Ah, mais je vous reconnais: vous êtes celui qui a perdu le Tour de huit secondes!
-Non, Monsieur, je suis celui qui en a gagné deux.
Good news indeed that William Fotheringham has taken on the task of translating Laurent Fignon’s book Nous etions jeunes et insouciants, We were young and carefree. Seemingly the epitome of Parisian haughtiness and hardened professional during his career, the excerpts available from the published French version suggest – like the title itself – that Fignon has taken a very nostalgic view of his career and racing days.
A year younger than Greg LeMond, Fignon retired in 1993, just a year before LeMond would follow him. Fignon had wanted to retire before the years took their toll, but his record for the preceding seasons had been thin – a win on stage 11 at the Tour in 1992 the only real standout. But, in typical Fignon style, he had no regrets.
“Something?” he said, when – according to Samuel Abt’s account – he was asked by a French reporter if it meant something to him, starting his last race, the Grand Prix Ouest-France. “No, why should I have felt something?”
Yes, the haughty Parisian to the last. The young racer who emerged in a fury in 1983 to win the Tour. At age 23, he was the youngest winner since 1933. Bernard Hinault was conspicuous by his absence but it was his young Renault-Elf-Gitane teammate who stepped up to take the victory, including the final time trial to show his worthiness.
With Hinault back in the 1984 Tour, riding for La Vie Claire, it was Fignon “by a generation”, as the media put it. He showed his dominance with five individual stage wins, three in time trials, including a win over Lucho Herrera in the mountain stage ITT. He took the yellow jersey in an epic battle with Hinault and the climbers Herrera, Angel Arroyo, and Robert Millar on Alpe d’Huez (Herrera won the stage). This was Fignon the unstoppable – second in the Giro that year (edged out by Moser’s aerodynamic bike, and perhaps some organizational conniving as well), on his way to a total of 76 professional victories. The glory years.
“What could be said was that after a dozen years of majestic heights – two victories in the Tour, one in the Giro, two in Milan San-Remo, a French national championship; and profound depths – a heel injury that cost him peak seasons, last stages losses of both the Tour and the Giro, two positive drug findings – at age 33, Fignon had retired as a racer,” wrote Abt in 1993.
Ah, mais je vous reconnais. How easy it is to remember Fignon only for those eight seconds in 1989, his total collapse on the Champs-Élysées, destroyed by his own mistakes – perhaps his pride – saddle sores, fatigue, and an aerobar-equipped Greg LeMond who, on that day, was unbeatable.
From that day, all his victories were overshadowed, prompting the exchange that opened this post and is repeated in his book: Fignon reminding a ‘fan’ that he should not be remembered for his defeat in 1989 but his two Tour victories. “A day of insane sadness,” he writes, recalling 23 July 1989. “A day of monstrous, unacceptable defeat.”
For Fignon, 1989 was not only personal but it marked a turning point in cycling. From then on, racing was over to the excesses of chemistry. “The guy I saw riding every day with me changed entirely,” he writes. Greg LeMond would likely agree. But for Fignon, busted for amphetamines and later admitting to using cortisone, was his drug use any different to EPO? “I was in the system, my way,” Fignon said, taking neither physical nor sporting risks, whatever the latter might mean. Hypocrisy? Perhaps, or Fignon may simply have been old school, rallying against the excesses of the EPO era.
Despite his defeat at the Tour, 1989 was perhaps his best year: Milan-San Remo, the Giro – at last – and other victories including the prestigious Grand Prix des Nations. But for eight seconds, though, he would have had three Tour victories and the honour of being the last French rider to win the Tour – foiled instead by Bernard Hinault’s late-career win in 1985 (how different the outcome could have been, were Fignon not sidelined with injury).
Cold and detached as a racer, Fignon became more likable in his post-racing career. Involved in race organization and commentary, he has been appreciated for his insightful analysis and candidness. Indeed, he has been candid about his own current condition, battling intestinal cancer that appears very serious indeed, and at only age 49. “Despite my treatments during the last seven months, my cancer has barely diminished,” Fignon told French magazine Paris Match early this year.
And he has been open in discussing a possible link to doping: “When I got ill, I spoke to the doctors about it, and it made them smile. Taking into account the doses, they think it is not linked. But is it an aggravating factor? Maybe.”
“I am not dead, but I am not healing, either,” he said.
Greg LeMond was the lovable, impossibly talented American taking on the French at their own game, in their own race. First it was Hinault, then Fignon, and both with what Abt described as “an excess of character.” Both were the perfect foils, the inscrutable Frenchmen, the Europeans who we knew nothing about, with their stony faces, temperamental attitudes, and mysterious Gallic shrugs. Without them, LeMond’s victories would have been less spectacular, less sweet. Who can forget the Tour of 1986, let alone 1989.
So we should not forget Fignon. “…great stories, leg burning, rage of defeat, failure and pride,” wrote the reviewer of Fignon’s book in Le Monde. “De cyclisme, tout simplement.” That’s cycling. Indeed.
And we will remember not just the defeats, but the victories as well.