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Laurent Fignon, 1960-2010

It was with great sadness yesterday afternoon that I read that Laurent Fignon, two-time winner of the Tour de France, had lost his battle against metastatic cancer. He had only recently turned 50.

Laurent Fignon. RIP (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Winner of La Grande Boucle in 1983 and 1984, and also the Giro d’Italia in 1989, he is perhaps best known for the one that got away – the 1989 Tour, which he lost in dramatic fashion to the American Greg Lemond.

I remember it well, as it was the first year in which I took an interest in the Tour. The yellow jersey had yo-yoed backwards and forwards between the pair throughout the race – LeMond claimed it twice, Fignon reclaimed it twice – with the gap between the two never more than 53 seconds.

Going into the final stage in Paris – an individual time trial – Fignon led by a seemingly decisive 50 seconds. But LeMond – a brilliant time trialist using then-revolutionary extended handlebars to reduce his aerodynamic profile – not only won the stage but finished 58 seconds faster than Fignon, the last man on the road, to win by eight seconds. It remains the narrowest winning margin in Tour history.

It was a defeat which, sadly, came to define the career of ‘Le Professeur’ (on account of his round, thin-framed glasses and ponytail) more than his two victories.

As part of their 20 Greatest Tour Moments a couple of years ago, ITV4 compiled this brief summary of one of the most amazing pieces of live sport ever. It is six minutes long, but well worth reliving:

L’Equipe summed the finish of the race up perfectly with its front page headline the following morning: “Inoubliable!” (Unforgettable!)

At 22, Fignon had become the youngest winner of the Tour in 50 years in 1983 after race leader Pascal Simon was forced to withdraw with injuries sustained in a fall. He capped his unexpected triumph with an individual time trial win in the penultimate stage, and took two further time trials among his five stage wins as he retained the yellow jersey in dominant fashion the following year.

A knee injury robbed him of the chance to complete a hat-trick of wins in 1985, and his career began to decline thereafter. But in 1989 – possibly boosted by the doping to which he admitted only last year – he came back at the top of his game, winning both Milan-San Remo and the Giro. But for LeMond’s aerodynamic advantage in the final time trial, he would probably have added the Tour as well.

He never scaled such heights again, although he did win one final Tour stage in 1992 before retiring a year later.

Fignon was a private man, but in a rare and lengthy post-retirement interview with Cycle Sport in 2005, he described how racing always brought out the best in him:

I am a winner, I like competition, and I like winning. Competition brings out the best in me. When I was a rider, I could never go well in training, but in competition it was different.

Looking back on the 1989 Tour, he said:

Losing is not good. Look, what does history remember? History remembers the winner, and forgets the circumstances.

Yes, I am remembered because I lost a race. 
But when I lost I was not happy. It was a great disappointment, very sad for me. If I had won that day, I would have been a three-time winner. And it’s indicative of the French attitude to sport that I am remembered more as the guy who lost the Tour de France by eight seconds.

But I’m lucky to have earned myself a certain notoriety in France, mainly thanks to 1989. Today, and it is with great regret that I say this, in France it can be better to have lost than to have won.

People remember the Tour of 1989 because it was a nice fight, a good scrap. It was an interesting Tour, as Tours go. I was disappointed at the time, sure, but over time the disappointment has disappeared. There are more serious things in the world.

In the summer of 2009, Fignon published an autobiography, ‘Nous étions jeunes et insouciants’ (‘We were young and carefree’), and revealed that he was undergoing treatment for metastatic cancer, which had spread from his lungs to his digestive system. He died yesterday, August 31st, at 12:30pm in hospital in Paris.

Talking about himself earlier this year, Fignon said:

I love life, laughter, travel, books, good food, like a good Frenchman.

Sometimes when I was physically at my best I could sense moments of utter ecstasy, those rare fleeting times when you are in total harmony with yourself and the elements around you: nature, the noise of the wind, the smells.

Let’s not get carried away. But I have to confess: I was happy.

Fignon is survived by his second wife, Valerie, and two children by his first wife, from whom he divorced in 2000.

Laurent Fignon

12 August 1960 – 31 August 2010

RIP

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

4 Responses to Laurent Fignon, 1960-2010

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  3. Sheree says:

    Very nice tribute to one of cycling’s greats, he’ll be sadly missed. I much enjoyed his commentating on French TV, not a man to mince his words.

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