It’s the night before the Grand Départ and things are not looking too rosy in ‘God’s Own Country’. To use the local phrase, it is ‘siling down’ and the floodlights outside the Rapha HQ tent at Broughton Hall in Yorkshire are in danger of being extinguished by a deluge of fierce intensity. The rain is beating heavily on the plasticised canvas marquee, providing additional percussion to the Friday night beats being played by Rapha DJ’s Joey Hall and Festus. The throng of people inside are having a good time enjoying the tunes, the beer and the company but eyes keep flicking outside and you can feel minds wondering whether the name of the Tempest Festival will prove prophetic. I’m inside too, chatting to a couple of guys sitting at one of the long tables in the bar end of the tent. One notices my concern and leans in conspiratorially. “Don’t worry.” he says over the noise of the music. “I work as a trader in Amsterdam. I have to study the weather to make my bets. The sun will come out at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. I promise you.”
Laurent Fignon 12.08.1960 – 31.08.2010
Tour de France winner – 1983, 1984
Giro d’Italia winner – 1989
Milan-San Remo – 1988, 1989
Fleche Wallone – 1986
Perhaps the most naturally gifted rider of his generation, Laurent Fignon burst onto the Grand Tour scene by winning the Tour de France aged just 22. France, still enthralled by his then team leader Hinault, foresaw a processional handing on of the baton; even more so when Fignon decimated the field in 1984 and staked such a claim to the throne that had already prompted Hinault to move elsewhere. Injury and bad luck blighted the bespectacled Parisian’s next few seasons and he never won ‘le grand boucle’ again. Indeed in many ways he is more famous for his 8 second loss to Lemond in 1989 than for his emphatic earlier triumphs.
One of my all-time favourite riders, his loss to cancer aged just fifty – after he had carved out second and third careers running (and saving) some of the less popular French races and in commentary – was a huge loss.
Fignon was cremated and there is a small memorial plaque in Paris’ famous Père Lachaise cemetery. More info on finding the plaque can be found on this page from inrng.com
We all know the facts: Belgian soigneur Willy Voet is stopped by customs officers on his way to the 1998 Tour de France start in Dublin. In his car are a massive amount of performance enhancing drugs, destined for the riders on the squad that Willy works for and by which the ensuing scandal will be known. Festina. The lid on organised, team-wide doping is lifted and the Tour comes close to collapse as, over the following days, police raid rooms and haul riders off to cells. Teams are thrown off the Tour and reputations are ruined. But the Tour somehow survives this three week evisceration with Marco Pantani winning but the writing is on the wall for a generation of dopers. Well, it is until the following year when it all starts all over again on an even bigger scale..
It’s reasonably common knowledge that, for an intrepid traveller exploring the universe on a budget, nothing is considered more useful than a humble towel. In his seminal work, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams went to great lengths to describe just how useful one could be, suggesting that it could be used as a sail, a weapon, protection against the heat or cold, a gas mask, emergency signalling or, if impregnated with the appropriate substances, a source of vitamins or anti-depressants. At the end of this exhaustive list he also noted that (should it still be deemed clean enough) it could be used to dry oneself.
When we look back at the 2014 Tour de France and debate the outcome a couple of things should be kept well to the front of the mind: Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali extended his lead over his rivals on every single significant stage. On the cobbles, in the Vosges on Bastille Day, in the Alps & Pyrenees and in the time trial. That fact alone should mark him out as a champion of some distinction. His win also completes his set of all three Grand Tours and allows him to join a select group of some of the greatest names in cycling. He won more road stages than any champion since Eddy Merckx, elevating the achievement further. The side-note that he did it in his national champions jersey will have pleased his home fans and cycling history aficionados in equal measure. He focused his season entirely on these two weeks and utterly dominated the race – appearing serene even when coolly dispatching the podium pretenders with stage winning attacks. The words ‘worthy champion’ should not even be being debated.
