Football was Fignon's great love during childhood and he played well enough to be selected for a local team. However, he was persuaded to give cycling a go by friends and he soon discovered that he was much better at that, winning his first organised race when he was 16. It seems that he was a rather mollycoddled and over-protected youth - his parents, understanding that cycling is a cruel and dangerous sport far better suited to hooligans than well-mannered, clever boys, banned him from taking part in any more competitions. But now the bug had bitten and, like so many before him, he continued racing in secret; fortunately, when they found out a short while later, he'd already won four more races and they agreed that he could continue provided cycling didn't affect his studying.
After he'd joined the army, Fignon's officers realised that he could be put to a better use than being trained to kill and posted him to the Bataillon de Joinville, which took part in amateur sporting events and in 1981 he was entered for the Tour de Corse, in which amateurs competed against professionals, and he was the only rider from either category able to stay on the wheel of Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault. Later that year, riding in the National 100km Team Time Trial Championship, he was noticed by the legendary Renault-Elf manager Cyrille Guimard and offered a place on the team, where he rode with Hinault. During that first year, he won the Critérium International and went to the Giro d'Italia, where he launched an attack on Stage 2 and became race leader for a day. Later in the race, he rode faithfully for Hinault and became his most trusted lieutenant, as he would again at the Vuelta a Espana the following year, and the Breton credited him for his help towards both victories.
Guimard had originally wanted to keep Fignon away from the 1983 Tour, perhaps worrying that should be decide to have a go at winning it for himself he might damage Hinault's chances; but Hinault was eventually unable to ride due to a knee injury. Guimard didn't believe that anybody else on the team was capable of winning, so he sent Fignon and Marc Madiot, instructing them to aim for stage wins in the hope that they might be able to salvage something of the race with victory in the Debutants classification. It proved to be the rider's great chance to demonstrate that he wasn't just another good rider but a great - he was unexpectedly in second place overall when the favourite, Pascal Simon, abandoned in Stage 17 after breaking his shoulder in Stage 10, which seems advantageous, but was generally thought likely to ruin any chance he might have had because the rest of the field now redoubled its efforts, seeing an opportunity to get rid of a relatively inexperienced rider and open up the race. There are still people today who say that if Hinault had been there and Joop Zoetemelk hadn't been caught out by a drugs test, Fignon wouldn't have won. There are also those who still talk about 1983 as the Tour that Simon lost, rather than the Tour that Fignon won. This is jejune: Zoetemelk and Simon's departures from the race are simply part and parcel of cycling, and Fignon's performance afterwards was more than worthy of any Tour winner - he met every attack, taking on all comers and defeating them, and even won the Stage 21 time trial. At 22 years of age, he was the youngest man to triumph in the Tour for half a century, though he insisted that had Hinault have been there, he'd have ridden for him and wouldn't have tried to win.
|Fignon trailing Maurizio Fondriest, Giro 1989|
At the Giro in 1984, Fignon's main rival was the Italian Francesco Moser - the Frenchman was by far the better climber, but Moser was much faster in a sprint or a time trial; the French fans therefore considered it fortunate that the eventual outcome looked to hinge on the highest mountain in the race, but the climb had to be cancelled due to heavy snow on the mountain. Some fans climbed it anyway and discovered that in actual fact the roads were clear, sparking suspicions that the organisers had lied and cancelled it to favour Moser - an accusation that has never been proven nor disproven. Moser later extended his lead in the final time trial, which also caused controversy when Fignon's fans claimed that the Italian press helicopters flew in front of him to create a head wind and behind Moser to create a tail wind. The Italian won by 1'03" overall. Hinault returned to the Tour that year and, while it was generally agreed that Fignon would give him a run for his money, he'd already won four times and was the clear favourite. The Breton won the Prologue, but beat Fignon by only three seconds, then Fignon's team mate Vincent Barteau got away in a break in Stage 5 and took the maillot jaune. Stage 7 was an individual time trial, and this time - against the odds - Fignon beat the Badger by 49", though Barteau remained leader and would do so until Stage 17 when he finally handed over the yellow jersey to his team leader. During that stage, Hinault pulled out all the stops and launched savage attack after attack on Fignon, but the mild-mannered Professor would not crack. Each and every time he responded to and matched his rival - and then, he simply rode away, leaving the Breton behind. At the end of the stage, Fignon's overall advantage over Hinault stood at 5'41". He won the next day, then won Stages 20 and 22 too; finishing the race with an advantage of 10'22". The Badger hadn't been beaten - he'd been well and truly thrashed; however, he never believed that he had been a better rider than Hinault when Hinault was at his best, claiming years later that while the Breton was born a champion, he himself had needed to be shaped by Guimard.
