Fignon: jeune et insouciant

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.

Fin 2
At the Tour, taking on Hinault in the national champion’s jersey.

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.

Fin 1
Fignon wins in one of five in 1984.

“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).

Fin 3
Fignon won a stage at the Dauphiné in 1986 but would later abandon that year’s Tour.

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.

Fin 4
Descending in the Alps in the glory years.

5 thoughts on “Fignon: jeune et insouciant

  1. Whilst on the subject of books in French, I’ve just read an excellent account of doping in athletics (“nice” to know that cycling really isn’t the only sport with a wide-spread, high-level problem!).

    “Ma course en enfer” (My race through hell) by Fouad Chouki, a 1500m runner who came fourth in the 2003 World Championships before being disqualified for EPO doping. A really fascinating insight into the motivations and pressures of top-level athletics and the pervasiveness of doping, which, if Chouki is to be believed, seems at least as prevelant as in cycling (but rather less publicised…)

    I’d say it’s the best book I’ve read on the subject (and I’ve read most of them – Massacre à la chaine, Rough Ride, LA Confidential etc.) and a good book in its own right. Chouki comes across as a decent guy who found himself in a situation basically outside his control.

    Highly recommended, and certainly deserves to be translated into English.

  2. growing up i had no love for fignon, but no hate either. i started watching the tour in ’86 as a 10 year old and lemond was my man, followed by herrera, millar and riders like rooks and thernise. in the innocence of it all i also like hinault and was oblivious to the internal fighting between the two la vie claire greats.

    when lemond won by 8 in ’89 i was stoked, not because fignon had lost, but because the open, candid aero-bike riding greg had won. lemond really was a gutsy rider.

    however, looking back with what i know now, my feelings for fignon have soured. through reading the excellent cyclinginquisition blog, i now know that he was a bully and a racist, constantly telling the columbian riders they had no place in the pro peleton and making derogitory comments about their dark skin.

    such a shame to discover a cycling great was a bigot.

  3. Fignon, or Filet Mignon, as we used to call him, was one of my favorites of that era. Quintessentially French, unapologetic, and hopelessly dramatic. He was the perfect rider for the time.

    I’ll be on the lookout for the book.

  4. just found the quote from

    Jimenez remembered that Laurent Fignon was hard to deal with, and openly disliked the Colombian team:

    “He was extremely unpleasant to us. I remember a journalist asking him what he thought of us (Colombians) and he said we were from an inferior race. I remember him purposefully throwing elbows in the peloton, and speaking badly of us during stages. It was for that reason that we kept attacking him in the mountains. Even still, the fucker won the tour that year.”

    shame laurant. shame.

  5. Re: Jack – yes, a real shame to read those comments. As a boy I was always a huge fan of Fignon and it’s disappointing to find that out.

    All I would say is that having read his book, you wouldn’t get that impression at all – quite the reverse, he writes with great fondness of cycling in Colombia and of his respect for the Colombian cyclists. Which I guess you can read as either that he was just trying to psyche out the new guys in the 80s, or more likely that he now regrets what he said. It’s a very good read in any case.

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