Laurent Fignon: When We Were Young And Carefree
By Laurent Fignon (Yellow Jersey Press/Random House/2010)
Translated from the French by William Fotheringham
Review by Jeffrey Morseburg
The late Laurent Fignon rarely gave journalists or their readers what they wanted. In fact, in that fateful summer of ’89, Tour de France journalists gave him the “lemon award” for the most uncooperative cyclist. It seems the ink-stained wretches didn’t appreciate his recalcitrance, his brusk manner or the fact that if provoked, he could shove or even spit on sportswriters. However, in the book that Fignon finished just months before his untimely death from cancer, he begins with the story that virtually every cyclist wants to hear – the tale of his heartbreaking loss to Greg Lemond. The story of the closest Tour de France in history serves as a prologue for the story of Laurent Fignon’s life and cycling career. Perhaps in the end Fignon has the last laugh, for those who only want to know how he felt to lose to Lemond in that final time trial stage of the Tour will simply read the beginning of the book and never get to know the real person and he will remain enigmatic as ever.
Fignon was born in Paris, but grew up in Tournan-et-Brie in the Marne countryside east of the city, where he could play in the forest every day. He writes that other than reading, he had a difficult time sitting still as a youngster, a trait that defined him his entire life. Fignon was not one for sitting in front of the television or at interminable family gatherings – he had to be active. Another thing that defined him were his glasses. He was shy and always stood out because of his thick spectacles, which clearly caused him to suffer some persecution as a youngster. Perhaps a sense of grievance from being singled out for something so trivial helped to serve as fuel for his later triumphs.
Fignon was always enthusiastic about sports, but football (or soccer) was his first love. His father was a blue-collar worker with a prodigious work ethic who had little time to follow sports. Because the Fignons lived in the countryside, cycling was a common form of recreation. The blond rider began racing along the bike paths with his mates at fifteen and took out his first racing license the following year, in 1976. Like a number of great champions, he showed immediate promise as a junior and was soon winning half his races. At eighteen, he tried college briefly, advanced to the senior ranks as a rider and then served in a special sporting unit to complete his compulsory military service.
He was not destined to spend a long time as an amateur, for Fignon was as hyperactive in his cycling as he was in the rest of life. He drew notice for his victories as well as his aggressive, attacking style. He had problems with the “combines” that tend to rule French amateur racing and this is where we see his intransigence, his implacability, his “friend or foe” nature first come out. When he would get into a breakaway, Fignon knew he was the strongest and so he wanted to win, or else he would get even my making sure the members of the combine didn’t emerge with a victory.
By his third senior season, Fignon was racing in the colors of the French National Team. It was in the Tour of Corsica that he first met Cyrille Guimard and Bernanrd Hinault, two men who were to loom so large in his future. This event, which took place through the rustic Corsican countryside, was open to amateur national teams as well as professional equipes. Guimard was the director of the state-supported Renault-Elf-Gitane team and the cycling genius who had discovered and molded the young Hinault. In the Corsica tour the wily manager immediately recognized Fignon’s potential. He was one of the few amateurs who was able to ride with the top professionals in the mountains and Guimard told him that he would “keep an eye on him” that season. During the tour Fignon was also able to observe the great Hinault up close and he irritated the older rider by following him closely in the race.
Guimard signed Fignon to a contract for the 1982 season, the rider happy to find that his best cycling friend Pascal Jules would be on the Renault team as well. From his first days as a neo-pro, Laurent Fignon showed the personality traits that would make him one of the world’s best cyclists. He showed up to the training camp with miles already in his legs so that he would be competitive from the first races of the season. While he was impressed by how quickly Hinault burned off the winter fat as well as his confident control of “his” team, Fignon was not overawed by the veteran rider and had the temerity to give as well as he got in the dinner table repartee that is part of cycling. Cyrille Guimard, Renault’s director, could see he had a rare talent on his hands and showed confidence in Fignon by encouraging him to win the Grand Prix de Cannes and the Fleche Azureene, two early season events held on the Mediterranean coast. He was assigned to ride the demanding Giro d’ Italia in support of Hinault and in his first national tour he wore the pink jersey as leader and then helped Hinault to victory through his tireless work in the mountains of Italy.
