Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Adieu Laurent Fignon. 1960-2010.

Sad day today.

The passing this morning of Laurent Fignon after a very courageous battle against cancer hit home.   He was only 50, a milestone I'll reach myself within a few weeks.  Way, WAY too flippin young.   A forced reflection on the capricious nature of life, luck and health.

Fignon's life should be deemed full, but not complete.  He accomplished a lot in his short 50 years.  In addition to his well documented victories, he saved and then ran Paris-Nice for a few years, opened the Centre Laurent Fignon in the Pyrenees (a highly recommended lodging place for cyclosportifs), and provided insightful TV commentary during the Tour de France.  And like Jacques Anquetil before him, he campaigned one final Tour, while fighting a maladie that would take him a few weeks later.  He was, according to those who knew him better, a private family man. A loving husband and father.

I'm really bothered by Fignon's passing, this champion from my own age cohort.  It just doesn't seem possible. I remember perspectives from American US Creteil stagaries about confronting the amateur Fignon, way back in  summer1981 races around Paris.  Little things, like how he'd drop the others during warmups before circuit races.  His penchant for climbing in monstrous gears, out of the saddle.  His power.   His pedigree.  His Parisian mannerisms.

Ah yes, the Parisian.  Fignon was often portrayed by the press as a testy, slightly dismissive anti-hero.  A rare intellectual in a peloton of paysans.  Greg LeMond's nemesis, and opposite.  A hard to know guy, one prickly with press and public.   A Frenchman screwed out of a certain Giro win by the rule-bending Moser-Torriani mafia, while the tifosi snickered.

That popular characterization was lazy.  A way-too-easy play on a classic Gallic stereotype.  And one I never really bought into.

As I sit here trying to concentrate on work, just back from my 6-7am interval training session, and waiting for the exterminator to rid my house of termites, I find myself looking at the yellow Livestrong bracelet I've been wearing out of solidarity with Fignon (joining Soutien du champion Laurent Fignon dans sa lutte contre la maladie on facebook.).  My mind wanders, distracted by anecdotes and memories.

It doesn't seem either possible or 'just' that I got to feel so alive this morning -- flying along, oxygen flowing, feeding power into legs propelling me along at 25 mph on a velo that so effectively demonstrates what it means to be 'alive' -  knowing that at just about the same moment, over in France poor Laurent was fighting out his last, lone finale.   The stark contrast bothers me.

I recall a Miroir du Cyclisme article about neo-pros Fignon and best friend Pascal Jules back in '83 or so.   They were both riding turn-of-the-century bikes in Paris for the photo shoot, laughing at their ancient retro kit, not a care in the world.  Were we 'jeune and insouciant?'  Bien sur!   I can remember reading that article in my mom's kitchen, longing for battles in distant northern France, thinking how lucky they both were.

Lucky?  Who knew that carefree Parisian tough guy Pascal Jules would be killed in a car crash a few years later.  And now this.

I remember a flying young Renault missile, off the front in Blois-Chaville, suddenly breaking his crank and spectacularly crashing while alone in the lead.  And that same young Cyrille Guimard protege slaving like a beast a few months later to defend his team leader Bernard Hinault's 1983 Vuelta d'Espana victory.  And for an encore?   Filling in for his wounded captain to take a wide open Tour de France.

Today, we all need to forget those 8 seconds in Paris.  And remember instead, that brilliant '83 Tour.  It was a classic.

I was racing at Super Week in Milwaukee, but avidly following the daily results in USA Today in those pre-internet days.  I remember a friend who was at that year's Tour later analyzing it quite simply:  "Fignon won because he didn't have a bad day.  Arroyo, Delgado, Bernadeau, Anderson, Kelly, Winnen and Van Impe?  They all had at least one bad day."  

That climb in best young rider white and 80's-defining terry headband climbing in blazing heat on Alpe d'Huez, keeping Winnen and Bernadeau under wraps, and matching Van Impe and  Jimenez pedal stroke for pedal stroke. Taking a Maillot Jaune, confirming it in classic style during the Morzine hillclimb, and again in the final TT days later.  It was a coronation.

And how can we forget the confirmation, his imperial Alpine romp in the '84 Tour?   The journalists all compared him to Merckx.  It was the height of Renault domination.  He was the first guy to defeat Bernard Hinault in a major Tour.

There'll be no old sepia-tone memory of this departed champion...my lasting memory will be in vivid color.  Of a rider on a flying royal blue Gitane, offset against a yellow jersey and handlebar tape, all against a verdant Alpine backdrop.  The quintessential young champion, the sun king.  Alone, and imperial.

Today, we need to remember Fignon like this.

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