Culture

Warships at the Giro

Photo Vault: Stage 21 of the 1989 Giro d'Italia.

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Who: Eric Salomon, Gerhard Zadrobilek, and Laurent Fignon

What: Stage 21 of the 1989 Giro d’Italia

Where: La Spezia, Italy

Masts from a warship tower over the port of La Spezia, Italy, which hosted the start of the 1989 Giro d’Italia’s 21st stage. This photo was snapped by famed sports photographer Robert Riger. In the foreground Eric Salomon of Team U straddles his bicycle, while in the background sit Gerhard Zadrobilek of Team 7-Eleven and Laurent Fignon, who wears the pink race leader’s jersey.

The 1989 Giro marked a milestone for two giants of cycling: Greg LeMond and Fignon. For LeMond it was a return to grand tour racing after the 1987 hunting accident that nearly ended his life. LeMond raced for the small Belgian team ADR, which refused to pay him through the first months of the season. His financial struggles were compounded by physical ones. LeMond struggled early in the Giro, losing 17 minutes to his rivals on the 13th stage. By the race’s midpoint it was obvious that LeMond was nowhere near his old form.

Yet, on the race’s final stage, a glimmer of LeMond’s winning form returned. He finished second place in a 54-kilometer time trial, beating Fignon and others handily. Little did LeMond know that this performance was a harbinger of what was to come in July, when he won his third-career Tour de France title.

For Fignon, the 1989 Giro posed challenges as well. Having scored huge results in his early 20s, by 1989 Fignon had gone five seasons without winning a grand tour. And while he claimed three Tour de France wins, Fignon had a bitter relationship with the Italian grand tour. During the 1984 Giro, Fignon appeared to be the strongest rider, however he finished a close second to Francesco Moser. Fignon always blamed the loss on the Italian officials, who made several curious decisions in the race’s second half that likely cost him the win. Fans famously pushed Moser to the tops of the mountains on the race’s final climbing day. And a helicopter hovered over Fignon during the individual time trial, blasting him with wind.

There was not the same level of drama in 1989. Fignon rode a calculating race, winning just one stage, and instead taking the lead in the high mountains. Throughout the second half he battled with Italian rider Flavio Giupponi and defending champion Andy Hampsten.

In the end, Fignon won. The victory set up his dramatic battle with LeMond later that year at the Tour de France, where Fignon lost by just 8 seconds on the final day. The 1989 Giro d’Italia proved to be the final grand tour victory of Fignon’s storied career.