In 1983, Fignon was assigned to help Hinault win the Vuelta de Espana, Spain’s national tour, which was then held early in the spring. Hinault was having problems with his knee and rode the entire race in pain. For the first time in years, he was vulnerable and left behind by his rivals. On the stage from Salamanca to Avila Fignon helped unleash the wounded but still dangerous “Badger,” and Hinault vanquished the other leaders with an epic eighty-kilometer attack that filled Fignon with awe. Because Guimard felt his charge was too young to do two of the arduous three-week national tours in the same season, Fignon was not scheduled to be on Renault’s team for the Tour de France. But when Hinault was diagnosed with tendonitis, he found himself in the hardest race of them all. It was a real education and the lessons came quickly. He ended up with badly blistered hands after putting a death grip on the bars in his first experience on the cobbles of Northern France. Then he “bonked” badly on the Team Time Trial. On the team’s orders he had consumed only artificial food with a high glucose content on the morning of the TTT, which produced an overload of insulin. During the first part of the ride he became hypoglycemic and he was only saved when his teammate Bernard Becaas gave him all the food he had in his pockets. As a result, Becaas was soon out of food himself and then dropped from the rotation on the time trial. Such are the cruel lessons of cycling.
After the first mountain stage Fignon found himself second to Peugeot’s veteran Pascal Simon, who was four minutes clear, but it had become apparent to the bespectacled Renault rider that he was capable of winning a major tour, even though he was only twenty-two. Guimard, however, wanted to hedge his bets with Renault’s Marc Madiot, and the lack of confidence drove Fignon to distraction. Poor Simon broke his shoulder on the tenth stage, but continued to lead the race in a valiant display of courage that was on the cover of every paper. In the 15th stage time trial, Fignon narrowed the gap between him and Simon to a minute and inherited the Maillot Jaune of race leader when Simon had to retire on the 17th stage. Initially there was a feeling that Fignon was backing into the victory, but when he won the 21st stage time trial, his class was obvious. I was able to witness his Tour victory and when he rode into Paris, it was clear to all that a new champion had been discovered. At the post-race celebration Hinault graciously congratulated him, but Fignon could see that all was not well between the Breton and Guimard.
By 1984, Bernard Hinault’s relationship with Cyrille Guimard had run its course and he teamed up with the brash entrepreneur Bernard Tapie and the innovative Swiss coach Paul Koechli to start a new team called La Vie Claire (“The Clean Life”). Fignon’s emergence in the Tour de France probably hastened Hinualt’s decision to break with the man who had managed his career for ten years. In any event, after only two years of professional cycling, Fignon now found himself the unchallenged leader of the Renault team and Guimard set an ambitious goal for him – to win the Giro d’ Italia and Tour de France in the same year, a task only great champions like Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault had achieved.
Unfortunately, in contrast to the Tour de France, the Giro always had the reputation as being a difficult race for a non-Italian to win. The 1984 Giro d’Italia left a bitter taste in Fignon’s mouth that later victories never fully washed away. Late in the race, when Francesco Moser, the Italian hero, was being distanced in the mountains, the organizers cancelled a high-altitude stage with five mountain passes “due to snow.” This left Moser in a close second and in the final time trial the organizers allowed a helicopter to fly in front of Fignon in the time trial, inhibiting his progress and providing a convenient tail wind for Moser, who started just ahead of him. Moser ended up winning by a little over a minute, a pyrrhic victory at best.
In spite of the Giro, 1984 was still Laurent Fignon’s year. He won the French Professional Championship in the late spring so he started the Tour de France in the red, white and blue maillot of France. With Hinault back in decent form, the race ended up being a battle between the two former teamates. Hinault won the short prologue time trial, but the powerful Renault team won the team time trial. A long escape left Fignon’s teammate Vincent Barteau in the yellow jersey, which he kept all the way through the Pyrenees. Fignon won the first two individual time trials and then answered every attack Hinault could make on the 17th stage, an epic run from Grenoble to the historic climb up the Alp d’Huez. The pony-tailed young rider had the confidence to counter attack and opened a gap on the fading Hinault, which put him solidly in yellow. Riding like he had wings, which isn’t uncommon when a rider is wearing the maillot jaune, Fignon then won two stages in the Alps and then the final time trial, widening his victory margin to an exceptional ten minutes over Hinault. By winning five stages, Laurent Fignon was a dominant winner of the Tour de France. Everything seemed to be coming up roses.
