Saturday, September 04, 2010

Story - Laurent Fignon

Let me start off by making it clear, right from the start. I'd never met Laurent Fignon. I'd seen him once in real. However, he made a significant impact on my formative years as a bike racer. I ached to be able to pedal like him, churning big gears up the mountains. He had a way of enveloping the bike, something unlike the others of his era. And, when driven, he fought until he couldn't fight anymore.

The Picture

One of my first "impressions" in bike racing, other than all of the Eddy Merckx pictures I'd seen, was a picture of a rider sitting on the pavement. His bike sat nearby, and his coach stood there. I can't find the picture online and I can't it any of my bike books, but it's there somewhere.

It was a young rider, a relatively new pro, and he'd been leading a big race (Liege Bastogne Liege?), solo, by a good sized margin, 4 or 5 minutes if memory serves me.

That's when his titanium Super Record bottom bracket axle broke.

(Note: this is before they figured out how to do things like alloy titanium with aluminum and vanadium, so it was apparently much weaker and more prone to repetitive stress failure.)

Thrown to the ground, a crankarm still attached to his shoe (toe straps didn't let go until you told them to let go), he sat on the ground, stunned, dazed.

His director wanted him to keep going - this was back in the days when you always got back on the bike and continued.

But not that day. Although not hurt seriously (as far as I can remember), he nonetheless abandoned the race.

His director, Cyrille Guimard, forever afterwards, played it safe with equipment. Nothing untested. Nothing too light.

To finish first you must first finish.

Guimard took that to heart. His teams were never known for their cutting edge equipment, except in aerodynamics and fit. Long cranks? The 55 cm frame riding Marc Madiot won a stage of the Tour on 180mm cranks. The first wind tunnel tested time trial bike? Gitane's bike, a direct result of Guimard's belief in the significance of aerodynamics. And who could forget Greg Lemond, who changed his position radically when he joined Guimard's Renault-Elf team.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I forgot about the rider on the ground, a crankarm dangling off of one of his shoes.

He was a blond kid, with glasses. Riders called him "Professor" because of the glasses, and because he actually started college. To the blue collar stock that bore most bike racers, such erudition was unheard of.

His name?

Laurent Fignon.

July 24th

It was a Sunday, a beautiful day outside. I don't remember exactly where we were during the day, but we rushed back to the house. My girlfriend's dad was there, her mom, and I think her two brothers. We rushed into the living room and took our customary spots.

The dad sat by the TV, with various antennae adjusting gizmos at hand. If you could think of the epitome of someone that shouldn't like bike racing, he'd be it. He wasn't slim, he smoked, drank, watched stadium sports, and loved to bargain with car dealers.

To be honest he reminded me a bit of Dave Stoller's dad in Breaking Away.

But on that Sunday he carefully tuned in to the channel showing the Tour, the various adjusting gizmos making clicking and clacking noises. The picture faded in and out a bit, but with the broadcasting antennae just one town away, we had a decent picture.

We had to.

It was the last day of the Tour.

And, unusually, this edition ended with a short individual time trial.

Yes, it was 1989.

We'd somehow gotten wind of the tight race between Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon, both well known to the US cycling world after their battles were publicized on CBS, narrated by a young Phil Liggett, and with background music supplied by fellow commentator with the football player-like physique, John Tesh.

The last stage of the Tour would be all that, and more.

The year where we in the US first got to see a lot of cycling on TV.

Anxious, we all peered at the screen, anxious.

Then, finally, the Tour program started. Delayed and edited, it played sometime in the afternoon or evening.

The coverage started. Lemond, 50 seconds behind the overall leader and yellow jersey wearer, Laurent Fignon. The latter had animated the race, attacking everywhere, taking incredible risks.

The program covered all that. Fignon looked in an absolute superior position.

But the network hadn't covered everything. Unknown to us, the top four guys on GC had broken away one late stage, with one rider's teammate for company (he may have been 5th overall but I don't remember). The break stayed away to the finish - who would want to chase the leaders of the Tour?

