Tributes have been paid this evening to Laurent Fignon, twice winner of the Tour de France and the youngest to do so in the post-war era, who died today of cancer at the age of just 50 at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in his native city, Paris.
Fignon revealed in June last year that he had been diagnosed with cancer, yet only last month he was working as usual for French TV on the Tour de France, the race he won in 1983 at the age of 22, retaining his title the following year. Despite clearly appearing unwell in last month’s TV appearances, news of his death has come as a shock to the cycling world and the French public.
Injury disrupted Fignon’s career in the mid-1980s, but by 1988 he was back to his best, winning one-day classics La Flèche Wallone and Milan-Sanremo. In 1989, he successfully defended his title in La Primavera, as the Italian race is known, going on to win the Giro d’Italia shortly after.
However, it is for his second place in that year’s Tour de France, when he was beaten by the narrowest margin in the 107-year history of the race, that Fignon will forever be remembered.
The final stage of the 1989 race saw an individual time trial from Versailles to Paris, symbolically commemorating the storming of the Bastille almost 200 years to the day earlier. Fignon, riding for Syteme U-Raleigh, began the 25km stage in the maillot jaune, 50 seconds ahead of Greg LeMond.
Few gave the American a chance, even though unlike Fignon, he was using the newly introduced tri-bars and an aero helmet, and the expectation was that the French public would enjoy the sight of one of their own winning the Tour in a month marking the bicentenary of the Revolution.
LeMond, however, rode the race of his life, taking more than two seconds off Fignon with every kilometre; meanwhile, no-one knew that the Frenchman had spent a sleepless night due to an excrutiatingly painful saddle sore.
At the finish in Paris, just eight seconds separated the riders, but it was LeMond who stood on the top step of the podium in the yellow jersey. It has since been suggested that had Fignon only cut off his trademark ponytail before the time trial, the reduced drag would have seen him emerge victorious from the duel.
Today, his former rival was among the first to pay tribute to the rider nicknamed Le Professeur on account of his spectacles and the fact he had managed to pass his Baccalaureat - France's equivalent of A-levels - a rarity in French professional cycling circles at the time.
Quoted in French sports daily L’Equipe, LeMond said: “For me, he was truly a unique man. I’m a little shocked. He was a man who didn’t speak much, a private man, but also a brilliantly intelligent man. I liked him, he was honest with himself. For me, he was one of the best riders of the past 35, 40 years. In 1989, on the podium, I felt bad for him.”
Fignon got his chance to ride as a pro – a career choice that was in conflict with his parents’ wishes – when, as an amateur, he managed to keep pace with the great Bernard Hinault in a race in Corsica, and in 1982 signed a contract with the Breton rider’s Renault Team.
Having helped Hinault win the 1983 Vuelta, then held near the start of the season, Fignon was set to miss the Tour de France until injury forced his team leader to withdraw ahead of the race. Put in the team to target stage wins, Fignon instead went on to win the race.
By the following year, with Hinault joining the new La Vie Claire team, the pair were rivals, and it was the youngster , still with Renault, who emerged victorious from an epic battle between the pair in that year’s Tour de France.
Today, Hinault said he was “moved” by news of his protegé-turned-rival’s death. “He was a fighter,” he continued, “he fought for victory like me, but he always fought a correct, honest. Then again, faced with his illness, he fought but he didn’t win.”
Hinault continued: “I only have good memories of him,” adding that “even if he was a combative rival on the bike, we shared many great moments off the bike.”
In his autobiography published last year, We Were Young and Carefree, Fignon confessed that his move into the professional ranks had seen him drawn into using performance enhancing drugs, but drew a distinction between what he saw as the haphazard doping practices of the mid-1980s and the more organised, clinically planned use of illegal substances in more recent years.
However, recently, he wondered whether his drugs use had in some way led to his contracting cancer, although doctors assured him it was unlikely.
Retiring from racing in 1993 at the early age of 33 – he had won his final Tour de France stage the previous year riding for Gatorade-Raleigh – Fignon retained his ties with cycling, including becoming the organiser of Paris-Nice before selling it to ASO, owner of the Tour de France, and moved into television punditry.
He reportedly longed for the day when another Frenchman might once again win the Tour – Hinault was the last in 1985 – and took great delight in the six French stage victories in this year’s edition of the race, the last of those, by Pierrick Fédrigo of Bbox Bouygues Telecom, coming six weeks to the day before his death.
No doubt his fellow countrymen currently racing in the Vuelta will be looking to pay tribute to one of their country’s greats tomorrow with a stage win dedicated to his memory.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.