Like most tour winners he partied through the post-Tour criterium circuit, where much of the rider’s annual salary is still made. The criteriums are an opportunity for fans all over Europe to see the Tour riders close to home. The races are a show the riders put on, with the local hero usually emerging triumphant. Looking back, Fignon is blunt and admits that all the sudden fame and adulation went to his head and that he became even more difficult after his tour victories. He had grown stronger mentally and was able to withstand the tremendous pressure of being in the spotlight, but he remained aloof and never had the likeable personality of Greg Lemond or some of his other rivals.
After the 1984 Tour de France he felt invincible and thought he could win a number of grand tours at a trot. The harder and more difficult a race was, the more he enjoyed it. Unfortunately for Fignon, he was not destined to experience a long era at the top the way that his former teammate Bernard Hinault or Belgium’s Eddy Merckx did. Instead, the 1985 season became a disaster for Fignon when he was diagnosed with a inflammation of his achilles tendon. This necessitated an operation, which removed the tendon sheath. Unfortunately, this was followed by a staph infection, another surgery and a long, painful rehabilitation. Fignon recovered slowly, but never felt that his power output was the same.
At the end of the aborted 1985 season, Renault shocked France by pulling out of all its sports sponsorships. This led Fignon and Guimard to form a partnership, a sports promotion company to own and run the old Renault equipe, the first of the European teams that were set up in this manner. They signed the market chain Systeme U to a three year contract and everything seemed to be looking up for Fignon. He made a good comeback early in 1986, stupidly losing Paris-Camembert to the Dane Kim Andersen and then soloing to victory on the Mur de Huy climb to win the Fleche-Wallonne classic. Then it was a trip to sunny Spain for the Vuelta which turned into another disaster with a serious crash which inflicted knee and chest injuries on him, but he made the mistake of gutting it out and had a painful ride to 7th on the general classification. Fignon started the 1986 Tour de France, which was billed as a race between Hinault of La Vie Claire, his teammate and heir apparent Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon, the comeback kid. This was not to be. Fignon was not fully recovered and pulled out during the Pyrenees stages with a infection. He confides to the reader that he finished the season in the blackest of moods, full of anger at Guimard because of the shortcuts he was making with the team, because of course now any economizing could put francs in his own pocket. Fignon also “cracked mentally” and was full of loathing for himself, not the best place to be for a sporting star.
By 1987, there were serious problems with the relationship between Fignon and Guimard, the team owners. Fignon felt that while Guimard was the best strategist and trainer in the business, he was out of his depth when it came to administration. As far as Fignon, he was clearly battling depression, though he never puts a name to the malaise that plagued him for years. He rode the Bremen Six Day to get in shape, struggling to keep up with the track specialists he felt were riding on adrenaline and amphetamines.
The 1987 Vuelta was a search for form, an up and down race for an up and down athlete. Fignon never really found his legs, but he won the demanding Avila stage and finished a credible – for anyone other than a former tour winner – third. In his book he dishes out contempt for the Columbians who he claims paid Systeme U not to attack on the windy final stage so the German rider Raimund Dietzen would not overatke their climber, Luis Herrera. Although Fignon is forthright about the drugs – amphetamines and cortisone – that he admitted using in some events, he denies that he took anything when he was declared positive after the Grand Prix de Wallonie in May of 1987. He blamed the dueling laboratories for the dark doings and in those days, there was no test of a “B” sample to confirm or refute the initial findings. The riders knew there would be a test at the event, so he assures the reader that he would never have gone all out to win had he taken something.
The 1987 Tour de France was another struggle and Fignon began to feel that the victories of 1983 and 1984 were from a different epoch. How soon the fans and journalists seem to forget! He could not find any form, finishing a pathetic sixty-forth in the dramatic Mount Ventoux Time Trial. His son had been born the previous day and yet all he could do was weep. This was the first Tour Fignon did with pulse monitors and after he threw his away, when the journalists had written him off, his legs came back and he finished sixth on Alpe d’Huez and won on the mountainous stage at La Plagne. By Paris, he had salvaged some pride and finished seventh, with almost all his time lost in the time trials he used to win.
