Despair From the Jaws of Victory

No one likes losing, but when you're seconds away from being a triple Tour de France champion and it's plucked from your grasp - that's really got to sting.
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No one likes losing, but when you're seconds away from being a triple Tour de France champion and it's plucked from your grasp - that's really got to sting.

‘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.’

The Tour de France is a landmark in twentieth-century history, a microcosm that creates and displays characters as over the top as the event itself. Whether you win or lose, you cannot escape that. As the winner in 1983 and 1984 I’d already drunk that cup to the full. I knew how delicious every drop tasted. And I knew the price to pay if you missed out . . .

As far as I was concerned, there was plenty at stake in the 1989 Tour. A month earlier I’d won the Giro d’Italia. Not only had I gone back to being the racer I wanted to be, but at last I could see a chance to achieve the Giro–Tour double; a major achievement that had been snatched from me in 1984. And even though I didn’t need to win the Tour to know who I was and what I was capable of, winning it again would earn me a place in the very small group of triple winners.

Before the Tour’s grand départ in Luxembourg, we all went through a fine training camp in the Pyrenees. I felt my form was great, and the rest of the team could see it. I was dying to get the kilometres in. And for the Tour, I had a well-knit, highly competitive team: Gérard Rué, Vincent Barteau, Thierry Marie, Pascal Simon, Dominique Garde, Christophe Lavainne, the Dane Bjarne Riis and the Swiss Heinz Imboden. First came the prologue, 7.8km and won by the Dutchman Erik Breukink. After going absolutely flat out, I came second in the same time as the American Greg LeMond, which suggested two things that would prove to be correct in the next three weeks. Firstly, my form was perfect. Secondly, the man to beat would probably be LeMond, who had shown very little since his serious gunshot wound during a hunting party in 1987.

Firstly, as everyone knows, LeMond was unrivalled as a time triallist, much better than me when it came to riding alone and unpaced. In addition, he was using a very special bike equipped with handlebar extensions with elbow rests, giving him a far more aerodynamic position and four support points – pedals, saddle, bars and elbow rests – which was totally revolutionary but also strictly against the rules. Until then, the referees had only allowed three support points. For reasons that still elude me, Guimard [my coach] and I didn’t make a formal complaint . . . and the idle commissaries shut their eyes. The rules were being bent, and the consequences would be way beyond anything I could have imagined.

LeMond was now in yellow, a handful of seconds ahead of me, and there was no chance he would take the slightest risk: that was not his style. The first Pyrenean stage, from Pau to Cauterets, was as expected: he sucked the wheels as best he could and made it obvious he was just going to be a spectator. As I’ve already said, he didn’t have a strong team at his side but even so he had the physical ability to control a race on any terrain. But no: he was barely willing to defend his jersey. When Delgado’s Reynolds team sent their men on the attack, putting Delgado at the front and dispatching the young Miguel Indurain towards the stage win, LeMond didn’t blink. I was the one who was forced to keep them within reach. All he did was sit tight and take advantage of the work I put in. To be honest, it was extremely frustrating.

"As the winner in 1983 and 1984 I’d already drunk that cup to the full. I knew how delicious every drop tasted. And I knew the price to pay if you missed out."

To this day I don’t know if he managed to come alongside me once, and that’s saying something. It wound me up. And when I got frustrated, when I began boiling inside, it had to come out somehow. A few kilometres from the finish of the tenth stage Steven Rooks and Gert-Jan Theunisse attacked together. I looked at LeMond to see if he was going to react. I didn’t even try to follow them: physically I just couldn’t do it. But allowing LeMond to stay on my wheel all the way to the top would have driven me mad. In the final kilometre I did enough to get rid of him, pushing myself far beyond what I felt capable of at the time. I gained all of twelve seconds on him, in other words enough for me to take the yellow jersey by seven seconds: our hand-to-hand battle had begun.

There was just one thing. I’d felt a fairly sharp pain between my legs.  That evening, it was clear. I had a sore spot in a very inconvenient place: just below the buttock, right where the saddle rubs on the shorts. There were only two stages left. One that would be for the sprinters, finishing at l’Isle d’Abeau and relatively short at 130 kilometres. And then there was Sunday’s time trial. Nothing much to worry about. And I wasn’t worrying.

