Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In Memory of The Professor

Like most kids in the mid-70s suburban community I called home, I grew up with a bike between my legs. Back and forth to school, after school, especially in the summers off... we built makeshift ramps, rode through the yet to be developed corn/soy/tobacco fields, raced up and down the street and, piloting bikes not designed for any of it, crashed and burned with screaming, scabby regularity.

Like most kids of my generation, high school got in the way. Music, hanging out with a wider circle of friends and all entailed by that, drinking beer, and girls (or at least the idea of girls) all got in the way. The childhood bike, more than put through its paces, went out to pasture, rusting idly in the garage.

When I went off to college in '83, I came back to the bike. Living off-campus — even though I had a car through most of my undergrad years — the ten-speed clunker I picked up gave me a way to get back and forth to class without dealing with parking hassles or forking out for gas (a particular issue during my years in possession of a '70 Plymouth Fury). I'd like to think the idea of exercise figured in there but, honestly, I'm not sure it did. It was a utilitarian pursuit at heart. But once in a while I'd go hands-free, or dig in a little on an ascent, and I'd feel a flicker of the old joy.

It wasn't until the start of my senior year that cycling came back, and came on, with a vengeance. I'd spent the majority of the preceding summer EuroRailing it with a good friend who just happened to have dabbled for a year or two as a bike messenger. I needed a way to earn some dough rather than continuing to sponge off my folks and my pal convinced me that courier work was the way. By that time, largely through the local music community (read harDCore) , I'd become friends with a few other messengers who all seconded the motion.

I didn't take much convincing. I spent the rest of the summer getting my bearings as a rookie bicycle messenger in DC, picked it up pretty quickly as I remember it, and then worked one or two days a week, class schedule permitting, through my senior year. That old clunker didn't last long, rattled and rolled to death on the pothole ridden streets of our nation's capital. An upgrade was due and my first serious bike was forthcoming — a mid-80s Cannondale touring bike. It still sits in my garage, long since converted to a fixed gear commuter. Back then, though, it was a serious workhorse. Continuing on to grad school, I also continued on with the courier gig. Bear in mind, this was prior to the public advent of the Internet. Fax machines were still a novelty. The work was hard but the pay, for what it was, was pretty solid — enough, in fact, to pay my way through graduate school without taking out so much as a dollar in student loans.

Graduate course work completed in '89, I left DC for North Jersey. Why is not part of today's story. Suffice it to say that I left behind the messenger grind, and the daily commute in and out of the city or back and forth to campus. And I missed it. I missed the bike. So much so that I quickly got to know the guys at my new local bike shop, invited myself along on their group rides. I was loving it. One of the guys was a local Cat 2 racer. Another had just started as a Cat 4. It didn't take them long to convince me to give it a try. And the rest is history, albeit a story for another day.

* * *

Laurent Fignon won his first Tour de France in 1983. It was his second year as a pro, his first riding Le Tour, and he won it. He went on to repeat as victor in 1984. Those, it would turn out, would be his only Tour victories, eclipsed by the mighty Badger, Bernard Hinault, the most dominant Tour rider of the decade, and a fellow Frenchman to Fignon.

I graduated high school in 1983, not long before the start of that year's Tour. In turn, I finished my Freshmen year in college not long before the '84 Tour. I hadn't a clue what was going on in the Tour in either of those years. If you'd asked me at the time, I might have known what the Tour was in a vague sense but I had no idea what was happening, who the players were, what it all meant. That wouldn't come until a few years later... '87, '88 and especially '89.

1989. In spite of Fignon's two Tour de France victories, it will always be his glorious defeat in the 1989 Tour for which he'll be most remembered. It's also the first year in which I can remember actually watching any meaningful amount of the Tour rather than just catching the daily placings in the stats section of the paper. While I can hardly say I don't remember watching that ignominious finish of Fignon's on the Champs-Élysées, losing the stage by 58 seconds and the entire Tour by eight to overall victor Greg LeMond, the entire race leading up to that point was just as exciting. I can still remember Fignon fighting it out with LeMond, day in and day out, in the mountains, with one gaining the upper hand on one stage, the other taking it right back on the next.

That's how I expect Fignon would like that year's race to be remembered, not via the unfortunate image of him squirming on his back in the streets of Paris after realizing his defeat. It was one of the most exciting Tours I can ever remember watching, and it was Laurent Fignon, The Professor, wispy ponytail, wire-rimmed glasses and all, who helped make it so memorable. The video clip above should give you a sense of that, even though it focuses only slightly on Fignon. It's long but worth the watch for fans of the era.

Laurent Fignon died last week, on August 31, 2010, to be exact, losing his year-long battle with cancer. I never had the chance to see any of the coverage he did of the Tour as a commentator for French television. Something tells me, though, that it would have been much like his riding style — far more opinionated and punchy than the "old" American coverage you can watch above, though no doubt with his own signature twist of melodrama.

This post goes out to the memory of Monsieur Fignon, and as way of thanks for helping to make my first real taste of Le Tour such a meaningful experience.


Samantha Dugan said...

So touching David. Thanks for taking the time to share that. said...

As a Tour worshiper, I’ll really appreciate this piece. However, your reference to “"old" American coverage you can watch above”, was a bit confusing to me. Phil and Paul, in my opinion, are the best sports pair commentators of all time.

David McDuff said...

@Sam - Thanks, Samantha. It took me a while to get through this one. It had me word blocked for a few days. Once they started coming, though, they didn't want to stop. Actually had to force myself to wrap it up.

@Michael - Actually, I'm in complete agreement with you as to the Phil and Paul combo, Michael. They're by far my favorite English language cycling commentators. The "old" reference was more in relation to the melodramatic, highlight reel coverage in the clip I included, to the schmaltzy music and the Sam Posey color commentary. Cycling coverage here in the US has come a long way since then.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks David

I cant tell you how much I love these kinds of posts...I echo Sam's words

David McDuff said...

Thanks for sharing your kind words, Alfonso. It's much appreciated.

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