In 1988 there were glimpses of the old Laurent Fignon. He and his trainer Alain Gallopin cooked up a plan to target the early season Milan-San Remo Classic, one of the five “monuments” of single day racing. They felt it suited Fignon, who found its 180-mile distance to his liking. While the course is not difficult by professional standards, the famous Poggio climb comes late in the race and, if a rider is powerful enough, he can launch himself from the pack and occasionally, with a measure of luck and great fortitude, hold on for victory. The hyperactive Fignon cooled his heels for most of the long race until his much-admired friend Sean Kelly, whom he had confided in, suggested that it was well time to move up through the huge peloton. When they hit the right spot on the climb, Kelly, who was riding at the front, allowed a gap to open and Fignon got out of the saddle and shot away, though he soon discovered the Italian Maurizio Fonderiest was glued to his wheel. Fortunately Fignon had enough power to easily dispatch the talented younger rider in the long sprint. The season, however, soon turned difficult for the Frenchman, who was now sporting his famous pony-tail. He struggled with the illnesses that habitually plagued him in the colder part of the season and then broke a bone in his hand in a massive crash in Belgium during Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a classic that he had always wanted to win and and that had eluded him. The less said about Fignon’s ’88 Tour de France, the better. From the start he was pedaling squares and his book has a memorable recounting of the cause of his troubles – an enormous tapeworm that made an auspicious debut – and he dropped out mid-way through the “new look” tour which was disaster, resulting in the sacking of the promotional team.
By 1989, Fignon’s relationship with Guimard was growing strained and the team was becoming less competitive. Bjarne Riis joined the Systeme U equippe as a domestique, and Fignon praises the Dane’s cycling instincts and strength in his book. The veteran Pascal Simon also joined the squad. With his pony tail flying in the breeze, Fignon opened his season with another win in Milan-San Remo. In the 1989 edition of this epic race, he went before the Poggio climb and finished alone – “the only rider in the photograph” as the Europeans like to say. Italy was finally welcoming for Laurent Fignon for whom the memories of the old Giro debacle were still so vivid! The 1989 Giro d’Italia was a tough race, one that would bring out the best in the stronger riders. Fortunately, the Italian organizers resisted any urges they may have had to lighten the load. And, Systeme U’s team leader finally seemed to be back on form after so many dark episodes. Fignon was thrust into second on the general classification after Stage 13, where he trailed only the great Columbian climber “Lucho” Herrera up the mountain. He then moved into the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, after the epic 14th Stage, where the riders battled the weather as much as themselves and the terrain. On that stage, Fignon attacked the leader, Erik Breukink of the Netherlands, on the classic Passo Campolongo climb. The cold weather finally turned warm for the last days of the race. In 1989 Laurent Fignon was at least partially able to vanquish the uneasy ghost of the “stolen Giro” of 1984 as he collected the winner’s bouquet in the sunshine of Milano.
The see-saw battle of the 1989 Tour de France is the opening chapter in Fignon’s book and it is a well known story to cycling fans who are in their forties or older. Greg Lemond had won the Tour de France in 1986, finally triumphing over Bernard Hinault, his proud, stubborn teammate and mentor. Then, incredibly, he was shot in a freak hunting accident the following spring. It took two years to come back from the mishap and by the end of the 1989 Giro d’Italia, Lemond was just beginning to find some form. So, when the Tour started, both of the major protagonists – Lemond and Fignon – were looking for redemption on the roads of France. The other possible player in that fateful tour was the Spaniard Pedro Delgado, but he missed his start time for the prologue and his race and morale were finished before the race began.