I should have been. The evening before the final road race stage it hurt so much that I couldn’t go and urinate at the dope control. Just moving was a penance. Sitting down was horrendous.

That night, I barely slept. I felt sore even though I wasn’t moving. I was tired out, worried; I didn’t look my best the next morning. But that was kid’s stuff compared to the warm-up session: I got on the bike and did a U-turn straight away. I just couldn’t turn the pedals. It was completely impossible. Even so, I didn’t panic. I remember as if it were yesterday how I told myself: ‘Look, it’s not as bad as all that. All that’s left is a time trial. I’ve only got to do what I have to. I’ll hurt like hell but afterwards I’ll forget it.’ How could I ever forget what was about to happen? How could I ever forget something that will last forever in every cycling fan’s memory?

I had to force myself to be cheerful even though I wasn’t exactly in the finest fettle. But I did have something on my side: the fifty-second gap on LeMond. I was convinced deep inside that I could not lose. According to my calculations, I knew that it should take the American about 50km to regain more than a minute on me, not the 24.5km between Versailles and the Champs-Elysées. I could not see how it could happen. It was not feasible.

It was down to LeMond and me. We pedalled slowly round the start area, fully kitted out, warming up in the closed space. He had no idea that I was under the weather.

He didn’t look at me once. The suspense reached a climax.

The American was definitely stretching the rules by using his celebrated triathlon handlebars, which gave him quite an advantage. I shouldn’t have lost two seconds per kilometre to him. But as soon as Guimard began to give me time checks, that was exactly what I was losing: two seconds per kilometre. I put all my strength into it, gritting my teeth, trying everything I could to concentrate on the effort I had to make and forget that pain shooting through me. But it was like being stabbed with a knife; every part of my body felt it, even my brain.

Everyone has seen the pictures at least once in their lives. I cross the finish line and collapse. Simply to get my breath back. A bit of air, please. Just a bit of air, if I may.

At that precise moment, I don’t know what is going on. I’m gasping ‘Well?’ again and again, to the people who flutter around me. There’s no answer. I ask again. Still no answer.

"The evening before the final road race stage it hurt so much that I couldn’t go and urinate at the dope control. Just moving was a penance. Sitting down was horrendous."

No one dares to look me in the eye and show me reality. The reality of which everyone is now aware apart from me: I’ve lost. By eight seconds. Eight seconds in Hell. The American has taken fifty-eight seconds out of me in 24.5km. In the chaos, someone finally brings me up to date by admitting: ‘You’ve lost Laurent.’ I can’t get a grip on what he is saying. I don’t believe it. More precisely, I can’t manage to believe it. I hadn’t believed it could happen.

I’d always felt that I could be beaten. Losing was never a problem. A cyclist who doesn’t know how to lose can’t become a champion. I was used to the fact. But losing like that, on the last day, by such a minute margin and primarily because of a handlebar that had not yet been permitted by the rules; no, all that was too much for just one man. I was nearly twenty-nine, and it wasn’t yet time to have lifelong regrets. I had only rarely been in such fine physical condition, which made this defeat feel particularly unfair. How on earth could it have happened?

It took me three days to get back on my feet. But when I write ‘get back on my feet’ that’s just a manner of speaking. Because you never stop grieving over an event like that; the best you can manage is to contain the effect it has on your mind. Even so, I was well aware that there were more serious things going on in life – and I had dreamed so much of coming back to the highest level to play a major role: I’d done that at least.

I looked in the mirror again. I knew that there were two answers. Either I could keep on mourning – and stop cycling. Or I could try to get over the agony and the injustice, and get back on the road. I was in good health. I was a lucky man, with a full life. OK, I hadn’t won the Tour again; so what? Was the world going to stop turning? Why inflict more pain on myself?

That very day, I picked up the telephone to call Alain Gallopin. He was worried about how I might be dealing with it. I said to him: ‘Come on, Alain, let’s get going. I’m going to prepare for the world championship.’

Laurent Fignon’s autobiography '

We Were Young and Carefree'

is translated by William Fotheringham and published by Yellow Jersey Press.

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