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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Laurent Fignon, always a champion

John Wilcockson, VeloNews editor at large, recalls the late French champion.

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Laurent Fignon's last professional road race, the 1993 Ouest France-Plouay
Laurent Fignon's last professional road race, the 1993 Ouest France-Plouay

Perhaps the most notable reactions to the death of Laurent Fignon early Tuesday morning at age 50 came from a string of French politicians. Among those who hailed the outstanding career of the two-time Tour de France champion and noted his immense courage in the face of terminal cancer were President Nicolas Sarkozy, heads of French political parties, union leaders and former ministers of sport.

Some of the most telling tributes came from the French communist party’s general secretary Pierre Laurent, who said, “It’s with emotion that I’ve learned of the death today of Laurent Fignon, whose talent and generosity have written a magnificent page in the history of French cycling.”

Fignon’s battle with cancer lasted 18 months. It was initially defined as cancer of the digestive system, but a course of chemotherapy in the spring of 2009 was unsuccessful. He began to experience bronchial problems last year, and in January this year he told Paris-Match magazine that his doctors found the cancer had originated in his lungs.

This summer Fignon’s vocal chords were affected, but he still completed his assignment as a color commentator on French television at the 2010 Tour de France, working from his Paris home and speaking in a soft and throaty, yet informative and impassioned voice.

Lung cancer was not mentioned, but Fignon was a smoker after he ended his pro cycling career in 1993. Significantly, he never wrote about his cancer in his informative 2009 autobiography, “When We Were Young and Carefree,” which was published in English this year. He had said early on to his confidant and former trainer Alain Gallopin, now a directeur sportif at Team RadioShack: “I’m not afraid to die.”

The communist party’s Laurent said this Tuesday: “A champion of rare stature, Laurent Fignon honored his sport in taking a courageous position to denounce doping and the pressure put on riders by powerful pharmaceutical lobbies that falsify the spirit of cycling.”

In his book, Fignon did admit that he had succumbed to using drugs at various times in his career, but he was embarrassed when he once tested positive, and later spoke out against the temptations of doping.

A native of Paris

Born in the mainly working-class 17th arrondissement of northwest Paris on August 12, 1960, Laurent Fignon grew up at a time when France was slowly evolving from a traditional Old World country to a modern state. He was a talented but not particularly earnest student, although he did well enough to obtain his high school baccalaureate.

His English teacher Irène Frain, now a best-selling French novelist, said Tuesday, “For me, Laurent remained the young adolescent of 16, gauche, in (11th grade), with a bright red sweater and soft blue eyes. He remembered me some 20 years later as ‘a strict but fair teacher.’”

Fignon earned the nickname of Le Professeur from the other members of his small amateur cycling club because of his round, thick-lens glasses and scholastic achievements. When it came time for him to serve his compulsory military service he was selected to join the French army’s elite sporting battalion at Joinville, where he spent most of his time training and racing with his best pal, Pascal Jules, who was a year younger.

Their achievements earned them pro contracts for the 1982 season, Jules with a minor domestic team, Fignon with the famed Renault-Gitane squad that was directed by ace coach Cyrille Guimard and led by Bernard Hinault –‑ who was then the world’s No. 1 racer, having won the Tour de France in 1978, 1979 and 1981. Also on the team was the new American phenom Greg LeMond, who was fast gaining notoriety in his second pro season.

Remarkably, after winning some early-season races on the Côte d’Azur, the rookie Fignon was picked by Guimard to ride support for Hinault at the 1992 Giro d’Italia. Fignon would take the leader’s pink jersey after he placed second on stage 2 after helping Renault win the opening day’s team time trial. He went on to place 15th overall, with Hinault taking the victory.

Fignon quickly become known as a solid team rider in France, but his real breakthrough internationally came about because of a defeat in October 1982. The Paris-Tours race was then run in the opposite direction, from Blois to Chaville, a Paris suburb, giving the venerable classic a hilly finale.

