I'd heard only good things about Laurent Fignon's autobiography - We were young and carefree - and it doesn't disappoint. Fignon's answer to the eternal question 'Are you the bloke who lost the Tour by 8 seconds?' was always 'No. I'm the guy who won it twice.'
Fignon was one of the last of the attacking generation - those that rode the whole season and tried to specialise in it all. He won his first Tour de France in 1983 at the age of 22 and narrowly lost the Giro in 1984. Cue plenty of entertaining shenanigans about vinegar being thrown at him by spectators, helicopters ruining his time trial and the whole Italian section of the peloton - regardless of teams - ganging up to deny him his victory.
Fignon won the tour De France again in 1984 by over 10 minutes, winning 5 stages himself and with his Renault team securing 10 stages in all - which puts Team Sky in perspective. He won the Milan San Remo twice and came back to finally vanquish the dastardly Italian nation by winning the Giro in 1989. His career spanned the end of Hinault's reign, the beginning of the specialist event riders like Le Mond and then on into the nightmare of serious doping in the early 1990's.
It's a superb translation from the French by William Fotheringham. Fignon's gallic insouciance and spirit just shines. Only Fignon can get away with lines such as 'cycling is a capricious mistress: so close to you and sometimes so distant'. It's a beautifully crafted account of all aspects of pro cycling from dealing with managers, rubbish team mates and the mighty Le Blanc and the whole structure of the pro tour. It's also very funny. Showing a two foot tape worm he's found up his rear on a rest day to the nearest journalist to prove the reason for his lack of form isn't something you could see Cav or Cancellara doing - and sharing cocaine for recreational purposes with the Colombians on the Tour of Colombia might, these days, no longer be wise. Especially if you've never taken it and after finding the first line produces no reaction – you make the classic mistake of snorting a whole gram at once. 'My head turned inside out. I felt I was producing ideas so fast that my mind couldn't keep track of them.'
On the subject of performance enhancing drugs Fignon's pretty perceptive. He initially rode in a period when doping meant amphetamines, perhaps a little cortisone and was pretty unscientific. In a chapter titled 'On a street corner' he describes finishing his career on the 1993 tour, the day after his lone breakaway over the Telegraph is brought back by over 40 riders fueled on EPO – many of whom would never have got close to him in the mountains under normal circumstances. Fignon rode the next day's stage to savour being in the mountains and the end of his era. Just before the last col, and outside the cut off, he stopped 'on a corner somewhere' and climbed off the bike.
There's so much in 'We were young and carefree' that is relevant still to pro-cycling and in 'A whiff of authenticity' Fignon looks towards a cleaner age where real champions could win on merit again. 'We are again seeing exhausted cyclists... Sniffing the wind, my eyes sparkle a little. Passion is a happier thing than pessimism.' He wouldn't have fared well commenting on any roadcc articles then...
A pundit for French television and Eurosport, Fignon died of cancer in 2010 aged just 50 and the French press suddenly realised what authenticity they had lost. Greg Le Mond summed him up well as a rider who tried to play it fair and stopped when he couldn't.
"He had a very, very big talent, much more than anyone recognised. He was a great person, one of the few that I find was really true to himself. He was one of the few riders who I really admired for his honesty and his frankness. I believe he was also one of the generation that was cut short in the early nineties because he was not able to fulfil the rest of his career."
Fignon suggests that he never had a nickname that stuck. He was Fignon.
'From the beginning to the end. Whether people liked me or not, whether they were impressed by my exploits on the bike or not, whether or not they felt I was an exceptional champion, I remained Laurent Fignon. Just Laurent Fignon.'
There's no 'just' about it. 'We Were Young and Carefree' is a great epitaph for a clever man and a fine rider.
Excellent. A top ten cycle book. My only complaint - as ever - is the lack of photos and an index.
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Make and model: Yellow Jersey Press Laurent Fignon - We were young and carefree
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Age: 47 Height: Weight:
I usually ride: Dolan Prefissio - winter bike My best bike is: Condor Moda Ti - summer bike
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every week I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, commuting, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,