan Cameron:

Cantankerous, opinionated, quotable and with more than enough talent to back up anything he said … just think what chaos Laurent Fignon would have unleashed if Twitter had existed at the height of his career. As a cycling fan reared on 30-minute Tour de France highlight shows in the ’80s, Fignon will always remain iconic to me.

In the era of Kelly, Roche, Lemond and Millar, he was sometimes cast as the ‘difficult, foreign’ villain by the English-language media, with his robust PR techniques such as hurling water bottles at cameramen if they intruded too close.

There was still fire in his rasping commentary on France 2’s Tour de France coverage just six weeks ago, the same fire he demonstrated in the saddle. He needed all of that fire and determination to build a phenomenal career as his best years overlapped with the Hinault era, the Lemond era, the Indurain era. What of the all-round talent that Fignon demonstrated between them all, hindered as he was by injuries and rivalries? Poor Laurent, overlooked and under-rated.

Two Tours de France with nine stage wins, one Giro d’ Italia and two Milan-San Remo titles … hopefully the tributes to the great man will have more people remembering those triumphs and not those eight bloody seconds in Paris.

From Chris Selden:

Living in France I have had the pleasure to listen to his commentary on France 2 TV over the years and his comments were always informative, entertaining and very direct. Fignon was never one to hold back on giving his opinion – even if his views weren’t shared by his fellow commentators he would continue to express his opinion. This often led to some heated discussions in the commentary box and entertaining viewing for the TV spectators.

I also remember racing against the great man (15 years past his prime) in a mass start cyclosportiff race in the French Alps. Here I was, riding up a 3rd cat climb when just in front of me I see the 2 time Tour winner! That inspired me to ride that little bit harder and to eventually leave him behind on the climb. Yes, I can say I dropped a Tour winner on a French climb. Reality came crashing back down on the descent some kilometres later though as he effortlessly rode his way past me at 80 – 90kph where I was unable to hold his wheel…..

After the event Fignon was accesible to all, presenting the trophies to the winners and signing autographs and chatting to fans and competitors until late in the day.

He will be sorely missed.

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