The Vuelta, 1983, and pre-race favourite Bernard Hinault is struggling with crippling knee pain, all the while maintaining a mask of normality to the opposition. Renault team director Cyrille Guimard calls on second year professional Laurent Fignon to launch The Badger in a final bid to wrestle the maillot amarillo from the shoulders of Julián Gorospe.
My task was to burn off the opposition on the lower slopes of the Serranillos. I had to go absolutely flat out. It was simple: I hit the climb as if there was no tomorrow, on the big ring for five or six kilometres, with Hinault on my wheel. The Vuelta was won and lost here; the final act of the drama was about to unfold. Lajaretta was struggling; Gorospe was hanging on. But soon I could see that, overwhelmed by the speed, Gorospe was completely in the red. The fateful moment had come. I was about to witness close-up what the astonishing Breton was capable of, and I saw the final flourish on the masterpiece. Hinault dealt the coup de grâce and it was as if, suddenly, he had forgotten everything. He seemed oblivious to the pain, the injury that was affecting a little more of his flesh each day, his adversaries, and even his doubts. All that remained was a man in his prime who was unleashed by the strength of his character. He was such a proud devil. He epitomised the way in which the rebelliousness of an exceptional champion could become a sublime display of raw emotion. Hinault went away with no teammates, with Vincente Belda on his wheel, in an epic, unreal attack over the last eighty kilometres. We had turned the Vuelta upside down and cast a spell on everyone.
– Extract from We Were Young and Carefree by Laurent Fignon (Yellow Jersey Press)
Two months later, having helped Hinault to victory in Spain, the 22-year-old Fignon became the youngest rider since 1933 to win the Tour. France had a new hero and the cycling world had discovered one of the truly great champions.
*born 12 August 1960; died 31 August 2010*