Knowing the roads well, Fignon made a strong solo break and he was seen by the television audience heading for victory when he suddenly fell. The crash was caused by the titanium axle on his Campagnolo Record chainset snapping in two — the “new” material was not used again for such a force-sensitive component.

The youthful Fignon continued his rise to fame in 1983 at the Vuelta a España, then held in April and May. Again, he was riding for Hinault, and this time he was the only Renault team man that could support the French star in the mountains; Hinault won the race, while Fignon took six top-three finishes, including his first grand-tour stage win.

The following month, Fignon came to race in the United States at the one-day USPRO Championship, held on a small circuit in Baltimore; part of a small contingent of European riders, he finished fifth in a race won by Davis Phinney from Steve Bauer, who wouldn’t turn pro until after the 1984 Olympics.

A few weeks later, Fignon got a lucky break when teammate Hinault was unable to defend his Tour de France title because of knee tendinitis that required surgery. Without their leader, the Renault team went into the Tour with hopes of some stage wins from their young riders in what was a wide-open Tour.

The team’s sights were raised after the first week when Fignon figured in a big breakaway on the Pyrenean stage from Pau to Luchon over the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde mountains passes. Rival French team Peugeot took the honors — the stage win for Scot Robert Millar and the yellow jersey for French climber Pascal Simon — and not too many noticed that the 22-year-old Fignon, in his debut Tour, had moved into second place, albeit a couple of minutes behind Simon.

But 24 hours later, the picture changed. Simon fell in a small pileup and fractured his shoulder blade. The race leader continued for five days, but the pain became too much when the race hit the Alps and he quit — so Fignon inherited the maillot jaune at L’Alpe d’Huez. He kept it to the finish, but won only a single stage, taking the final time trial by less than a second over Irishman Sean Kelly.

Fignon was the Tour’s youngest winner in 50 years, and it transformed his career. The injured Hinault fell out with team director Guimard and started a new team, La Vie Claire, with French entrepreneur Bernard Tapie, and Fignon became Renault’s top rider — even though LeMond (who would make his Tour debut in 1984) won the world pro road race championship a month after Fignon won the Tour.

With his confidence raised, Fignon went to the 1984 Giro with ambitions of winning. Indeed, he did wear the pink jersey into the final stage after taking second place on the two toughest mountain stage only to lose the victory to Francesco Moser in the final day’s time trial — when the Italian rode a futuristic aero’ bike like the one he’d earlier used to break the world hour record of Eddy Merckx.

Fignon was determined not to leave room for error at the 1984 Tour, which saw him ride a brilliant race, winning five stages and putting runner-up Hinault, his old boss, 10 minutes behind him by Paris; LeMond was third. The immense confidence gained by Fignon was emphasized when Hinault, still in contention, made a bold solo break in the valley before L’Alpe d’Huez. Fignon, after winning the stage, commented: “When I saw him attack like that I began to laugh.”

Fignon, still only 23, never again reached such a high peak. He, too, suffered from tendinitis of the knee and had surgery that prevented him riding the 1985 Tour (Hinault won from LeMond, who had transferred to La Vie Claire). Then Renault pulled its sponsorship — a setback that showed Fignon’s true character. He could have accepted big offers from other teams but he decided to stick with Guimard.

Guimard, who is now a team manager and radio consultant, said on Tuesday: “In 1985, when the Renault corporation decided to abandon us, (Laurent) stayed faithful and worked with me to find a new a sponsor.”

The new sponsor, supermarket chain Système U, would support the team for four years, but Fignon was the not the same rider after his injury. His only significant success in 1986 was winning the Flèche Wallonne classic in Belgium. He came in seventh at the Vuelta and 17th at the Dauphiné in his warm-up races for the Tour, but his return to La Grande Boucle ended with him pulling out after 12 stages (LeMond was the overall winner).

