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Throwback: Fignon’s 1989 Sanremo double

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the March 31, 1989 issue of VeloNews magazine.

SAN REMO, Italy (VN) — Laurent Fignon of Systéme U-Raleigh scored a superb repeat victory at the 80th Milan-San Remo, March 18, finishing alone seven seconds ahead of Dutchman Frans Maassen (SuperConfex). Thirty seconds behind Fignon, the rapid Italian Adriano Baffi (Ariostea) took third place by outsprinting a 35-strong group that included the 7-Eleven – Wamasch team’s Sean Yates and no less than five members of the PDM squad.

The prestige of Fignon’s fine achievement was accentuated by this being the first event of the inaugural Perrier World Cup. On the winner’s podium for the second year running, the 28 year-old Frenchman told reporters, “I won the race thanks to the PDM team. Without their efforts to split the race in the last hour, I wouldn’t have had a chance to get away.”

Fignon’s remarks didn’t please the PDM leaders Sean Kelly (who came in fifth) and Steven Rooks (14th). They and their team riders had borne the brunt of chasing down a four-man break that held a 5:30 lead; and then on the Cipressa hill — led by new signing Raul Alcala — they had demolished 75 percent of the opposition with an impressive charge.

At the Cipressa summit, almost 1,000 feet above a rather grey Mediterranean, world champion Maurizio Fondreist (Del Tongo) led the break with Kelly, Alcala, Rudy Dhaenens (all PDM), Steve Bauer (Helvetia – La Suisse), Rolf Gölz (SuperConfex) and Etienne De Wilde (Histor – Sigma). De Wilde was looking for his 11th win of the season.

Only 24km remained, and with six men in the lead group, the PDM team looked set to dominate the finale. But others had not been working as hard in the previous six and a half hours of racing. One was Fignon.

With attack following attack on the wider coast road leading to the final climb, the Poggio, the Frenchman unexpectedly burst clear. He was chased and caught by Maassen, 24, who was working in defense of team leader Gölz. Two others took the pursuit: Silvio Martinello (Atala) and Guy Nulens (Panasonic – Isostar). They could get no closer than 100 meters, with the 40-strong pack another 200 meters back as they approached the Poggio.

This switchback climb — and more importantly its twisting descent — has been the source of most winning moves since 1960, when it was first included on the race route. But fate interceded this year. Approaching the hill, a crash stopped half the lead group, including Rooks and PDM teammates Gert-Jan Theunisse and Hans Daams, the Tour of the Americas winner, along with former world champion Moreno Argentin (Gewiss – Bianchi), Paris-Nice winner Miguel Indurain, Panasonic hope Teun Van Vleit and the Italian sprinter Guido Bontempi (Carrera).

The pile-up disrupted the chase. Theunisse, for instance, who had injured his left arm (it was later diagnosed as a broken bone in the elbow), was left 600 meters behind the group. But, according to PDM manager Manfred Krikke, the tall, thin Dutch star “did an incredible climb” to catch the chasers and finished 11th in San Remo.

That climbing effort should have been made in pulling Kelly and Rooks to within striking distance to Fignon. Instead, the incredible Frenchman, showing the form that won him the Tour de France five years ago, dropped Maassen; and the chasers were still a half-minute shy when they caught Martinello and Nulens just before the plunge to the finish.

Maassen — maybe a star of the future — chased strongly over the last four kilometers, but could only watch from afar as Fignon freewheeled across the finish line in an action replay of his 1988 coup.

If there had been a straw poll when the race left Milan more than seven hours earlier, few would have picked Fignon as the winner. Fignon hates racing in the rain. And a heavy rain, with strong headwinds, persisted through the long morning, slowing progress and discouraging the traditional early break.

The weather didn’t clear until the 200 racers began threading their way down the Turchino Pass towards the Mediterranean coast. The summit prime was won by Pepsi’s Enrico Galleschi from Claude Criquielion (Hitachi) and Marino Lejarreta (Caja Rural). Another Italian, Roberto Pagnin (Malvor – Sidi), took the next prime at the coastal town of Voltri, and continued his effort with teammate Marco Lietti and two compatriots, Davide Cassani (Gewiss – Bianchi) and Claudio Chiapucci (Carrera).

While this quartet raced away to its five-minute lead, the pack was content to discard rain jackets and dry out after the storm. It proved a more hectic time for Greg LeMond (ADR – Coors Light), who was hoping for a good result after an excellent sixth-place finish at the Tirreno-Adriatico race. He experienced all sorts of mechanical problems, necessitating four bike changes, with the subsequent chases back to the peloton. The final straw was a broken shoe and a frustrated LeMond quit the race with 85km remaining. The pace was now warming up with the weather — although the sun never appeared — and the four leaders soon lost ground. “Once we started chasing, we caught them in 30km,” said 7-Eleven’s Bob Roll. “It was PDM setting the pace.”

The junction was finally made approaching the Cipressa, where Alcala did his impressive number, and Fignon followed, awaiting his chance.

Race Notes

– Raul Alcala was riding his first Milan-San Remo. He should have started in 1987, but the race officials stopped him competing because his Mexican cycling federation had not paid its annual dues to the FICP (International Federation of Professional Cycling). This year Alcala impressed everyone by his phenomenal climb of the Cipressa, and he was later content to ride in to San Remo in 55th place, three minutes behind Fignon. With him in the group were his former 7-Eleven teammates Dag-Otto Lauritzen and Andy Hampsten. The other three Americans to complete the 294km course — Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel, and Bob Roll — arrived in a group two minutes later.

– Phinney on new teammate, British racer Sean Yates: “Sean’s an excellent addition to the team. I always thought of him as some older seasoned pro — but he’s actually younger than me! He fits in with the team really well, and we can give him the freedom to do well for himself. That will keep him young.”

– Phinney on Milan-San Remo: “It’s a great race. You can feel a tension in the atmosphere. It’s one of the few times when all the best riders on all the teams are together.”