Tour de France 2020

Legends of the Tour de France: Laurent Fignon and Stephen Roche

Racing with panache — and without helmets — in the 1980s.

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Editor’s note: The following is the first in series excerpted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide.

Laurent Fignon

With his shaggy blond hair, wire-rimmed Cartier spectacles, and saucer-shaped blue eyes, Laurent Fignon did not look like a typical Tour de France cyclist. Indeed, he didn’t look like a cyclist at all. Yet the elegant Parisian won the Tour in 1983 and 1984 and became something of a pinup boy in a France totally switched on to the Tour because of the successes of Bernard Hinault in the previous five years.

Fignon had it easy in the 1983 Tour, for Hinault was out injured, and another cyclist, Pascal Simon, had to quit the race with a damaged shoulder while still wearing the maillot jaune. All Fignon had to do was follow the right moves in the mountains and wait for Simon to pull out, which he did at Alpe d’Huez. Fignon then won his only stage of that Tour, in the penultimate day’s TT, to secure a narrow overall victory over Spain’s Angel Arroyo.

The next year was altogether different, and all of France watched excitedly as Fignon took five stages to win the 1984 Tour by over ten minutes from a still-convalescing Hinault. It would be an exaggeration to say the country was split down the middle, half supporting city-slicker Fignon, half country-boy Hinault, but their duel was certainly captivating. No one knew it then, but France would never have such a hard choice again. Around the corner awaited an American-Irish-Spanish-Danish-German-Italian-American-Spanish series of winners. If only Fignon had done better, some might say.

Fignon tried to win more, but injuries and a host of personal problems sent his career into free fall when he should have been in the prime of his life. He was dogged by the stardom that comes with two Tour wins, and the press never let Fignon out of its sights when things went wrong. It didn’t help that Fignon was fast losing his hair at the relatively young age of 24, making him an even greater attraction for the paparazzi photographers, who zeroed in on his clumsy hair transplant around 1987.

By the time Fignon reemerged in 1989, an avant-garde ponytail was part of his new image, and by then he seemed to be coping better with the media attention. He’d won the season-opening Milan–San Remo one-day classic, and then scorched the Giro d’Italia with great aplomb. Tragically for Fignon, he came up against a phenomenally strong Greg LeMond in the Tour, ultimately losing the race on the very last day with that famous time trial between Versailles and Paris. Fignon had started the day with a fifty-second lead; he finished the time trial with an eight-second loss, the smallest margin in Tour history.

I remember finding myself inches from Fignon in the first moments of his desolation on the Champs-Élysées, his head in his hands, tears pouring from his eyes. I shot a series of images of a man I considered to be almost suicidal at that point. Thankfully, Fignon showed remarkable fortitude, recovering his pride and dignity and continuing to race. He even became quite matey with LeMond a few short years later.

A character like Fignon comes along rarely in one’s career as a photographer. Often we are drawn to such people by their emotions or by a sense of their mystique, more than by their stardom. Fignon displayed all the characteristics of a turbulent and troubled young man. He may have been a great cyclist, but it was the frailty that we sensed within him that made Fignon such an attraction. Colorful, contentious, opinionated, cranky, driven, and often demented, Fignon had camera lenses pointed in his direction every minute of every day on the Tour, and I am pleased to report it was not at me that he once threw a full bidon (water bottle) in mid-stage. Nor was it me he once spat at; that particular venom was directed at some Paris-based photographers Fignon despised for their in-his-face tactics.

Spectators look in on Fignon resting inside a car in his yellow jersey
Photo: Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

My favorite memories of Fignon are almost all athletic, from the time when he dominated that 1984 Tour and gave this roadside photographer oodles of wonderful picture opportunities. Fignon then strove to win back some respect in the bad years that followed. To have witnessed Fignon soloing to his last Tour stage win over the Ballon d’Alsace in 1992 remains a thrilling moment in my career—awesome stuff!

And it truly wouldn’t have bothered me if it had been Fignon who’d won that 1989 Tour, for I felt he had genuinely earned it, even if LeMond had, too. They should have declared the contest a tie!

