Laurent Fignon remembered

Friday, 31 August 2012

French rider Laurent Fignon died two years ago today.

The photo is from 1982. Fignon is in his first season as a pro and has already impressed. He won the Criterium International and played a big part in helping fellow Renault rider Bernard Hinault win the Giro d’Italia, all whilst finishing 15th overall too.

After this good start Fignon was sent home in July to rest whilst Hinault went on to win the Tour de France. With his bike on holiday Fignon kept training and towards the end of the season it was Hinault’s turn to rest. On the morning of Paris-Tours Fignon stood up and told the team he wanted to be the leader that day. His team laughed.

With the race under way – then using the route from Blois to Chaville – the race was split in crosswinds by the efforts of the Dutch team TI-Raleigh. As the leaders crested a small hill with 30km to go Fignon took off and built up a lead of 45 seconds:

15 kilometres from the line and I was going to get a tailwind, the win was almost guaranteed. Then, standing on the pedals to accelerate, I fell heavily to the ground, without even understanding what had just happened to me. A horrible shock. A broken bottom bracket axle. Race lost.

The quote comes from his autobiography, “We Were Young and Carefree” (reviewed on here) and the photo above shows the precise moment when Fignon is on the ground. Look closely and the severed left crank and pedal sit on the road.

It turns out the team had been using special titanium axles and had been warned they could fail. Mechanics had replaced all of them… except for Fignon’s. He’d been away on a holiday with his bike and so the mechanics hadn’t been able to attend to it.

  • The photo is from a French blog by Jean-Pierre Le Port who, aged 50, decided to ride the 1959 Tour de France route, from the year of his birth. He found the photo in an old copy of the Miroir du Cyclisme from October 1982 and scanned it for his blog. A while back I came across the photo and bookmarked it as Fignon was one of the first cyclists I recognised and the image itself is striking for the way it doesn’t capture success but records failure. At the same time this race proved to everyone he could win, a tale of possibility if you like. I like the way the fold of the page separates the crank from Fignon.
Kjetil August 31, 2012 at 10:02 am

Thanks for this entry. It’s very welcome these days of nonsense. The photo is magnificent.
I did not know that Campagnolo had warned about the frail nature of the BB axles before Fignon’s accident. The story has always made them look like they reacted afterwards.

Bundle August 31, 2012 at 10:20 am

Lovely entry, lovely photo. Tu nous manques, grande gueule.
It’s funny to think that if Laurent was a neo-pro nowadays, he would certainly lose most of his charisma: we wouldn’t see his trademark blond hair & round glasses look (hidden by the helmet and the Oakleys); we woulnd’t witness his trademark one-man ambushes that won him MSR and many other races; and he wouldn’t be able to show his extreme “gran fondo” capacities in the GTs, because there are many less kilometers now.
Sorry to sound so retro. But it’s the truth.

Sharkie August 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Amen.

Jim August 31, 2012 at 10:22 am

A true great of the sport

Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 10:28 am

Journalist; “Aren’t you the guy who lost the Tour by 8 seconds?”
Fignon; “No, I’m the guy who won it twice.”

Gone but never forgotten. Le Professeur – class.

Great post. Thanks.

936ADL August 31, 2012 at 10:30 am

Lovely, lovely piece.

One of the true giants of this great sport!

Ankush August 31, 2012 at 10:54 am

A true legend of the sport. It may sound cliched but my favorite cycling book is We Were Young and Carefree purely because of it’s informal and warm narrative. For some weird reason, whenever I see Hinault at ASO races, I’m reminded of Fignon. I just wish that he was still with us.

Stephen_M August 31, 2012 at 11:02 am

I’d never seen that image before – a great picture of a truly brilliant athlete.

Of all the sports autobiographies I’ve ever read, Fignon’s book stands out a mile – partly as a it’s a fabulous story, but the way in which he tells it is completelely captivating.

Alex August 31, 2012 at 11:06 am

We could be talking about Fignon as one of the greatest ever if he had a bit more luck avoiding injuries. What a rider and what a man.

ave August 31, 2012 at 11:21 am

I remember him fondly.
While everybody was happy that Lemond won in 89, I was the very opposite.

Simon Curtis August 31, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I read Fignon’s autobiography last year and it is a wonderful read. I was in France when he died, and every single newspaper had a picture of Le Professeur on the front.

casualpedlar August 31, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Found his biography remarkable for its frankness, a remarkable point of view of a cycling great sensing dark times for the sport.

Adrian Holman August 31, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I’m too young to remember his early years, but I’ll never forget his battles with Lemond in the ’89 Tour.

TimB August 31, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I just went looking for the bigringriding entry which I think described Fignons headband as “go harder stripes”, but they seem to have forgotten to pay their bills.

Julius Kusuma August 31, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Another Fignon – unfortunate bike accident story from Cyfac, who built many frames for Guimard’s riders:

On the Wednesday before one of his Milan-Sanremo victories, Fignon crashed his best bike, built by Cyfac. Guimard asked the factory to build another identical frame for Sunday’s race. Quillon obliged, and on the Saturday before the race the team mechanic picked up the frame, added its wheels, brakes and other parts on the way to the race, and on Sunday it was ridden by Fignon to victory.

ken hillier August 31, 2012 at 4:00 pm

still miss fignon
didnt winning magazine have a similar shot of laurent but from a little further forward that showed how far he was clear of the bunch ?loved his tempetuous nature

jyd August 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm

The man was true class on a bike. I used to have a poster from the 89 Tour that was him in yellow in a two up break with Charley Mottet. It must have been on Bastille Day as Fignon had Red, White and Blue handlebar tape and was riding that badass Gitane with full Campy Record and those Simplex retrofriction shifters with the giant blue gummy knobs on them. Oh and let’s not forget, of course, he was wearing a yellow headband to match the maillot janune. Legend!!

erock August 31, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Correction – Fignon was on a “Raleigh” made by Cyfac in the 1989 Tour! Maybe you are thinking a different year?

jyd August 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Oh dagger! You are right! It’s my revisionist history I suppose, they were on Gitane prior to that I think back in the Renault Elf days? I do remember from that poster that Mottet had a set of those early sculpted Mavic cranks and man did I covet them. I got a pair later, heaviest, creakiest cranks ever, but very sexy, wish I still had them. Thanks for the correction.

