Saturday, July 17, 2021

We Were Young and Carefree


Laurent Fignon, the bespectacled, pony-tailed French champion, nicknamed “The Professor,” whose palmeres include two Tours (1983,1984), a Giro (1989), and a couple of classics, is probably best known now to a generation of cycling fans as the guy who lost the 1989 Tour de France by 8 seconds to Greg Lemond on the final day’s time trial.

I remember watching this on tv. Even to my 13-year-old eyes, it was obvious this was more than just a race; it was a clash of styles and cultures. Fignon, representing an old-school European approach vs. the American Lemond, using the latest technology (aerodynamic helmet and tri-bars), and a new strategy. Fignon had a significant lead of 50 seconds going into the time trial but Lemond gained 58 seconds that day and the rest is history, as they say. Fignon’s third Tour victory vanished and he became known forever as the guy who blew it, more so than the man who won two. 

Fignon’s 2009 autobiography We Were Young and Carefree (translated by William Fotheringham) is a surprisingly good read--I say “surprisingly” because most athlete memoirs are dreadful. In the realm of autobiography, there’s nothing more boring than a guarded athlete’s sanitized account of all the super-nice people he or she encountered en route to stardom. Autobiography needs conflict, tension, obstacles, attitude--something to provide some dramatic tension. In Fignon’s case, the thoroughly engaging tension in the book comes from the fact that he was kind of a dick--though I mean that in the best possible way.

Long before this book, Fignon had the reputation of being an aloof (his nickname gives us professors a bad name), arrogant ass, not exactly beloved by his fellow riders or members of the press. In 1989, after all that happened, journalists awarded him the unofficial title of “least pleasant rider.” Ouch. But in the book, Fignon’s sometimes-breathtaking arrogance is refreshing and thoroughly entertaining.    

The structure of the book is clever in that Fignon deals with the ‘89 Tour finish up front, in the first chapter, getting that infamous episode out of the way before launching into the more conventional chronological account of his life. Fignon’s explanation of what happened on that fateful day in July is a fascinating combination of excuse making (he was injured, his director sportif should have allowed him to take advantage of earlier opportunities to expand his lead, the referees failed to enforce the rules when it came to Lemond’s bike) and a stubborn defense of an old-school mindset (he may have lost but he did so racing honorably, aggressively, remaining true to himself while Lemond employed the tactics of a New-World techno-cheating weasel).

With that episode taken care of, Fignon can get down to his real task which is fine-tuning a fascinating myth about himself as a bike-racing savant and outsider, a natural talent and free spirit who refused to conform, always insisting on doing things his own way, an old-school racer who savours the attack, eschews modern technology (I loved the story of him ripping off his heart monitor and tossing it in the ditch), and refuses to play it safe. (One of Fignon’s more annoying habits is to repeatedly describe his experience of winning bike races as “easy.” His victories were always “effortless”; when he lost, however, it was usually the result of being “cheated” or “swindled.”) Like all delusionals and self-proclaimed outsiders, Fignon insists that he’s been misunderstood by the press and most of his fellow riders, that none of them ever bothered to get to know the “private Fignon.”

So does the book reveal the “private Fignon”? Yes and no. He’s wonderfully frank about a lot of things like, for instance, drug use in the 1980s, his own and others. Drugs, says Fignon, were relatively primitive in the 1980s, mostly amphetamines, and accepted as part of the world of racing, “not viewed as cheating” by anyone. (Fignon failed two drug tests but admits to only one violation, for taking a “spot of amphetamines” before a race). He insists that he knew little of steroids and blood doping; testosterone and EPO came later, as his career was winding down. 

Also he’s not shy about offering his assessments of other figures in the cycling world. Not surprisingly, there’s a very small list of people Fignon likes (Pascal Jules, Sean Kelly, Alain Gallopin), a larger list of people he can’t respect, headed, of course, by Greg Lemond (a boring and dishonorable wheelsucker, “one of the world’s great followers”) and Francesco Moser (whom, Fignon claims, robbed him of the ‘84 Giro, in a complex crazy-sounding conspiracy involving Giro organizers and helicopters), and a couple more whose relationship with Fignon can only be described as “complicated,” including compatriot and teammate Bernard Hinault and, most especially, Cyrille Guimard, the long-time director of the Renault team who went from mentor to business partner and eventually nemesis. 

Fignon’s accounts of what went wrong with these last two are perfect examples of what makes this book so fascinating. The arrogance of Fignon laughing at Hinault’s weakness in 1984 and condemning Guimard’s cautious race strategy (he had “the best cyclist in the world” at his disposal and played it safe, Fignon says) are astonishing, yet his inability to be embarrassed by and even embrace his younger arrogance and aloofness 25 years later are even more so.

But despite all this truth-telling, Fignon remains highly selective in what he shares, keeping certain parts of his life a mystery. For instance, Fignon makes little mention of his marriage and family life in the first half of the book; when on page 230 he refers to how in the early 1990s his fame put strains on his relationship with his wife Nathalie, it’s the first time he’s mentioned her!

What emerges overall, though, is an engaging portrait of a different era of bicycle racing, which Fignon clearly misses, looking back through many scandals between his retirement and the writing of the book. Some of my favorite old-school stories include an hilarious account of Hinault getting the Renault team completely hammered on red wine one night in the middle of the Tour de L’Armor (and then leading his team to victory the next day); or the time the cold-hating Fignon was given extra spicy embrocation by his trainer, Gallopin, to get the racer through a particularly foul-weather stage; or a harrowing tapeworm incident that includes one of the more demeaning tasks a domestique has ever been asked to perform.

The time gap between the end of Fignon’s career and the publication of this memoir is worth noting. Fignon retired in 1993 but this book came out in 2009, right around the time he announced his cancer diagnosis, and only a year before his death. I don’t know if he knew he was sick when he started the project but there’s definitely a strong streak of nostalgia in the book; enough time has passed that Fignon can be philosophical about his earlier behavior. He occasionally shows an awareness of how he must have sounded full of himself, an impossible ass, without ever really expressing any regret for the things he said and did. There’s something very French about that combination and something very Fignon about the blend of stubborn self-delusion, self-awareness, and wistfulness in the mythmaking in this venture.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read, Jasper. I like your description of Fignon as "a dick--but in the best possible way." :)


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