In July of 1989, Laurent Fignon was then the world’s number one ranked rider. He was confident that his attacking style would see him come out on top once the race entered the great mountain stages. Lemond, the American, was on ADR, a weak team, because in the typical “what did you do for me today” manner, almost everyone in European cycling had abandoned him after his accident. Lemond took the maillot jaune after the Stage 5 Time Trial, only to lose it to Fignon after Stage 10 in the Pyrenees. Despite Fignon’s attacks on Lemond’s conservative style in the press, the American minimized his loses in the mountains and then recaptured the leader’s jersey after the Stage 15 Time Trial. Fignon rode aggressively again in the Alpine stages and took back the maillot jaune on the Alpe d’Huez. Despite Lemond’s win on the 21st Stage from Villard-de-Lans to the Rhone Alps town of Aix-les-Bains, he trailed Fignon by fifty seconds with only one stage remaining. The last stage of the 1989 Tour was not the usual informal procession into Paris, but a short, flat 25 kilometer (15.5 miles) time trial from historic Versailles into the French capitol, that finished on the Champs de Elysse. While there was no doubt that Fignon’s once formidable time trailing skills were no longer a match for Lemond’s strength in this discipline, neither Guimard nor his rider Fignon felt that there was any danger because the distance was so short. We all know that their confidence was misplaced, for Lemond’s determination and his choice of an aerodynamic helmet and triathlon bars helped him take 58 seconds out of his French rival.
The pictures of Fignon, despondent as the realization that he has lost the Tour de France hits him, were flashed around the world. The American tried to congratulate and console his rival, but to no avail. He was in state of shock. The oh-so-close loss to Lemond was the subject of great soul-searching by Fignon and the French cycling world. This was the dawn of the aerodynamic era in cycling and equipment choices – disc wheels v.s. spoked wheels, smaller front wheels, triathlon handlebars v.s conventional or “cowhorn” bars – haunted all of us who raced or ran teams in the era. Did a rider lose because he was slower or because he had chosen a front disc wheel on a day with cross winds? Were the triathlon bars even legal? Should Lemond have been allowed to start on them? Should Systeme U have protested the outcome or would that have damaged the credibility of the race? Did Fignon’s front disc give him some advantge over Lemond’s choice of a spoked front wheel?
It is clear that Lemond’s choice of equipment did help him in that final stage, the race that came to define him. My friend John Pierce, the veteran cycling photographer, gave me some unforgettable shots of Lemond’s ride and you can see that he pulled out all the stops, leaning his bike over at perilous angles on the corners. Lemond ended up as Sports Illustrated’s Man of the Year, one of the rare times a stick-and-ball athlete didn’t win. Fueled by his need to prove the cycling world wrong, Lemond rode the fastest time trial in history, averaging 53.59 kilometers per hour (33.33 mph). However we can’t forget that Fignon did ride the time trial with the pride the maillot jaune should give a rider and was a credible third on the day. His ride also broke the old records for a road time trial. For the rest of his life the proud Fignon would have to hear questions and jeers about July 23, 1989. He was referred to as “Monsieur Eight Seconds.” This wasn’t fair, because Fignon had ridden aggressively, taken the fight to his rival and only lost by the slimmest margin in history. The 1989 Tour de France should be remembered for the great battle it was between two men who had each won the race twice and who were fighting to regain what they saw as their proper place atop the podium, but only one of whom could win.
After the epic 1989 Tour, there were fewer and fewer moments of cycling success for Laurent Fignon and many more dark days. In the book he admits to occasional drug use and he says that when he was caught for amphetamines at the Grand Prix de la Liberation in Eindhoven, he was guilty and had actually used them a few days before the race, which he knew would be drug tested. By 1990, the four year contract with Systeme U had run its course and he and Guimard had signed Castorama as their sponsor. The cycling world was changing and this new sponsor expected the riders to serve as brand ambassadors as well as cyclists, a role that Fignon was uncomfortable with. In 1990, wearing the new uniform, he was fourth in the early season Paris-Nice, the “Race to the Sun,” and then won the three-day Criterium International. He dislocated his pelvis in a crash early in the Giro d’Italia. The tour was another disaster and he withdrew from the race. In 1991 his relationship with Guimard, which had been getting worse, ruptured and the director began slagging his rider in the press. He had to battle Luc Leblanc for supremacy on his own equipe and the Castorama team’s infighting was the subject of endless articles in the pages of l’Equipe and the cycling press during the Tour de France, where Fignon still managed a 6th place finish. The year ended with he and Guimard splitting forever, dividing the assets of the team.
