EXTRACTED FROM THE GUARDIAN
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* Tour de France
'You never stop grieving' – how the closest Tour de France was lost
This week's battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck has stirred up memories of the 1989 Tour de France, when Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds
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* Laurent Fignon
* guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 July 2010 12.58 BST
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Laurent Fignon Laurent Fignon, wearing the yellow jersey, keeps just ahead of his American rival Greg Lemond (left) on the 1989 Tour de France. Photograph: AFP
In this extract from his autobiography We Were Young and Carefree Laurent Fignon relives the epic drama of the 1989 Tour de France.
"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 Pedro 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.
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 10th 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 12 seconds on him, in other words enough for me to take the yellow jersey by seven seconds: our battle had begun.
In any case, I was happy to pull the maillot jaune over my shoulders; it had been so long since the last time in 1984. And I was happy to have officially taken over responsibility for controlling the race, and was ready to take it on: LeMond refused to do so. At least there was no question about it now. In front of the media that evening, I stuck to the way I liked to do things, and said openly how much LeMond's behaviour annoyed me. "He complains that he had trouble with Bernard Hinault during the 1986 Tour, but he should take his share of blame. He was called a wheelsucker at the time and the guys who said that weren't wrong." Having said that, anyone can be on the receiving end. A spectator on the roadside yelled as I went past: "Less talk, more racing!" and clearly he was right. That's how I've always seen it.
Of course, a few perceptive onlookers pointed out to me that LeMond had been clear that the weakness of his team prevented him from riding more ambitiously. There was no way he could dictate events. I had to go into some detail in my answer. "Perhaps his team isn't up to the job, but the way he behaves is not acceptable for a maillot jaune. On the Col de Marie-Blanque we were both on our own, without a teammate to help either of us, and he agreed that we would share the work. What happened? Nothing. He made the pace a bit on the Aubisque, but after that, it was all over. He didn't ride on the front once. Today, he let me do all the work. When Rooks and Theunisse attacked at the bottom of Superbagnères – and they weren't pushing too hard – he didn't react. I had a go at him, and promised that I'd get him off my wheel."
The morning after I'd said all this, LeMond came to see me in the village-départ. Now it was his turn to have a go: "You shouldn't say that stuff!" His image had been tarnished, and he didn't like that. LeMond is someone who has always paid attention to his popularity with the public and the press. He always rubbed along with them quite well, and his relations with journalists and fans were as chummy as could be, permanently flirting with them. I've never been able to do that. What's the interest in it? What's the point? I've always preferred to be myself. I'd rather shut up than just tell them what they want to hear.
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 for the sprinters, finishing at l'Isle d'Abeau and relatively short at 130km. 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. In extremis, because the entire caravan had to catch the TGV that evening to get up to Paris, the drug testers were kind enough to wait until we were in the train before collecting the sample.
Apart from Cyrille Guimard and the team doctor Armand Mégret, few people were in on the secret. During the journey I didn't show my worries, although I was getting more and more concerned. And when we got off the train, there's no point pretending what kind of mood I was in.
When we arrived at the Gare de Lyon, we were mobbed. There were dozens of photographers and dozens of [television] cameramen: it was mind-bending. A Frenchman was on the point of winning the Tour – the first since Hinault in 1985 – and the day before the finish, which meant they all came mobhanded.
We had hardly begun to move along the platform before someone bunged the usual camera under my nose and began throwing aggressive questions at me. It was Channel 5, who never ignored a possible scandal. I heard the words: "Why did you refuse to take the drugs test?" As you can imagine, I didn't want to answer such a dumb question. The test had taken place in the way it was meant to. I wasn't happy about the allegation, but kept going along the platform in spite of the crush.
The journalist from Channel 5 kept on. Rather too much in my book. Worn out by the stressful ambience, I spat at a camera crew who were in the way. Just my luck: they were from a Spanish channel against whom I had no grievance at all. Afterwards, as soon as any news story about my arrival at the station was run, the images were played again and again. It wasn't the best publicity.
At one point there was a scrum and a cameraman from Channel 5 knocked over Jérôme Simon, who happened to be next to me. I didn't even think about what I was doing and shoved the cameraman. At the end of the year he filed a suit against me for injuring him. Actually, he wanted to negotiate a settlement with my lawyer: I refused. In court, he claimed I'd hit him in the genitals and caused a hernia in the groin; he lost the case.
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 for ever 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 50-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.
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 29, and it wasn't yet time to have lifelong regrets. I had 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."
Extracted from We Were Young and Carefree by Laurent Fignon, translated by William Fotheringham. The book is published by Yellow Jersey Press and available in paperback from Amazon – to buy it click here.