Julius Kusuma September 1, 2012 at 12:03 am

erock is right: Guimard had Cyfac build all his riders’ frames, painted “Gitane” and “Raleigh”. Here’s a good story from Peloton Mag:
http://www.pelotonmagazine-digital.com/pelotonmagazine/201213?pg=55#pg55

“Fignon had a bike for Roubaix and he loved it. He felt comfortable taking it Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but Quillon cautioned it wouldn’t work well in the winding Ardennes hills. The bike was built for a straight line, designed to be solid over cobbles. Quillon knew of a particularly tricky descent in Liège and told Fignon the bike wouldn’t handle sharp turns.

Fignon did what he wanted and took his Paris-Roubaix bike to the hills of Belgium. Sure enough, he was off the front in the race and missed a turn, as Quillon warned he might.”

Peddling Profe August 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Perfect way to start the day.

Thanks.

regsf August 31, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Laurent Fignon will always hold a special place for me. I was the mechanic in the Mavic car when he won the ’84 French national road championships and the ’84 Tour de France. I’m blessed to witness his best year ever on the road. RIP monsieur Laurent.

Simon E September 1, 2012 at 12:02 am

Thanks inrng. Gone but not forgotten.

Like others here, I read his book last year and found the frankness a breath of fresh air and his accounts of some of the races captivating. That incredible Tour of 1989 that ended in defeat to LeMond by such a small margin sadly obscured the magnitude of many of his victories. Although it is a great sporting moment and perhaps in some ways marked a watershed in the sport, his racing career should never be defined by that race.

Cycle Sport magazine printed a good tribute to him:
http://www.cyclesportmag.com/features/laurent-fignon-a-tribute-to-an-icon/
Whenever I read of him I revisit this 2010 photo of him in conversation with Hinault:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/georgiefrancis/4815605640/lightbox/

Steve September 1, 2012 at 1:25 am

Thanks Inring,

Growing up riding and racing in California in the 70-80’s it was exciting to have personalities like Fignon to aspire too, and emulate.

If there is a heaven, and I’m allowed in, and we are allowed to ride bikes.
I certainly would enjoy riding and chatting with him.

BTW, I would not need to ride with LA

Andy G September 5, 2012 at 3:18 am

Rest assured LA won’t be bothering you in that Heaven …

rjt September 1, 2012 at 1:35 am

My hero. What a legend! Thanks for the great piece.

Pirate Maboule September 1, 2012 at 2:24 am

Laurent Fignon was one of the first rider that caught my attention as a young man discovering cycling.
I liked his looks of part athlete, part intellectual with his round glasses.

I discovered him when he was part of the Système U team.

(I still have my Système U cycling cap!! I never wore it, it is slightly too big, and over the years my head didn’t get bigger… )

I was rooting for him in the infamous 1989 Tour de France.

Merci Laurent pour avoir contribué à mon amour du cyclisme!

Michael Bland September 1, 2012 at 6:14 am

Great story ..
RIP Laurent .

gadi September 1, 2012 at 8:24 am

just greart

grumpyoldman September 1, 2012 at 8:52 am

He was still sharing the commentary on the Tour on France 2 a couple of months before he died. He was obviously stricken, and speaking was an effort, but he carried on like a trooper, and his comments were always insightful.

Inspiring, and a brave man.

Ash September 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Pictures of Fignon that appear in articles are almost always of his Renault or System U days – but I liked the way he was able to still have grace, style and presence even in the awful Castorama kits. After the peak of his career he still always looked good – He made the green / black Chateau D’Ax kit look great too.

Marco in SoCal September 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Good mornin from Southern California. Lovely read indeed. Brings back a lot of fun memories of a young man discovering, falling in love with our beautiful sport, lifestyle in the early 80’s. Back then the open roads and mountains were truly your backyard play-ground and I remember my friend and I would spend hours riding our machines calling each other “Laurent Fignon” simply cause it sounded so cool and you couldn’t say it without smiling. Time for a spin and a smile or two :)

Robert Borchert September 2, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Merveilleux! I remember fondly the late 80s and Laurent’s accomplishments, such wonderful days, when cycling wasn’t “trendy”. Back in ’85, it was a real search to find a proper gearhead shop.

I miss Fignon. Riding with friends years ago, they would call me “professeur”, as I wore similar eyeglasses when cycling back then, and sported the same headbands and thinning blond hair. I picked a favorite photo of Fignon leading le Tour in 1989 as my avatar. My daughters wondered who had taken the photo of Daddy while riding. Showing them the full size shot, they were amazed to see that it was in actuality “le professeur”.

Andy G September 5, 2012 at 3:25 am

Have recently loved the book for all the stated reasons, it was just so .. human. However, can anybody shed further light on the exact ‘pedal strike’ incident that seems to have begun his (literally) Achille’s heel injury ?? It was only described so nonchalantly … I truly revered the images of the wasp kit and headbands on Hinault and Fignon as a young schoolboy racer – boy, did I ever want one !!

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