We Were Young And Carefree, Laurent Fignon (2010)

An inteligent and poignant account of one of the 1980s most brilliant stars

Yellow Jersey Press 9780224083195 Paperback 287pp £12.99

Was the final time trial of the 1989 Tour de France the moment when cycling entered the modern age? It was over those 24.5 kilometres that Greg Lemond, in an aerodynamic helmet and using tri-bars triumphed by 59 seconds. Doing so, he beat the yellow jersey, Laurent Fignon, riding a regular bike with his pony tail flapping in the wind. It was enough to give Lemond overall victory by eight seconds in the closest Tour result ever.

Prior to 1989, contends Fignon, cycling was a rather traditional sport, where the methods were tried and tested, rather than being the product of scientific experimentation. There were drugs aplenty, but they were so crude as to be of little interest to anyone with the talent to dominate big races. And even major events like the Tour had an intimacy that has since been swept away.

It would be easy to line up a contrary position, but that is not the point. Fignon’s memoire is reflective and revealing in equal measure – being an account both of his unstoppable dominance of races in the early 1980s, and the difficulties that were to make the second half of his professional racing career such a disappointment.

Written more than fifteen years after he left the professional peloton, it is a rare beast among sporting memoires. He manages to evoke the French cycling scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s with an appealing freshness and fondness. And he is close to poetic on what it is like on those days when you have ‘good legs’.

As well as his glittering career, there is much to interest – the way that with Cyrille Guimard he evolved an entirely new way of structuring a professional cycling team; how Fignon acquired his reputation for lofty disdain; and, the way in which Giro was rigged for Moser’s benefit.

Inevitably, he also deals with drugs – although not altogether satisfactorily. His opposition to, and disgust at the use of, performance-enhancing drugs threads its way through much of the rest of his narrative. He confesses, however, to just one chemical indiscretion as part of his build up to the 1989 Grand Prix de la Liberation. “To get myself going, I took a spot of amphetamine…mainly so that I could get in some extra kilometres (in training).”

This sole admission – with nothing to really explain why he did it, nor how he came by the ‘pot’, and no account of how he felt to cross such a threshold sits very oddly indeed with everything else he says on the subject of doping.

This does not detract, however, from a truly delightful book that is a good on the downs as on the ups of sporting dominance. Here he is putting in his last truly great performance at the 1989 Grand Prix de Nations.

“Looking back at it now, with many years’ hindsight, I now feel that on that day there was such a level of physical violence in the effort I produced that truly perceptive observers might have felt that it was a kind of swansong, the last vestige of authentic heroism in an exceptional champion living at the limit of his pride and natural ability. That day, my power was everything I had. There was no dividing line between the champion and the man inside: they were as one in a final show of strength.”

Fignon beat the course record by 1 minute and 49 seconds, took the title and ended the year as world number one. Quite a way to go out.

William Fotheringham’s translation is very elegant. He renders Fignon beautifully. The only dissonance is in his occasional use of colloquial phrases. I doubt that Fignon really likened joining Renault in 1982 as “the cycling equivalent of taking a degree at Oxford or Cambridge”. Elsewhere, Guimard instructs his team that “anyone caught with a bird in his room during a race will be kicked out”.

It does not stop the book being a rare treat – whether this is your introduction to cycling in the early 1980s, or a joyous pedal down memory lane.

PS June 10

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