They kind of piled up at a roundabout coming into the finish town, embarrassing really, but they continued on. At the finish, Lemond demolished the others in the sprint, including Fignon in the yellow.

So, coming into the time trial, Lemond's morale had been climbing. He'd hit a career low in the Giro, prior to the Tour, his first return to a Grand Tour since his hunting accident a couple years prior. He almost quit the sport in that Giro, but persevered, eventually placing second in the last time trial.

Now, in second place overall, he dared to hope.

Fignon, it seems, wasn't as confident. He was seen testing some homemade aerobars before the start of the final stage (which he didn't use). He had a saddle sore. And he'd already been beaten by Lemond in the two flat time trials before.

And this is what we saw that day:

The famous final TT.

As Lemond approached the finish, my girlfriend's dad was screaming at the TV, just like he did with his beloved Giants. Everyone in the room was going crazy, us young'uns jumping up and down, not knowing what to do, the excitement, the anxiety, just going nuts because it seemed so possible.

And then, with Fignon approaching the final, slightly narrower finish of the course, Phil's voice went up that extra note.

Lemond had won the Tour.

Fignon had lost it.

And he'd never return to that level, ever again.

A Month Later

At the time I was managing a bike shop. I didn't know the area well, and I tried to fix that by riding around after work. Of course, with late hours, my riding ended up in the dark. I'd choose streets with streetlights, learn the hard way that certain roads had none, and eventually I started getting a feel for the area.

I also wanted to "promote the sport" by making people aware that they could do such things. In the era of crack cocaine, car jacking, and somewhat regular shootings, I figured the bike would be a good way to break down cultural barriers.

Bikes were different enough that they were kind of "odd". A car with tinted windows and bullet holes in the sides represented one thing. Slouching, foot dragging pedestrians another.

But a cyclist? In lycra?

Perhaps naively I felt safe in my different-ness.

I wanted to win the hearts and souls (so to speak) of the people out there.

So I rode.

And I usually rode laps around the more lit up parts of the city because, frankly, I'd have gotten killed elsewhere.

Lights meant two things to me. If it was a busy road, street lights meant traffic. If on a quiet road, street lights meant drug dealing. Or, rather, former drug dealing, because the street lights kind of discouraged it.

Traffic was fine. Lots of people around, less chance of a shooting. Especially a cyclist shooting.

And former drug dealing roads were fine too. Lit up, patrolled often, dealers rarely provoked trouble on their turf - they wanted things to be as quiet as possible so that cops wouldn't need to show up. Drugs were a business, and police would reduce the numbers for the night.

Of course there were the regular kids too. To me they were the most unpredictable. No fear of cops ("Just run!"), no fear of lights ("who cares? We can see what we're doing"), no fear of dark ("It's what makes it fun!").

One night I was doing laps around a mall and a deserted lot (it was deserted for 20 years or something, a whole block of nothingness) next to a high rise apartment building. This was my crit training, so, appropriately, I was riding pretty hard. Up ahead I saw a bunch of kids were milling around outside an apartment building, spilling out onto the street.

Spotting me, a few jumped out into the street, kind of (but not really) blocking my way.

See, I wasn't easy to read. Lycra. On a guy. At night. On a bike. What's up with him anyway?

I studiously rode by them, fast, a brief raise of the fingers to say high, my acknowledgment to them.

The next lap, more kids jumped in the street.

But they gave me more space. It was more of a dare, all of them grinning, seeing what I would do.

I rode through them again. Fast.

After a few laps, they were waiting, politely, on the sidewalk, watching me ride by.

And cheering in their own, "too cool to cheer" way.

"I could go that fast if I wanted to."
"No way. That guy would whoop you."

I felt a bit of triumph inside me.

Another night, doing laps in the same area, I heard someone yell out of one of the way-up-high windows of said apartment building. It took me a second to register what they were saying.

"Tour de France! Laurent Fignon! Tour de France! Laurent Fignon!"

I looked up in shock. Laurent Fignon?! What about Greg Lemond, who just won the closest Tour in history??

Grinning to myself, I kept riding. Obviously the guy must know about cycling. My "win their hearts and souls" had to be working.