Stephen Roche

A single image sums up Stephen Roche’s Tour de France win in 1987. The Irish star is lying poleaxed on the ground at La Plagne, an oxygen mask pressed against his mouth. There’s a glazed, faint look in Roche’s eyes, and without the benefit of hindsight, one might assume his bid for Tour victory had just ended. A desperate chase of race leader Pedro Delgado on the fifteen-kilometer climb had pushed Roche into oxygen debt. In fact, however, Roche virtually won the Tour that day, overturning a one-minute time gap to finish just four seconds behind the Spaniard at the line.

La Plagne was episode seven of a nine-frame saga that had begun on stage 10 when Roche put 2:29 into Delgado. It would end three days later with another TT victory for Roche and with it, the final maillot jaune. What lay between was a tumultuous duel that thrilled millions of roadside fans—many of them French and looking to Laurent Fignon for a French victory—with Delgado gaining back time on most of the ascents, yet losing time on the descents and in the TTs.

It’s certain that if Roche had not had the courage to dig so deep at La Plagne, there never would have been an Irish winner of the Tour de France. For my money, it still rates as one of the most riveting Tours I’ve seen.

Almost every image from that epic Tour shows Roche seeking, striving, searching for the extra seconds he needed to keep Delgado close for that final TT. He wasn’t always a pretty sight in his titanic struggle against the Spaniard, but Roche had intelligence so far above his rivals that he was able to read a race to perfection and save his energy while others wasted theirs.

Stephen Roche celebrates a win at the 1987 Tour de France
Photo: NUTAN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

He also had the physical capacity to deliver ice-cold statements with his legs, and a beguiling charm that made finding friends among his few enemies a simple task. He formed easy friendships with the media as well, who saw in him a unique source for their stories. It helped that Roche was an extremely tough athlete who always had something interesting to say.

I knew how cunning he was too, having watched his controversial Giro d’Italia win in 1987, when he’d ridden against his Italian team leader, Roberto Visentini, and then had the balls to face off with him over supper at the Carrera team table. A few days later, the Italian crashed and went home, disgusted with it all. Roche, meanwhile, spent many a Giro evening locked in his own room, his meals prepared and served by a faithful soigneur (trainer) who knew which side his bread was buttered on. Roche didn’t trust many of his teammates, or the hotel cooks, who might spike his food with a harmful or even prohibited medicine. This caution paid off, and a suitably toughened Roche came to France with his Giro victory acting as a hard-earned trophy envied by all those around him. That year, he was simply unbeatable.

Roche was the absolute boss of the peloton at the end of 1987, after adding the world championship to his remarkable summer on the run. Yet he was never again the same man, and struggled to find even a hint of the Tour form that had put him on top of the world.

He was a nonstarter in 1988, a nonfinisher in 1989, and a lowly finisher in forty-fourth place in the 1990 Tour; Roche’s career had spectacularly fallen away from him. Worse was to come in 1991, when his team started the stage 2 team time trial while Roche was apparently still in the bathroom coping with a last-minute stomach complaint! Forced to ride the 36-kilometer course alone, Roche lost fourteen minutes and his place in that year’s Tour. Surely his career was at an end? Not so. But Roche clearly wanted out of the sport, the trappings of fame and wealth in 1987 having suffocated his ability to train and race properly.

The next year, 1992, was to be Roche’s farewell, and to achieve a sufficiently respectful end, the Irishman rejoined the Carrera team, with whom he’d won that Triple Crown in 1987. Stage 16 of the Tour was his target, and stage 16 was the stage he won, alone and in the mountains of the Massif Central.

Roche halted his career a month after finishing the Tour in ninth place, his reputation almost intact. I was one of a handful of friends Roche took to the Criterium of Château-Chinon, where he said a last goodbye to the peloton. He won that race too, though I suspect it was gifted to him by the friends he was leaving behind, most of whom, incredibly, were Italians.


Adapted from Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide by Graham Watson with permission of VeloPress.

Graham Watson’s Tour de France Travel Guide