Laurent Fignon (phonetically - Lore-own Fee-yown) was a two-time Tour de France winner, a Giro d'Italia winner, and two-time winner at Milan-San Remo, among many other wins and podiums. He is, of course, most known for losing the 1989 TdF to Greg LeMond on the last day of the race, in a time trail, by the closest margin ever in the 100+ year history of the Tour. He is in the news today for his death at age 50.
Delving into my personal history, as I am wont to do from time to time, Laurent Fignon played a part in my relationship with cycling. I was married in 1989 just as the summer started. My brand-new wife and I went on a decidedly low-budget honeymoon in Canada after getting married in Seattle. We concluded our trip in Spokane at our first apartment together. I was a student and my wife had just earned her professional certification but had not yet secured a job in her field. As such, we were young, poor, in love and happy.
My wife knew of my interest in cycling as I was riding a lot in the summers and certainly had a subscription to VeloNews that I devoured each two weeks. At the time, cycling was a very low profile interest in most of the country, although Greg LeMond had won the Tour in 1986. There was, however, very little, if any, mainstream coverage of cycling and, pre-internet, it was hard to get current news of cycling races. Which is why I was very happy that CBS Wide World of Sports had decided, in light of LeMond's return to cycling after his hunting accident, to broadcast a total of 5 hours of TdF coverage. They had an hour segment on the Sunday of the first weekend, followed by an hour each Sunday for the next two weeks of the race and TWO ENTIRE hours devoted to the last day. Keep in mind, however, that an "hour" of race coverage in those days was at least as bad if not worse than watching an hour of Versus coverage. In other words, the various dramatic introductions to pre-recorded fluff pieces, endless commercials and commentary directed not just at new viewers, but apparently new viewers with less than grade school educations, and they left very little time for actually showing race footage. I guess the idea was that an audience used to a football play of 10-30 seconds duration wouldn't be interested for more than 2-3 minutes of people riding bikes and only then with blathering at full speed. Nonetheless, I was thrilled. I was so happy to SEE any of the Tour de France (keep in mind that this was before VHS tapes were commercially available) and to actually know what was happening week by week and to find out who won on the very day it happened(!), I was really happy.
And, as it happened, the last day of the race also was my birthday. And, being, as you will recall, young, poor, in love and happy, my wife asked me what I wanted to do on my birthday. The answer was that I wanted to get our hand-me-down television out of the back-room, set it up in the living room somewhere the antenna would pick up the broadcast (kids, ask your parents what this means and no, it was not effin wi-fi), and watch the Tour coverage. I recall that a lovely lunch and micro-brew beer were also part of this festival of joy.
So, there was much discussion of the Tour that day and the improbability if not the impossibility of LeMond making up 50 seconds in 24.5 kilometers (a touch over 15 miles). Really, at the professional level between two athletes this closely matched and both decent time trailers, it should have been impossible. Which is what made it so incredibly fascinating and wonderful to watch.
As a result, not only did Fignon become much more famous for losing the TdF than for winning it twice, LeMond became the original come-back from near-death American cyclist (no wonder he is bitter), but most importantly to me, my wife had her first exposure to the wonderful world of cycling. It was the perfect introduction with the spectacle, the impossible story, and the birthday celebration in our living room, all while we were young, poor, in love and happy. What more could want as a way to explain to my wife why I was so obsessed with cycling and cycling racing?
Laurent Fignon was a typical prickly Frenchman; a rider with a lot of panache and style, and his most famous and tragic day of cycling played a role in my own cycling life. Rest in peace.