Au Feeling

*WORDS: Max Leonard*

Reading William Fotheringham’s excellent translation of Laurent Fignon’s autobiography, Nous étions jeunes et insouciants (or We Were Young and Carefree), it struck me that no other sport is as dependent on feeling as road racing.

Fignon is always describing how he feels on the bike. There are the good moments that must be celebrated: “I was flying. It was a joyful feeling… the pedals were so light that it almost felt ecstatic going to the front to put in my turn.” Or later, during his second Milan-San Remo win: “My legs didn’t hurt; the pedals turned fluidly. I felt astonishingly calm.” A recurring criticism of Cyrille Guimard concerns his DS’s tactical caution, which Fignon felt prevented him from giving expression to his best form. Yet Fignon also recognises the importance of hiding in the peloton behind domestiques to disguise moments of suffering, and of struggling through a bad patch to win through: “I was in agony, believe me… I clung on; it was life or death.”

One of the great French anglicisms is the phrase au feeling. Doing something au feeling conveys an air of wilful spontaneity, of joyous individual expression. In Fignon’s telling, he always rode au feeling. His book is an ode to the days before race radios and heart rate monitors – so the criticism goes – turned professional cyclists into automata. Indeed, he recounts a moment in 1986 when “I lost my temper with those blasted pulse monitors: I handed mine back so that it wouldn’t tell me anything more”.

Fignon views the moment when EPO arrived, coinciding more or less with his retirement, was the moment professional cyclists – and their sport – lost their insouciance for ever more. It is a tempting, if not wholly convincing argument. Yet it is impossible not to feel the emotional force behind his words: “My career saw the end of the last untroubled age of bike racing. The men of that era still looked each other in the eye. We didn’t tiptoe away when the time came to light the fuse: we preferred rousing anthems to gentle lullabies. And we didn’t mind getting burned if necessary. A true cyclist sometimes has to bite the dust before he can reach the stars.”