Tour du Pont

Some years later much of the team made a trip to Hershey, PA. We brought our bikes, planning on riding at the track in Trexlertown. But first we made a stop in Hershey.

Checking out chocolates?


How about the Hershey amusement park?


Actually, I'd been to the amusement park once before. As a 14 year old. On a bike tour. Where I had the most fun trying to beat the ride leader up the hills. See, one adult had to stay in front of all the kids - that was the rule, for safety and all that. You couldn't have a 14 year old kid pedaling away on his own.

And I respected that. Really.

I just made them work for it.

I'd race the strongest ride leader up all the hills, desperately trying to beat him.

I don't ever remember beating him, always losing, but a few times I managed to get the jump on him.

And when I got home and ditched the heavy panniers, the first sprint I did almost launched me off the back of the bike - it was so light (relatively speaking) it almost leapt out from under me.

So, now, about a decade later, I was returning to this fun place. Mike H, the team captain, had planned out the trip - I was just along for the ride. We wanted to check out this new Gatorade team, a team brimming with potential. Gianni Bugno, World Champion. Dirk De Wolf, almost World Champion. And Laurent Fignon, of course.

I snapped a few shots. I got Bugno rounding a turn, with Fignon hidden behind him.

Then we headed to the finish, in Hershey. A certain Rolf Aldag won a spectacular field sprint. We found the team bikes later, a different story altogether, and snapped pictures of them. The others walked away after a while, but I stood, entranced, watching the mechanic work on the celeste green Bianchi bikes.

Fignon seemed a bit more mellow. Quiet, fine. Not quite on form, sure.

But frisky?


He'd chase down minor US National Team riders. We watched the video, amused, as the hapless rider launched a furious attack on the field.

Imagine you're an amateur racer, at the bottom of the pro-am totem pole. You're in a race, a big one. You think, well, what the heck, I might as well get some TV time. You launch an attack. You feel good, you're flying along, sprinting, out of the saddle. Looking down, you see a wheel just behind. Maybe it's another lowly domestique. Maybe another amateur. Maybe you'll be allowed some room by a lenient pack. Maybe, just maybe, you'll gain more than a few seconds lead.

To identify the rider, you turn around.

It's Laurent Fignon. Two time Tour winner, glares at you, his front wheel only a couple inches away from your bike.

What do you do? He's one of the classiest racers in the field. He's won 3 week races. You've entered 1 week ones. He won the Giro. You wear a Giro. He races for Gatorade. You still buy it. He gets paid more a year than you'll make in ten or twenty as a pro.

You do what's sensible.

You sit up.

Fignon didn't do much in the Tour du Pont, like his teammates Bugno and DeWolf, but they obviously came for training, not for winning. It was all good though - it showed us Cat 3s that it's okay to race for the sake of racing.

Paris Nice

Eventually, like all great racers, Fignon retired. And, fulfilling a quasi joke thrown around by me, as a promoter, he became, of all things, a race promoter, taking possession of Paris-Nice.

(My self deprecating joke goes as follow: "What does a racer do when they get slower? They become officials or promoters.")

I'm sorry to say this but nothing spectacular happened after this change. The race is the typical spring stage race, nicknamed "Race to the Sun". The race normally starts in the cold north and warms up as the route heads to the Mediterranean.

He wasn't along in that choice, that of getting involved in working with race promotion. His arch-rival and apparently a friend off the bike, Bernard Hinault, also stepped into the Tour's race organization shoes.

Many years later, Fignon had to give up his promotion dreams when his race ran into financial difficulties. The Tour organizers bought the race.

When Hinault and Fignon met after Fignon announced he had cancer, Hinault could not hide his emotions.

One never saw Hinault like that, at least not when he raced.

After years of rivalry, for those two to be standing together like that...

Rest in peace, Laurent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Fignon's bike failed in Grand Prix de l‘Automne 1982, according to Ronnie van den Bogaart of the Sportgeschiedenis website. Wikipedia says it ran between Blois and Chaville in that year.