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.

Fignon dumps LeMond 500m from the finish at Superbagneres in 1989.

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?

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  1. Jon

    Tremendous. As a 15 year old American watching the 1989 Tour I was rooting for LeMond but couldn’t help but think that Fignon was the coolest rider in the peloton. He was everything it meant to be a Euro pro. Check out an old post in the archives at BKW entitled the PROfessor. It’s a great little story on Fignon. He was a great champion and he will be missed.

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  3. Enrico Gimondi

    Fignon was the champion of the first Tour I followed stage-by-stage. I was riding my bicycle around Ireland in the summer of 1984, and since the Irish fully believed Sean Kelly would come home in yellow after his dominant spring, the papers covered the Tour generously.

    I had read about Fignon’s ’83 victory in Winning the previous fall, and that venerable publication never missed a chance to mitigate it as some kind of fluke. They believed the ’84 Tour would be a battle between LeMond and Hinault.

    Surprise, surprise: Fignon kicked everybody’s ass that year, slapping down Hinault with ease. At one point, just after Hinault bridged to Fignon’s leading group in the valley before Alpe d’ Huez, he attacked–spectacularly, vaingloriously, and as Fignon delighted in telling the press afterwards–pathetically. “Hinault’s attack really made me laugh,” he said. (Samuel Abt wrote something to the effect that for Fignon, “If you can’t kick a man when he’s down, when can you kick him?”)

    This may sound small-minded on my part, but as someone who came to see the Badger as a humorless and self-important blowhard, I can’t say how much I’ve appreciated that moment of irreverence over the years. Adieu, Laurent. At your best, you were untouchable.

  4. Matt

    Fignon helped make the 80s peleton interesting that’s for sure. I don’t agree with your comments about Lemond however. Albiet that Lemond can occasionally be a bit of a twat (as we all are occasionally) he was a cleaner rider than Fignon and pretty versatile at one dayers for a ‘grand tour specialist’ did you have a look at his one dayer palmares before writing this? Cheers.

  5. adam

    I like to think that Evans is a throwback rider who races to win at every race. I also remember watching Cunego win the Giro years ago and thinking he was the real deal – he was taking day long breakaways while in pink just because he could and then won Lombardi later that year and always performs well for Italy in the Worlds.
    I know he’s not lining up for Roubaix and Flanders and has packed it in for the season but I also think if Contador follows up his Fleche participation this year in 2011 as well as killing P-N and every small Spanish stage race on the Calendar then a tough Worlds course comes up he could also do the year long domination thing.

  6. Souleur

    Great expose’ and insightful article Robot.

    Fignon was a giant of cycling, and I remember the day I heard he had cancer, my gut sank as I just knew what was coming. His prognonis was grim yet he continued on inspirationally and w/great purpose despite it.

    I tend to agree that Fignon does represent a by-gone time where men, hardmen rode all year. They rode steel, tubular mavics laced up only one way, the components only campy, geometries were literally all classic. They didn’t need helmets although Fignon can be seen wearing the first generation duds, but whatever it was, Fignon was as Jon mentioned, Fignon was Euro PRO.

    The generation of men like Fignon, a generation behind the likes of Eddy and others, had to ride all year, and Fignon et al were passed the honors and traditions of the peloton for which they rode respectfully. As you well mention they had to ride the pave’, the primavera, the Giro and used these races to come to form. It was a right of passage for them, and honorably continued.

    Whereas you mention well perhaps Fignon represents a by-gone time, I stubbornly will hold on to a thin thread of hope that maybe one in the likeness of Sparticus or similarly one will rise from the Belgian countryside in Eddy’s backyard and break the cycle we have found ourselves myopically in: simply infatuated with a win in July in Paris which only neglects the richness of older races like L-B-L and the Queen herself. If that happens, perhaps…just perhaps our giants won’t be passed on behind us.

  7. toddk

    Hear, hear, Souleur!

    While I fully miss those days of Fignon and Hinault and years prior going back to the golden age of cycling… I also understand the pragmatic realities that compelled pro riders to become specialists. Particularly so with American racers who are confronted with the realities that most of their fellow countrymen incorrectly assume that the Tour is the only race on the calendar.

    Where my dissappointment really lies, though, is that specialization has taken to a miopic extreme by some. For those folks specialization no longer seems to mean “Time Trialist”, “Classics”, “Grand Tour”, etc, but has increasingly come to mean “Tour De France”, “The Races that are used to build up to the Tour De France” and “Them other races”.

  8. Armchair Cyclist

    “adam says:
    September 9, 2010 at 5:03 am
    I like to think that Evans is a throwback rider who races to win at every race.”


  9. fausto

    Fignon represented not just France but Paris and the white colar in the same way that Hinault represented Brittany and the country blue colar. For those of us who were hardcore Francophile roadies it was an amazing time. I hated Lemond for breaking up the romance of the Euro way and how he was changing the sport, Americanizing it. The idea of GL, BH and LF showing up in July all in shape… what a war the TDF would be. Especially with no press coverage, no hype, just watching the grainy Sunday coverage and studying the pictures months later when they finally were published in a hand me down French magazine. Loved it.
    Cheers to Fignon, a man who missed winning both the TDF and Giro by the skin of his Assos skinsuits. Lemond always talks about how he could have won 5 tours if… look at Fignon palmares with a couple of ifs added in. Rip

  10. rideold

    Fignon was my introduction to pro racing. Having grown up in the countryside my bike was my freedom and that grew into a love of riding that still thrives today some decades later. Fignon was and always will be my favorite. It isn’t about what he won or how much he won but simply about HOW he rode and won. He was a rider that I watched with the same enthusiasm regardless of if he was winning or loosing.

  11. sophrosune

    Nice piece once again, Robot. I wonder if the UCI can’t institute something along the lines of the ATP Tour: You need to race in a certain amount of races during the year to maintain your pro license. For the ATP this ensured that tournaments outside of the Grand Slams would be populated by the top players. I understand that cycling is a different thing, with different demands on the athlete, but maybe it could be modified to adapt to something like that. As you know, I am a big fan of Contador and he raced in a lot of one-week stage races earlier in the year, but it would also be nice to see him in something outside his comfort zone. And you know, he didn’t do too bad in Fleche Wallone. So, if there was something like you have to do at least two one-day classics, two one-week stage races and one three-week grand tour, maybe that could bring back the all-rounder.

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