Fignon said he felt stronger than ever in 1985, but a knee injury early in the season forced him to stay away from the Tour. He entered again in 1986 after winning La Flèche Wallonne, but injury and constant attacks by Hinault - who was now riding for Greg Lemond rather than for himself and thus devoted himself entirely to destroying other riders' chances, turning himself into a very fearsome enemy indeed - caused him to abandon during Stage 12. He regained good form the following year and won two stages at Paris-Nice and third place overall at the Vuelta, then Stage 21 and seventh place overall at the Tour; people wondered if, aged 27, his best years were gone, and many would have been glad to see him go - Fignon, despite his fine manners, was never a popular rider among the fans, who prefer their stars to confirm to the poor boys stereotype. He also had a habit of downplaying his achievements, claiming after winning races that he's felt good rather than spinning out a grand tale of suffering and heroic battle; many misinterpreted this as grumpy taciturnity. Lance Armstrong, who was another rider with whom it wasn't always easy to get along and says he felt afraid and over-awed by the great men of European cycling when he first made the trip over from America, tells a different story: according to him, Fignon was always friendly and handed out encouragement and advice in equal measures to young fans.
|Winning the Giro d'Italia, 1989|
In 1990, having joined Castorama, Fignon abandoned the Tour. He rode for Castorama (now renamed Castorama-Raleigh) again in 1991 and came sixth, then again in 1992 as a domestique for Gianni Bugno in the Gatorade-Chateau d'Ax team and came 23rd; winning Stage 11 - the last he would ever win in a Grand Tour. His final win as a professional rider came early the following year at the Vuelta y Ruta de Mexico, in which he (and many other riders) were extraordinarily fortunate in being able to continue after a drunken man ploughed his truck into the peloton, and later in the year he entered the Tour for the tenth and final time, abandoning after Stage 10. Towards the end of the season, he retired. Years later he admitted to having doped with corticosteroids and amphetamine during his career but insisted he never used EPO - and cited the drug's ability to raise the performance of mediocre riders to a point where they could keep up with him, rather than a drop in his own performance as the real reason his results began to tail off and a major factor in his decision to retire.
Fignon had, for some time, felt that race organisers were no longer as professional as they had once been; so two years after ending his racing career he created the Laurent Fignon Organisation, a race organising and promotion company. The most prestigious event on its roster was Paris-Nice, which it owned after buying it from the family of Jean Leulliot (who ran it between 1951 and his death in 1982, from which point until Fignon took it over it was run by his daughter Josette) in 2000 until 2002 when it was sold onto the Amaury Sports Organisation, which owns the race to this day - along with many other events, including the Tour de France. He was also critical of new anti-doping policies, which he appeared to feel were too strict in France and to blame for the decline of French cycling.
In June 2009, when he was 49 years old, Fignon told reporters that he had been diagnosed with cancer two months earlier and was undergoing chemotherapy. The treatment was not successful; he died on the 31st of August the following year.
|Beloki at the Tour, 2005|
In 2000, Beloki joined Festina and came second overall at the Tour de Romandie, then won the Vuelta Ciclista Asturias before taking part in his first Tour de France - where he surprised many by finishing the Prologue in twelfth place and top ten on five other stages, including third on Stage 12. Most riders do not even finish their first Tour and will be content with finishing in the top one hundred for the next few; Beloki had come third. He was able, therefore, to take his pick of new contract offers and eventually opted for ONCE-Eroski for 2001 and started the season in fine form with second place at the Euskal Bizikleta, then victory at the Volta a Catalunya. That year at the Tour, he was seventh in the Prologue and finished six stages in the top ten; his performances on the other stages had also improved when compared to 2000, but once again he was third overall. In 2002 he concentrated primarily on the Tour, riding a few smaller events for practice (and in doing so emulated Lance Armstrong, who had been the winner in 1999, 2000 and 2001 and would be for four more years). He got to the start line in better shape than ever before, and virtually every Basque in the world was willing him to win; got off to a good start with ninth place in the Prologue, then finished top ten on eight stages - second place overall, 7'17" behind Armstrong. Later that year, he was third overall at the Vuelta a Espana.
