Student-turned-pro cyclist captures Tour de France in first try

He is a young newcomer, and was not listed among the racers favored to win this year's Tour de France, the grueling bicycle race that fascinates the French each July.

But last Sunday 22-year-old Laurent Fignon pedaled triumphantly down the Champs Elysees to cheering crowds, the new winner in one of the most open competitions the tour has seen in recent years.

With his shock of blond hair and granny glasses, Fignon seems more of a scholar than a toughened young athlete who won an event that causes a third of the cyclists who enter it to drop out before the finish.

Even he seemed a bit surprised that he had won. ''In the mountains I was worried that I wouldn't be strong enough,'' he admitted after his victory, ''but you have to go out there and fight.''

The son of a retired metal worker from the town of Tournan-en-Brie, Fignon decided to drop his university studies to become a professional cyclist. This is his second year as a professional racer with the Renault-Gitane team, and it was his first Tour de France. He is the youngest champion since 1965, when an Italian named Felice Gimondi won the race. He finished the 2,315-mile race in 105 hours, 7 minutes, and 52 seconds, four minutes and four seconds ahead of the second place finisher, Spaniard Angel Arroyo.

For the 10 to 12 million spectators who lined the route during the three-week cycling marathon, and for 100 million European television viewers, this year's Tour de France was refreshingly different from the previous several years. Bernard Hinault, Renault-Gitane's supercyclist, dominated the event then, winning four of the last five years - usually by such large margins that his victory was a foregone conclusion.

But this year, with Hinault absent because of an injury, the race was thrown wide open. Until the final stages, it was uncertain who would win.

The coveted yellow jersey, which only the leader of the race wears, passed to six different cyclists during the tour, coming to Fignon a week before the final stage. Fignon managed to hang on to the lead through the punishing stages in the Alps and on to the finish.

The tour runs in 22 stages through every kind of terrain in France, from the treacherous cobblestone roads in Normandy and the flats in Brittany, to the hilly Midi and the steep peaks in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Every day for three weeks the cyclists pedal six to nine hours a day at speeds averaging 19 to 25 m.p.h. The cyclists gasped for air in the high mountain altitudes and endured 100 degree temperatures.

Speed and endurance are keys. But as the final portion on Sunday showed, a cyclist also wins by being a tactician. As the pack of racers entered Paris to begin their six laps of more than a mile each around the Champs Elysees, Fignon's lead, built up through the earlier stages, was approximately four minutes. The situation called for caution, and so he held to a steady pace at around 10th place during this final leg.

Sprinters such as Dane Kim Andersen and Frenchman Pascal Jules pulled ahead by as much as 150 meters in the first laps, but quickly tired and dropped back.

A sudden shower wet the cobblestones on the path, and at least four cyclists took spills. Fignon remained prudent and cautious. Even with his lead, he knew that one bad spill could cost him the yellow jersey. Surrounded protectively by his teammates in the tight clump of riders, he took the curves cautiously and surged ahead in the last lap, moving up to fourth in this final test and finishing comfortably on top overall.

Former tour winner Jacques Anquetil said of Fignon, ''In the difficult moments, he knew how to keep his calm. He never panicked when he was under attack. His self-control astonished me. From the moment he put the yellow jersey on he conducted himself like a real leader.''

Fignon himself said wearing the yellow jersey transformed him. ''You work harder, endure more. The yellow jersey helped me outdo myself.''

During the tour, the daily stages are interspersed with sprints and time trials that bring bonuses. Winning individual stages also earns extra points. For the second year in a row, Irishman Sean Kelly won the green jersey as the overall points leader. Lucien van Impe, a Belgian who won the tour in 1976, wore the polka dot jersey as best climber.

Although it may not seem evident at first, cycling in the tour is a dangerous sport. On the narrow country roads, a pothole or a sharp corner can cause a nasty fall. Going down a winding mountain road can be more dangerous than the exerting climb upwards.

This year's tour saw its share of bad spills, and the cyclist who won the public's heart for his courage was Pascal Simon.

He won the yellow jersey on July 11, when the tour began its climb through the Pyrenees. But the next day his bicycle was bumped and he had a bad fall, injuring his shoulder. He doggedly continued, holding on to the yellow jersey until he could go no further. He passed it to Fignon on July 18, after climbing three of the six major peaks during that day's stage through the Alps.

Fignon steadily built his lead in the final week, but until near the end he had not won an individual stage, an oddity for a tour winner. So on the next-to-last day, during a short 50- kilometer (31-mile) stage against the clock , Fignon decided to set the record straight, and won the stage, 35 seconds ahead of Arroyo.

This year's tour featured many new faces who will be back next year to challenge Hinault, if he decides to race again. One of them, of course, will be his young teammate Laurent Fignon. What will happen then? We'll just have to wait and see.

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