The death of the racing cyclist Laurent Fignon, from cancer, at 50, wasn’t unexpected, but it is a sad day nonetheless. Cycling fans, at least those of a certain age, can remember where they were when they watched him lose the 1989 Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day to the American Greg Lemond. (I saw it in a hotel lounge in St Jean de Luz, waiting for a taxi; a friend who was lucky – or unlucky – enough to be yards from the finish on the Champs Elysee says he saw Fignon’s face change as the cyclist realised he was about to lose).
In his own account of that Tour, Fignon puts its this way:
“Ah, I remember you: you’re the guy who lost the Tour de France by eight seconds!”
“No, monsieur, I’m the guy who won the Tour twice.”
And a Giro d’Italia and – twice in succession – one of the hardest of the one-day Classics, Milan-San Remo.
My own memory of that Tour is not of the final stage, but of Stage 18, four days before, in the Alps. Lemond did no work that Tour, following Fignon’s wheel and relying on his better time-trialling to give him the advantage. The previous day, on the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Fignon had shaken Lemond off and regained the yellow jersey. But he reckoned that his lead wasn’t enough to withstand Lemond’s likely gains on the final stage’s time trial. So on the road to Villard de Lans he took off again, riding away from the front of an elite group which included the strongest riders in that year’s Tour. It was one of the most exhilarating attacks I have seen.
It should have been enough. Fignon later blamed his defeat on crippling saddle sores. But it’s also said that had he copied Lemond and worn an aerodynamic helmet for the time trial, or even just cut off his ponytail before the start, he’d have gained the few seconds he needed to win the race. But you know that had you suggested either, he’d have ignored you.
We don’t choose our sporting heroes because they win. As Jorge Valdano memorably observed, we prefer Arrigo Sacchi’s Inter Milan to the more successful team assembled by Capello. We can admire Mourinho’s teams, but it’s hard to enjoy watching them play. It takes something more. One of the tributes to Fignon said that he combined audacity with the talent to back it up. Fignon himself wrote in his autobiography, “Isn’t it better to gamble on victory than settle for comfortable defeat?” Audacity and talent: as mere fans, it is the stuff we dream on.