Tuesday, August 31, 2010

R.I.P. Laurent Fignon...

Laurent Fignon died earlier today of complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 50. If you're not a cycling fan you wouldn't know who he is, and the name would probably ring hollow in your household. Well, there is a reason why anyone who is a fan of sport should know who he is. He was one of the main protagonists of the most intense back-and-forth battle ever to be waged at the Tour de France. The overall performance by the men who fought each other for those three wonderful weeks in July transcends cycling. It is a monument to what true sport hopes to be but rarely achieves-a clash of titans-three men (France's Fignon, Spain's Pedro Delgado and Greg Lemond of the United States) at their physical peak going at each other like very few times in the recorded history of sport. We remember those rare times because they are so fleeting, which is why this man will forever live in cycling history-and deservedly so.

It is inevitable that his name will forever be linked with that of Greg Lemond, and for good reason. Lemond was the one who took that Tour win in 1989 after a nail biting finish into Paris which he won overall by the slimmest margin on record-8 seconds. But it was everything that lead up to that last stage, with Lemond chugging down the Champs-Élysées like a runaway train that made this Tour the most dramatic in modern-day history. But it wouldn't have been as memorable had it not been for the dogged determination of one Laurent Fignon.

Take a good look at modern-day sports. Where are the rivalries? Where's the drama? Where's the passion? We have college football, micromanaged by a bunch of tight-assed Stalin protegés who recruit talent-heavy classes and then get awarded bogus championships while beating opponents not worthy of their talents.

College basketball is a mess due to the dilution of talent, a ridiculous AAU summer league system that produces great athletes who lack the basic fundamentals and parody that exists in a game where the brightest stars have absolutely no interest in playing more than one year and then go pro.

Pro football-the majority of the Superbowls are overhyped pieces of garbage with the terrible half-time shows. When people watch the Superbowl for the commercials, you know what you're in for more often than not.

Baseball-you have the Yankees purchasing the best free agents in the game and everyone else trying to win with anonymous pieces that manage to put together one great run and then it's over for them.

The biggest story at this years' Tour ended with a resounding thud very early on as Lance Armstrong, fumbling and bumbling his way around France like a punch-drunk prizefighter way past his prime, was exposed as the pack jelly he truly is, an anonymous rider who failed to capture even one single stage win. He mumbled and stumbled his way to a very pedestrian 29th place without making so much as a ripple. Andy Schleck failed again to exhibit the type of firepower in the mountains he needed to display to dislodge Albert Contador, whose biggest move came during a controversial mechanical problem experienced by Schleck. The time Contador gained on Schleck that day came to be the overall margin of victory, 39 seconds.

Which leads us back to the drama that unfolded in July of 1989. You had Greg Lemond, the victor of the Tour in 1986 who was felled by a hunting accident and lost the two previous years to illness, injury and bad form. You had Pedro Delgado, who had won the previous Tour in 1988 under a cloud of suspicion due to a positive dope test which was overruled on a technicality. And then there was Fignon, who barnstormed his way through his first three years as a professional, winning the Tour in '83 and '84 but was hamstrung for years due to knee and Achilles tendon problems.

He was on demonstrative form in '89, beginning the year with a win in Milan-San Remo, taking the Giro D'Italia and usurping Sean Kelly as cycling's No. 1 rider. While Lemond, riding for a small Belgian team whom no one expected much from, struggled mightily in the Italian race but did manage a win in the final time trial. A harbinger of things to come, an unexpected return to form or the fact that Fignon didn't race all-out because by that point he already had the race in the bag? The stage was set for these three to duke it out in France...

The drama started from the opening bell. Pedro Delgado, riding the opening prologue in the leader's yellow jersey as the previous year's winner, showed up at the starting line 2 minutes and 40 seconds late. How or why is a mystery. Whatever the reasons, this was inexcusable given what was at stake.

Fignon, riding with a much stronger team (Systeme U-Gitane) than Lemond, wasn't too concerned. He and his team were going along nicely, winning the team time-trial during stage three after one of their lesser-known riders, Acacio da Silva, won the yellow jersey on stage one. He held the race lead for three days.

Lemond, aside form the low expectations and having to withstand a whirlwind of unfair criticism from the staid European cycling establishment for not being dedicated enough to the sport and for having a typical "American" attitude towards training and dieting, surprisingly won the leader's jersey after stage 5. He stated he just wanted to do well in the race and did not consider himself a serious contender for the overall title. But the mountains loomed, with the strongest riders having yet to show their cards or throw down the gauntlet. It was now the time.

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