Fignon spent the last few years of his career riding in Italy, racing as joint leader of the Gatorade Team with the inconsistent Italian rider Gianni Bugno, who was the reigning World Champion. The thought was that the older rider could win races and help steady Bugno, so he could fulfill his potential. Fignon found Italian fans more enthusiastic and the team support much better south of the Alps. Unlike the fair-weather French fans the Tifosi respected former champions, even ones who were in the twilight of their careers. Fignon was becoming less and less motivated and saw many changes in the sport that were not to his liking. The over-commercialization of the sport bothered him and he saw that an entirely new class of drugs was becoming more and more prevalent. He rode the Tour de France in support of Bugno, who finished third, and Fignon managed to look like his old self on one long breakaway on the lengthy race between Strasbourg and Mulhouse, where he held off the charging peloton. In 1993 he won his last major race, the demanding Ruta Mexico, which took place early in the season. Increasingly discouraged by his lack of form, lack of motivation, troubled personal life and the spread of EPO and human growth hormone, Laurent Fignon dropped out of the Tour de France in 1993 and soon called it a career.
For the record, Laurent Fignon believed that there was a dramatic difference between doping in the 1980s and the spread of EPO in the 1990s. He agreed with the “cycling at two speeds” theory that Greg Lemond and others have propagated. While he was no choirboy himself, he felt that doping in the past could not make up for a lack of talent, a lack of training or a lack of motivation. Drug use was haphazard and inconsistent and perhaps often ineffective. However, once EPO spread through the peloton, riders of lesser talent who were more willing to take risks with their health were able to beat those who were more talented. Fignon cites the case of Bjarne Riis, who he felt was a solid rider with a “big engine,” but not talented enough to win the Tour de France without the EPO he has admitted taking. Like Lemond he feels the tremendous average speeds of the early 1990s peloton was evidence that something had fundamentally changed. Now, in online discussions, I have seen others attempt to refute this evidence. Others feel that the truth may be somewhere in the middle, that by the early 1990s, even though they were still relatively young, Lemond and Fignon were reaching the end of their careers and were hampered by serious injuries and a lack of motivation, while they attributed their decline to increased drug use. Fignon is honest enough to say that he may have been tempted to use EPO himself had he been much younger when it began to make its presence felt in the early 1990s.
Fignon clearly loved the sport of cycling and never left it. He feels that the trend Greg Lemond started towared specialization damaged the grand old sport. He didn’t like the modern way where riders race much less and train in private rather than racing themselves into condition. Fignon liked to see the same faces, the big riders all year long. He disagreed with the shorter stages and reduced distances of the classics and semi-classics, feeling that the longer, more arduous events bring out the class in riders. Fignon rejects the idea that the demanding races of old provided an excuse for doping, correctly pointing out that EPO use was becoming more rampant just as races were being scaled back. He also lambasts the French Cycling Federations re-organization and lack of support for local clubs that were once the backbone of French cycling.
Fignon became a cycling analyst for French television and was known for being outspoken and blunt. He is seldom less than honest in his book and despite the ugly way his relationship ended with Cyrille Guimard, he is fair enough to give the great manager his due. Fignon is fair and respectful to Bernard Hinault, whom he criticizes for his impetuosity. His critique of Lemond as too calculating is well known. To Fignon, Lemond was always marking his rivals, seldom going on the attack, and he also felt that Lemond changed the orientation of the sport, to make it more commercial. However, other than these men, Fignon does not go into much detail about most of the riders from his era or assess many of the riders from more recent times. His description of Lance Armstrong, when he was struggling with cancer and abandoned by almost everyone in cycling, is quite moving. The French rider really knew how fickle the French cycling world could be. Fignon was famously private and his personal life is no more than alluded to in this volume. We Were Young and Carefree is about his cycling life with a short epilogue about his experiences in promotion in retirement. It is a well-written, honest and thoughtful book and William Fortheringham, a veteran cycling writer, makes the translation smooth and seamless. It’s a great look back through the rear view mirror at 1980s cycling.
Rating: 5 Stars