When I was a kid watching the Tour de France in the late Eighties, my rider allegiances often switched with whichever was my favourite jersey design. I would find myself supporting Renault one year, PDM the next, Z-Peugeot the year after that. As with football a few years earlier (and in the very same way as my young children today) I was something of a itinerant fan. I would pick a jersey, a haircut or a battle between two big stars and plump for one of them. The following year I could very well pick the other guy and have him as my favourite. This certainly happened in 1990 when my support switched from Laurent Fignon the year before to Lemond. Even though my football allegiance had very quickly solidified into one team over the others (mainly due to the fact I that I outgrew the Tottenham shirt – and the associated desire to be Steve Archibald – that I had been given and which caused much confusion in my Manchester-leaning mind) cycling remained ever thus. Unbiased. Unencumbered. Un-tribalised.
Happy Birthday Big Mig. – 16.07.1964
- TdF Winner – 1991, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’95
- Giro d’Italia Winner – 1992, ’93
- World Time Trial Champion – 1995
- Hour Record Holder – 1994
- Olympic Gold Medallist – Time Trial – 1996
A monster of a man compared to most Grand Tour winners, Miguel ‘Big Mig’ Indurain won five Tours on the bounce, hardly pausing for a breather whilst also collecting 2 Giro d’Italia’s, an Hour Record and an Olympic gold medal in a career that utterly dominated the first half of the 1990’s. At 6’2″ (188cm) and 80+kg he was a freakish sight in the mountains where he would capably defend the positions his unsurpassable time-trialling ability had won him. Chastised for making the sport ‘boring’ and dodging the inevitable accusations of doping, Indurain remains a quixotic character within the sport. Not the clear-cut villain that many of his Tour-winning followers would become but never revered like so many of those who had gone before him. Dammed by his own success, his image nonetheless still has the power to stop you in your tracks and just marvel at the magnitude of man.
With so much focus in this country on the Grand Départ it has been hard at times to remember that there will be a further 18 days of racing after the world’s biggest cycling cavalcade leaves our shores. I have been as guilty of this as anyone by focussing my thoughts almost entirely on the opening two stages in Yorkshire and the Stage 3 run from Cambridge to London. Everyone is talking about the ‘destiny ‘of Mark Cavendish to win the Maillot Jeune in his mum’s home town of Harrogate and wondering how much damage the fearsome Côte de Jenkins Road will do in the final few kilometres into Sheffield the following day. I think we are suffering from a touch of yellow fever that is clouding our ability to see beyond this weekend. It’s fantastic that we have so much to discuss about the short time the Grand Boucle is with us. But what of the rest of Le Tour?
I am lucky to be old enough, and to have arrived in London just in time, to have enjoyed the considerable pleasures of the old Reading Room at the British Museum. The circular space at the centre of the Great Court, which attained almost sacred status to the Capital’s writers of yesteryear, was just about the most evocative place one could imagine to read or write. The Victorian desks, low glowing lights, the curved bookshelves lining the perimeter walls and the elegant clerestory windows were all suitably impressive but so was the archaic ticketed entry system which made you feel as much a part of the ancient furniture as the often impenetrable tomes in the room. Pushing open the low gate and entering the hushed arena of that literary sanctum was about as good as it got for me back then and I mourned the closing of the old Reading Room in 1997 like the loss of an old friend. It remains my favourite London space, despite not being open for 17 years.
Happy Birthday Greg – 26.06.1962
- TdF Winner – 1986, ’89, ’90
- World Champion 1983, ’89
One of the most popular Tour winners of all time, Greg Lemond’s epic battles with his team mate Bernard Hinault and then with the life-threatening injuries he suffered in a freak shooting incident to come back for his second and third Tour wins are truly the stuff of legend. Boyishly enthusiastic, good-looking and yet determined to bring a new professionalism and outlook to the sport, his 8 second win over Laurent Fignon in 1989 remains one of the most memorable of all time. Somewhat sidelined and overshadowed during the Armstrong era, Lemond has recently re-emerged to take his rightful place as an icon of the sport.