Fignon’s fortunes worsened in 1987, when his best friend, Jules, died in a car crash after playing in a charity soccer game. Fignon won only two minor criteriums that year, with his top rides being third overall at Paris-Nice (winning two stages), third at the Vuelta (one stage win) and seventh at the Tour (one stage win).

Things didn’t go much better for Fignon in 1988 except for a brilliant solo win in the March classic, Milan-San Remo; he had an abysmal Tour, not placing top 10 on any stage and pulling out at the halfway mark. But it appeared that he was finally back on track in 1989 when he again took Milan-San Remo before winning the Giro (where an out-of-sorts LeMond, still not recovered from his 1987 shotgun wounds and subsequent injuries, almost quit after failing in the mountain stages).

The infamous eight seconds

This was the background to the historic 1989 Tour, when Fignon and LeMond fought one of the event’s epic duels, with first one then the other taking the lead. The race appeared to be over when Fignon took the yellow jersey on L’Alpe d’Huez only five days from the finish and extended his lead to 50 seconds over LeMond the next day.

Then, on the final mountain stage, Fignon dropped all of his rivals on the Col de Cucheron and could have shot for another stage win in Aix-les-Bains; but he felt that he already had the Tour sewn up and wasn’t concerned when LeMond took the stage’s sprint victory ahead of the small group of leaders. There followed one more flat stage and a train transfer to Paris before the finale: a 24.5km time trial from Versailles to the Champs-Élysées

Reviewing the situation in a post-Tour interview Fignon said, “Frankly, I had 50 seconds’ lead and that’s what I’d lost (to LeMond) over more than 70K (in the Tour’s first long time trial). Over less than half that distance, I didn’t have too many concerns.”

Already, in that earlier 76km time trial to Rennes, LeMond had used a prototype clip-on aerobar to win the stage. So Fignon felt he had no reason to experiment with a last-minute imitation bar that Guimard’s Système U team had produced; the Frenchman didn’t even wear an aero helmet over his trademark blond ponytail.

The whole world saw what happened. LeMond raced with inspiration to set the winning time in Paris at a record speed for a TT longer than 20km, 54.545 kph, and Fignon rode with desperation to reach the finish line an agonizing 58 seconds behind and lose the Tour to the American by the smallest-ever winning margin, eight seconds.

On finishing, Fignon collapsed onto the pink cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées as LeMond, his former teammate, celebrated his magnificent comeback — not only that day, but also from the hunting accident that almost cost him his life two years before. Ironically, Fignon’s defeat made him a more popular figure with the public after being deemed arrogant after his two Tour victories in the early ’80s.

Fignon never won another major race. He abandoned the 1990 Tour on stage 5, placed sixth overall in 1991, and after leaving Guimard to join Italian team Gatorade for his final two seasons, Fignon finished 23rd at the 1992 Tour and abandoned the race in his final season.

True to his unassuming nature, Fignon didn’t have a symbolic farewell race for his fans like Hinault and most top stars. He quit halfway through a minor race in Brittany before the end of the 1993 season and never raced again. Fignon’s last victory happened earlier that year when he came to North America to ride the Ruta Mexico stage race to please his team sponsor, Gatorade.

Assessing Fignon, his former protégé and partner, Guimard said Tuesday: “He was a man of great feeling, very shy, a little complex. He protected himself behind a sort of arrogance that made him unpopular … (but) his defeat (at the ’89 Tour) allowed him to be more popular and sympathetic.”

Ten years after that loss, Fignon himself said, “Sure, for the pride, for my career, I should have won that Tour. But, for the continuation, I must say that it was better that I lost. And the continuation of my life is long….”

Tragically, his life was cut short on Tuesday at a hospital in Paris. He is being buried on Friday at the Père Lachaisse cemetery in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It’s said to be the most visited cemetery in the world, containing the tombs of French jazz musician Stéphane Grappelli, French playwright Molière, American pop musician Jim Morrison and Irish author Oscar Wilde. And, for eternity, the French cyclist Laurent Fignon.