He may have been the greatest French champion of his generation, but his most memorable victory came not on the roads of the Tour de France, but in Italy, when he won Milano-Sanremo back in 1995. Yet while Laurent Jalabert, who turns 52 today, may have never won the Tour de France, he was simply one of the sport’s most versatile champions, winning classics as diverse as Sanremo and the Il Lombardia, as well as being and one of the rare cyclists capable of winning the green points jersey as well as the polka-dot best climbers jersey in the Tour de France.
Growing up in the village of Mazamet in the shadows of the Pyrénées Mountains, Jalabert said that without cycling, he would likely have found work in the shoe-making industry that thrived there while growing up. But bike racing soon offered an alternative path. One of the sport’s most consistent winners, Jalabert quickly rose through the ranks after turning professional in 1989, and from 1995-1999 he was the world’s number-one ranked rider for four out of five years.
But for Jalabert, the Sanremo win stands out. “I had always dreamed of winning Sanremo and I had said to myself that if I wanted to leave my mark on the history of cycling, I had to win Sanremo,” Jalabert told VeloNews earlier this year looking back on the 25th anniversary of his victory in La Primavera. “It totally blew me away. I didn’t sleep all night. And when I woke up and had to go to the newsstand and buy all of the newspapers to see what they said and make sure it really happened. I can tell you today, 25 years later, when people ask me what were my greatest memories, well, Milano-Sanremo was my greatest. It was the most beautiful!”
His career was not without pitfalls. A spectacular crash in the final meters of the sprint on the stage to Armentiers during the 1994 Tour left him bloodied and scared. He admitted, looking back, that he was never able to sprint at the same level again. And as one of the sport’s biggest stars in the 1990s, he struggled to navigate through one of the worst periods of doping. Jalabert was a member of the often suspect Spanish ONCE team from 1992-2000 (ed. team manager Manolo Saiz was banned from the sport for his involvement in Operation Puerto in 2006). And when retroactive tests from the 1998 Tour revealed traces of EPO during a French senate investigation back in 2013, Jalabert, while not admitting to consciously doping, did say that there was an unspoken “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy on the team at the time.
Nevertheless, Jalabert remains a popular figure within the sport as he is a respected commentator for French television, not to mention a passionate triathlete.