The passing of the Professor, Laurent Fignon, left me thinking. As an American watching him race live, I found him haughty, distant and more than a little effete. To my naive eye, LeMond cut a much more heroic figure. Looking back now, and having educated myself a little, I have a much better appreciation for what Fignon really was, the last of his kind.
To be sure, we still have Merckx and Hinault to remind us of a time when a Tour de France champion also raced Paris-Nice, the Tour of Flanders, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the spring, as well as the Tour of Lombardy and Paris-Tours in the fall, a time when a top pro’s season spanned March to October, rather than just 19 days in July.
If Bartali and his use of the derailleur in 1939 marked the end of the pre-War era, that time when Desgranges was constantly screwing with the format of the race and keeping his riders on simple, heavy machines, then Fignon’s passing marks the eventual extinction of the all-rounder, the sort of champion who can win in the rough and ready spring, then dominate a grand tour in the summer, before giving the Worlds a good shot. After Fignon came LeMond, the first real grand tour specialist, a champion of a much narrower sort. From LeMond, the narrowing of focus only increased until the Bruyneel/Armstrong tandem turned the Tour de France into a year long project that saw the American win seven times in Paris.
My cyclo-ignorant friends ask me if Lance Armstrong is really the best rider ever, and I usually reply with a derisive snort. That’s not a knock on Armstrong’s palmares, but I take pains to explain to them that there is more than one race on the pro calendar, and that the greatest champions have raced all year and built a list of wins that far exceeds what Armstrong has done.
Fignon won the Tour twice, the Giro, Milan-San Remo twice, La Fleche Wallone, the Grand Prix des Nations. He finished third in the Vuelta. He was French national road race champion. And this is not to compare his palmares only to those who came after, it’s to underline the difference in attitude. Once upon a time the Tour de France was a goal, but it was not sufficient unto itself. When Greg LeMond was named Rider of the Year in 1989, Fignon was incensed. He’d lost the Tour by eight seconds, but he’d won more races than the American.
To be fair, early in his career, LeMond rode Paris-Roubaix with an eye on the win. His Tour specialization really commenced in earnest after his hunting accident. You could argue that LeMond’s early career was raced in the old, all-rounder mode, while his later career presaged Armstrong. Whether by diminished capacity or as a tacit rejection of the Guimard-Hinault school of racing, LeMond pared down his interest. Always keenly aware of commercial factors, perhaps he simply cottoned onto the fact that an American star was only ever going to really get rich by winning the Tour.
Fignon, on the other hand, came directly from the same mold as Hinault, his actual arch-rival. He never complained of lacking Hinault’s support when they were in the same team. He gave the Badger no quarter when they were opponents. He attacked to win. He won with panache. He may have been hard to like, as Hinault and Anquetil had been before him, but he was easy to respect.
And who has ridden so well since?