Twenty-one years ago this month, Laurent Fignon - a man whose career had already included back-to-back victories in the Tour de France - made a mark on the race's history when he became the rider who lost the Tour by the smallest ever margin. But, as his autobiography demonstrates, there was always more to le prof than that one defeat.
Title: We Were Young And Carefree: The Autobiography Of Laurent Fignon
Author: Laurent Fignon (trans William Fotheringham)
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Year: 2009 (trans 2010)
What is it?: Laurent Fignon's autobiography - Nous Étions Jeunes Et Insouciants - translated into English by William Fotheringham.
Strengths: Beautifully written in an intimate, almost conversational tone, the book's a delight to read.
Weaknesses: A few piccies would have been nice.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)
I was myself and nothing else, neither a fantasy, nor a transposition of something else. I was just a man who did what he could to beat a path towards dignity and emancipation. I did my best to be a human being.
Going into the 1989 Tour de France, Laurent Fignon was the man in form. He'd started the season the same way he'd started the previous year, with a win in Milan-San Remo. He won the Giro d'Italia and went into the Tour tipped to join Fausto Coppi et al as a man who did the Giro/Tour double and with the chance to join the likes of Louison Bobet as a three-time winner of the Tour. After seeing their race won by an American, an Irishman and a Spaniard, the French were eager to bring their Tour back home. They were already inking his name into the history books before the race had even started.
They picked the wrong page.
Inevitably, 1989 casts a long shadow over We Were Young And Carefree. And twenty-one years on, the pain of those eight seconds is still there: "you never stop grieving over an event like that; the best you can manage is to contain the effect it has on your mind."
Fignon's was a golden age, "the last days when cycling was a dignified matter." Not better, he says, just different. As all eras are. It was cycling's Swinging Sixties. He and his peers were rebels. Young and carefree. The words Fignon comes back to most often probably define his era. Respect. Tradition. Character. And they probably also define the self-portrait Fignon paints for us. But what followed, he tells us - echoing Robert Redeker and other French commentators of the Armstrong era - was the reign of robots.
Some, no doubt, will disagree with his thoughts on the era of the robots, especially with when he thinks that era began - that one Sunday in July, 1989. That one Sunday when eight seconds became an eternity. That one Sunday when the "people's heroes struggled and the glory of the Giants of the Road trickled away." And the man who lead the charge into this new era? Greg LeMond.
That Fignon doesn't like LeMond isn't much of a surprise. As a rider, LeMond wasn't always easy to like. And he trod on Fignon's dreams. He admits to having had a distinct dislike of LeMond which only grew after the 1989 Tour. He refers to him as the American. Calls him a follower. A wheel-sucker. Criticises him for building his latter seasons around the Tour and the World Championships and forsaking the other races which make up the cycling season. And of the infamous tri-bars which helped win that Tour he says that LeMond bent the rules. But his real ire on that issue is saved for the UCI blazers who let the rules be bent. And then, after the Tour was over and Fignon turned up at the GP Eddy Merckx with his own set of tri-bars, declared them illegal and refused to let him start.
But Fignon doesn't blame just LeMond and the blazers for his loss in 1989. He also blames himself. For not attacking sooner on l'Alpe d'Huez, where he put a minute and nineteen seconds into the American in less than five kilometres. For not attacking on the stage to Aix-les-Bain, when he felt like he had winged ankles but didn't listen when his directeur sportif , the legendary Cyrille Guimard, told him to go for it. But mostly he blames those damned tri-bars. And the American who used them.
1989, while at the centre of Fignon's story, is but a part of the greater story told. He takes us through his career, the friendships and the rivalries, the ups and the downs, the wins and the losses. Written in an intimate, almost conversational style, Fignon's way of telling his story sucks you in, makes you feel you're being confided in. The insouciant charm with which he tells his tale makes the book a delight to read.
