Vuelta a Espana - Blazin' Saddles: Fignon and on

Eurosport - Fri, 03 Sep 16:16:00 2010

Like everyone in the cycling community, Saddles was saddened by the news of the passing away of Laurent Fignon this week.

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Cancer was one particular opponent the prolific Frenchman couldn't overcome - although typically he gave it his best shot.

Back in July on his birthday, Saddles was given - by his brother Axel - a copy of Fignon's honest and compelling autobiography "We Were Young and Carefree".

It was July 3 the day the Tour started in Rotterdam. Over the next three weeks Fignon would be following the race for the fifth year running as an analyst on French TV - while undergoing intensive treatment and despite having just one vocal chord.

In a much lesser capacity, Saddles was covering his fifth Tour himself. In between writing his daily blogs, BS devoured Fignon's book page by page, each chapter so masterfully filling in the blanks from an era which preceded his knowledge of the sport.

 You see, Saddles' first memory of the Tour was Pedro Delgado's win in 1988 - so he was a relative eight-year-old newcomer to the race when Fignon infamously lost the 1989 race to Greg Lemond by just eight seconds.

Images of that individual time trial to Paris - of Fignon "bouncing off the barriers" (to quote Phil Liggett), of Lemond's beaming face at the finish line, and of the pair atop the podium, one all smiles, the other disconsolate, his mind clearly elsewhere - have stayed with Saddles ever since that fateful day.

One reader of this blog sent BS a moving direct message on Twitter this week. "Although I never saw Laurent Fignon race," he wrote, "I feel as if someone from my close family has walked away." Saddles thinks that captures the general morale to a tee. He will be sorely missed - but his legacy will live on and on.

Fignon's nickname was 'The Professor' - not, as the young Saddles thought, because, with those funny spectacles he resembled more a geography teacher than a cyclist, but because of his renowned tactical skills.

Another quirky-looking rider from the same generation, the curly-haired Brit Robert Millar, was quick to pay tribute to Fignon this week. Given Millar's resolute withdrawal from the cycling world since his retirement, the Scotsman's words came as all the more poignant.

If you get the notorious recluse Millar talking about you in public then you have had to have made a sterling impression.

Millar praised the "intelligent, humorous and truly special" Fignon for his intensity and passion but also his respect and sense of fairplay. "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," he said.

Saddles, too, doesn't tolerate fools and shoddy media people either (insert look-in-the-mirror-type joke here). And one Tweet posted last week really wound up yours truly.

Someone called Francois Boury, head of L'Equipe's online arm, wrote: "Of the 30 Tour winners since 1947, 10 are now dead. Compare this to grand slam winners in tennis, of which only six in 71 are dead. 33 per cent vs 8.5 per cent. Surprising, no?"

Saddles wasn't sure what Monsieur Boury's point in stating this fact was, but he expects it has something to do with the spectre of doping - hence the provocative "etonnant, non?" at the end. The inference, clearly, is that former riders are living shorter lives because of the harmful products they threw into their bodies while competing in their heyday.

This spurred Saddles to do some maths of his own. Fignon won the Tour twice and would arguably have won the Giro twice were it not for a low-flying helicopter and some rather suspect last-minute changes to the route in one of the mountainous stages.

So surely, if we want this to be a valid test, we should work out the similar stats regarding the Giro? Cue Saddles logging on to Wikipedia and getting out his calculator

Six of the 42 different Giro winners since 1947 have died, which makes 14 per cent. And while we're at it, what about the Vuelta? Well, 11 of the 49 different winners are now dead - that's 22 per cent.

Now if all three percentages were around the 33 per cent mark, Monsieur Boury could possibly be on to something. But as it is, where's the consistency?

Are we meant to believe that cycling in Italy is better for your health than cycling in France but is still more dangerous than playing tennis at professional level? Do winners of the Vuelta really have a better life expectancy than Tour champions? Can winners of the Giro get to their goal without doping as heavily as their counterparts in Spain or France? Or could it all just be coincidence.

What if, say, Saddles went further and looked into each of the four grand slam tennis finals and discovered that 30 per cent of the winners since '47 of one of them, say the US Open, had now died, whereas only 4 per cent of another, perhaps the French Open, had served their last ball on this planet.

Would that be making a statement about the relative health merits of both countries? Clearly not. The whole thing is quite absurd - and Saddles can show you just why now.

Think of two sports which are hardly renowned for their performance enhancing tendencies. How about snooker and chess?

Of the 22 snooker world champions since 1947, six are now dead (27 per cent). Of the 14 chess world champions, five are dead (36 per cent). So chess is more dangerous in the long-run than cycling the Tour de France. Surprising, no?

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Blazin' Saddles / Eurosport

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