Robert Millar and Laurent Fignon both made their Tour de France debut in 1983. And at the time both were perhaps ‘young and carefree’ as Fignon would go on to title his autobiography.
Fignon went on to win the 1983 Tour, while Millar won a mountain stage and was fourteenth overall. In 1984 Fignon won the Tour again and Millar finished fourth overall and won the polka-dot climber’s jersey.
Both were unique individuals but became close because of their idiosyncrasies, while still being fierce rivals on the road.
Here Millar remembers Fignon, who died yesterday from cancer, confirming the Frenchman’s talent and character with revealing anecdotes from the 1983 and 1984 editions of the Tour de France.
“I was lucky that I had the chance to race with Laurent Fignon for most of my career but I was even luckier that sometimes he used to talk to me during the quiet moments in races, the times when you could linger at the back of the peloton and reflect on things.”
“I liked him as a person. Sure I liked how he raced and how he always fought but primarily I liked Laurent the man. He was intense, passionate and demanding when he competed but he was also respectful and fair to his rivals and teammates. And when the race was over it was over so you didn't have to talk about it forever and a day.”
“Others called him difficult and moody but I liked that aspect of his character and I liked that he didn't tolerate fools and shoddy media people either. I liked the fact that he used to hide behind the Credit Lyonnais stand in the Tour village so he could grab five minutes of peace and quiet to read his newspaper without interruptions. Or that if I sneaked off for a real espresso in a small cafe just before the start of an Italian race, I would more often than not find him and a few teammates having a laugh in the corner of the same cafe.”
“I was shocked when he announced he was ill and I resented that he was suffering so much until he passed away. After giving so much of himself he deserved better. He was intelligent, humorous, and truly special as an athlete and a person. He'll be missed.”
Tour de France memories
“A couple of examples of how gifted Fignon really was come to mind as I remember when we raced together.”
“We’re at the 1983 Tour de France and it's the morning of the 50km Dijon time trial, the day before the final stage to Paris. I'm out riding the route to see what it's like, the usual stuff of assessing gearing, wind direction and road surfaces. About forty kilometres into the route and nicely warmed up, we are riding hard to get an idea of how the legs feel spinning a big gear, when Fignon suddenly comes past going considerably faster.”
“We think ‘Ok, showing off are we?’, ‘trying to psyche us out?’ And so we give chase. What a bad idea. I can't remember who I was with but there were three of us going through and off and yet he just disappeared into the distance very quickly. We were totally demoralised when we finally catch him up at the finish area and see he is hardly sweating. We knew who the winner would be that afternoon. Sure enough Fignon wins the time trial and the Tour. The next day I catch up with him and offer my congratulations. We briefly talk about the time trial and he admits in total sincerity that he only changed gear a couple of times during the whole thing. He said he went down from top gear for the harder bits because he felt he ought to, not because he needed to.”
“Another great memory I have is from the year after, 1984, during stage 20 of the Tour de France from Morzine to Crans Montana. It's boiling hot. As we hit the bottom of the final climb to the finish, Pascal Jules from Fignon's team is in front with about a minute lead. There are a few attacks but then Fignon hits the front to calm things down, probably thinking that if he controls the pace then no-one will dare come past.”
“He's not wrong as he's going so fast the talking has stopped in the bunch. After a couple of kilometres I somehow find myself in second position right behind him and start thinking and feeling that the pace he is setting is way too much for my liking. As it becomes more and more uncomfortable to maintain some kind of composure I think to myself that it might be better to slip back a bit and get more shelter amongst the wheels of the group, maybe recover a bit because I know it gets steeper later on. If Fignon had been going slower I might have been able to look round and see there was no group to hide in. We were lined out in the gutter so much that when I pulled over to recover a bit no-one came past. And with that Fignon rode off to catch his friend and win the stage.”
I was waiting for one of the other riders to complain that I had let the wheel go but strangely no-one mentioned it. Everyone knew just how strong Fignon was and knew they would not have been able to hold his wheel either.”