But that charm can be quite beguiling. It makes you forget about the things he is not telling you. For all the intimacy and the apparent openness, this is the story of Laurent Fignon the cyclist. The other Laurent Fignon, the real Laurent Fignon, is still hiding from view. Protecting himself from our intrusive gaze. Throughout the book, you learn very little about that other Laurent Fignon. His parents disappear from the story before his first pro contract. Ditto his brother. There's a wife, a baby, a divorce and another wife but of each he tells very little. His break-up with his first wife passes in a sentence. He takes pages to tell of his break-up with Guimard. As he points out: "I may have been made to be a champion cyclist - I have no doubt of that - but I was absolutely not made to be a public figure."
Perhaps where the intimacy can be most beguiling is when he comes to discussing doping. Many have praised the book for the openness and honesty with which he tackles the subject. I won't. He is remarkably coy about the doping regime that operated when he was at the height of his success. Of the drug which dominated his era - cortisone, which was undetectable - pretty much all he tells us is this: "We didn't feel like we were cheating: each of us settled matters with his own conscience. And in any case, everyone did it." His attitude to the doping of his era is perhaps best summed up thusly: "I would never have dreamed of taking a drug that might be detected on the day of a race." Which pretty much sums up the attitude of too many cyclists to drugs: it's not doping if you can get away with it.
When others praise him for his comments on doping, they are praising him for his criticism of the EPO era, which began in the twilight years of his career. Why the difference in attitude to the doping of his generation and the doping of the generation which followed him? "Here's the truth in two sentences. In my day, doping methods were derisory and the riders' exploits were massive. For the last fifteen years or so, it has been the other way around: there is a huge number of ways in which riders can dope and any exploits are derisory."
Fignon was - is - a complex character. Not unlike Robert Millar, in some ways. Not always likable. Not always selling himself to us. He is very much aware of this: "I know I'm not an easy person to deal with. To hammer home that particular point, a tactless selection committee awarded me the ‘lemon prize' for being the least pleasant rider in the 1989 Tour. Well, at least I won something." He doesn't ask us to like him. And, in a way, this is one of the most likable things about him.
He is a man who believed in letting his cycling talk for him. And there's a lot of cycling to be talked about. Which he does with gusto. There's his time with Renault, riding alongside Bernard Hinault. There's his time competing with Hinault, after the Badger switched to La Vie Claire. There's his years working hand-in-glove with Guimard, perhaps one of the best DSs of his era. And there's a lot of races to be talked about. The book's got cols. It's got cobbles. Hell, it's even got echelons. And these on-the-bike moments really make the book, Particularly his telling of how he claimed the first of his two Milan-San Remo titles.
Perhaps though the most poignant on-the-bike moment comes at the tail end of Fignon's career. The 1993 Tour. The road to Isola 2000: "we climbed up the Col d'Izoard and then the Col de la Bonette, the highest pass in the tour. I can remember it very clearly. I rode up the whole climb in last place. Because I wanted to. I put my hands on top of the bars and savoured it all to the full. I was breathing deeply as I lived through my last seconds in bike racing, which I had thought would never end for me. This col was all mine and I didn't want anyone to intrude."
And so the sun set on his career. That would be a good place to end the story. C'est tout. Finis. But in the dawn of his new life Fignon saw for the first time that cycling's bubble-world was "like a prison, albeit a golden one. There was a sense in which you were locked into that bubble. That isolation is one of cycling's great problems." Overall, for him, the good of a life in cycling outweighed the bad. But the bad of that life cannot be denied.
Post-cycling, Fignon ended up owning Paris-Nice and getting into a war with ASO. It was a David Vs Goliath struggle. Goliath won. Isn't losing the Tour by eight seconds enough to convince you already that there are no fairy tales in this story? The book ends with the hardest chapter unwritten. Fignon's cancer was diagnosed after he'd delivered the manuscript to his publishers. How that chapter is going to end we must wait to find out. Hopefully we will be waiting a long time yet.