Many people believed that Beloki could win the Tour in 2003, and it's probably safe to say that many more hoped he could because Armstrong was never a popular rider outside the USA despite his efforts to speak French and educate himself in the traditions and customs of a world with which he'd had no contact during the early years of his career. A little under halfway through the race, it began to look as though he would, too, when he was only 40" behind Armstrong as the Tour reached its halfway point. However, whilst descending the Cote de la Rochette, just a few kilometres from the Stage 9 finish line in Gap, his back wheel came into contact with a patch of tar melted by the hot weather, which tore the tyre from the rim and caused him to crash hard. Armstrong, right behind him, went in for a bit of cyclo cross riding by heading straight over a field to avoid him, then shouldered his bike over a ditch and back onto the road; Beloki was left with a broken wrist and elbow and double fracture of the femur.
When transfer season rolled around and Beloki announced he'd be riding for Brioches La Boulangère, a team in the same category as ONCE-Eroski, it seemed that he had made a full recorvery; as was in fact reported in the cycling press a few months later. It would not be long into 2004 before he began giving signs that all was not well, though - he had started the Tour of the Basque Country but wasn't even able to finish the first stage, abandoning in very obvious agony. Rather than admit to the unthinkable - that his career was in ruins - he claimed that he was finding it difficult to fit into a French team and switched to Saunier-Duval in August, going with them to the Vuelta and was once again unable to finish. At the end of the year, he went back to the team that had been ONCE and was now renamed Liberty Seguros-Würth, and he entered the Tour and the Vuelta for the final time. He was 75th in France and 39th in Spain.
Beloki left Liberty and joined Astana on the 1st of June 2006 so that he would be able to ride the Tour again, but his name was one of those implicated in the Operacion Purto doping scandal and he was withdrawn at the last moment. He was completely cleared less than two months later but, by now, he'd had enough - a career that could have been great until it was destroyed by a patch of sun-warmed tarmac was finally brought to a close.
Tejay van Garderen
|Van Garderen at the 2012 Tour|
Having ridden the 2007 Tour of California as part of the national team, van Garderen turned professional with Rabobank's Continental squad the following year, coming second overall at the Flèche du Sud and eighth - with one stage win - at the Tour de l'Avenir. He remained with them for two seasons, then joined the US-based HTC-Highroad, a team with a fine reputation for finding young riders and developing them into world-class athletes, in 2010; with them he went to the Critérium du Dauphiné and took third place in the Points competition and the General Classification. He also rode the Vuelta a Espana that year, his first Grand Tour, and came 35th overall. In 2011, he went to his first Tour de France as a domestique for Peter Velits and Tony Martin, earning his place on the team after good performances in the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse; he came 82nd overall, a respectable enough result for a Tour debutant.
Highroad ceased to be at the end of the 2011 season after owner Bob Stapleton was unable to recruit new sponsorship due to the companies he approached reluctance to become involved in a sport they believed still rife with doping; a sadly ironic end since, under his leadership, the team had introduced anti-doping measures far more stringent than was required by UCI rules. Fortunately, van Garderen experienced little difficulty in finding a new contract and signed to BMC. With them, 2012 proved to be the best year of his career to date with fourth place overall and victory in the Youth classification at Paris-Nice followed by fifth overall and another Youth classification triumph at the Tour de France. Fans are eager to see what he'll achieve in the coming years, and more than a few believe him to be a likely future Tour winner.
Other cyclists born on this day: Jean Gainche (France, 1932); Urs Huber (Switzerland, 1985); János Henzsel (Hungary, 1881); Zhang Miao (China, 1988); Omar Pkhak'adze (USSR, 1944, died 1993); Aleksandar Nikolov (Bulgaria, 1912); Yan Yinhua (China, 1968); Gabriel Moiceanu (Romania, 1934); Kazunari Watanabe (Japan, 1983); Randolph Toussaint (Guyana, 1955); Park Min-Su (South Korea, 1970); Stig Kristiansen (Norway, 1970); Luigi Gilardi (Italy, 1897, died 1989).