When people talk about racing in the 80s, they remember Hinault, Lemond, Herrera, Millar, Bauer, Roll, Maassen, Van Hooydonck, Mottet, Lubberdink, Moser, Saronni, Madiot, Delgado, Anderson… In my mind, the embodiment of that era was Laurent Fignon. Can’t exactly pinpoint the reason for the admiration. I was a young, short teenager back then, and the bug of cycling had already bit me hard. I was hooked, I was riding, I was embrocating (óleo elétrico) way back when. Fascinated, I followed the pictures in Miroir du Cyclisme, to which the local bike shop owner subscribed and passed around to young, wide-eyed fans. Like me. And I loved it. Portuguese and French are not that far apart, and I could get the gist of the impossible feats of endurance, cunning, and strength that perplexed all of us: “No way! They ride over 5 hills up to 20 kilometers over the course of 250 kilometers?” To me, it all seemed very heroic, hard, and beautiful. And Fignon fit that category splendidly. It was a non-chalant, so-what sort of attitude that mesmerized me. We got video cassette taped delays of spring Vueltas (yes, it was initially held in the spring), classics, and the Giro. Oh, man! Was that ever a treat for us. And Fignon and his contemporary opponents duked it out in very human, bloodshot eyed, steely-willed and steel bikes fashion. Like a hopeless junkie, I just couldn’t quit. Our buddies and teammates obviously had nicknames, so the blond, bespectacled, thick legged one was branded “Fignon”. I was Gert-Jan, less due to my climbing prowess, and more because within less than a year I grew over 14 centimeters, rendering my complexion a dangly, gangly, position on my super cool 58cm Vitus 979 I rode at the time. Oh yeah. But I digress.
Fignon won the 1989 Milano-San Remo solo, in a way that’d make Cancellara rethink his Spartacus status. He attacked Lemond hard, dropped full pelotons at will, whipped his competitors around with a detached debonair that borderlined arrogance. In retrospect, it seemed that way, but under the lens of an older, wiser gentleman I noticed, and later learned, that he used it as protection. Fignon was remarkably self-aware, had zero patience for over exposure, sycophants and sound bite hungry journalists. So he secluded himself at race starts, understanding that posturing, interviewing and pleasing the media was not only pointless, but sapped his race energy. Some say he was too French, “le professeur est arrogant”, or some such tripe. To me, he was just too human. Complex, a bit unpredictable, but fraught and subjected to human quirks, setbacks, and a flaky lady luck.
In his later years, his lady luck wasn’t smiling. Injuries, poor form, getting sick at the wrong time (remember his 1 meter tapeworm during 1988’s Tour?) got the best of him. Still, I admired his style, his demeanor, his position. I totally got it. And I totally wanted a 14 centimeter stem on my road bike—which took me a while to find. He raced till 1993, and just as quickly as he could drop his rivals on a climb, he entered the civilian part of his life. Gourmand, golfer, race owner (he breathed oxygen into the shriveled, moribund lungs of Paris-Nice), he lived, and lived, and enjoyed himself. Even during retirement, he was passionate and unbridled as a man. As a commentator for French TV back in 2001, he was the first to call Lance’s bluff during 2001’s Tour on the Alpe d’Huez stage. He read it himself out loud, just as easily and seemingly obnoxious as his guffaw when Hinault attacked him back in ‘84. “He made me laugh”, he said. He eventually went to handily win that year’s Tour.
Less than 2 years ago he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Since he retired he enjoyed his living, and among many indulgences he was a cigarette smoker. Dismissing his performance-enhancing days, “If any rider who doped got cancer, half of the ex-pros would be dead now”, or something of the like, he fought on, his spirit never “afraid to die”. Could well be, but this is not the point. The point is he left a legacy of courage, passion, class and beauty. You will be missed, my brother. But the cycling world is a lot richer because of you. On te manque, professeur, mais on se verra tôt.
*Originally posted 9/7/2010
**Image courtesy of Massimo Nicolodi