2-time Tour champion Laurent Fignon dies at 50

Laurent Fignon, a Frenchman who twice won the Tour de France but was defeated by American rival Greg LeMond in arguably the event’s greatest race, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer, the French Cycling Federation said. He was 50.Fignon announced in June 2009 that he had advanced cancer of the digestive system and was undergoing chemotherapy.

Fignon had worked as a television commentator for the state-backed France 2 network since 2006 — and right through this year’s Tour, which ended barely a month ago. His voice was gravelly from his illness and treatment.

“He was a great champion who used a combination of talent and will to win the Tour de France twice,” French Cycling Federation president David Lappartient told The Associated Press. “He had an iron will, and was also a very intelligent man.”

Seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, who himself battled cancer, called Fignon a “dear friend” and a “legendary cyclist.”

“I will never forget the early 90s when I first turned pro, of course terrified of these ‘older guys,’ Laurent was always a friendly face with words of advice,” Armstrong said in a statement. “He was a special man to me, to cycling, and to all of France. Laurent, we will all miss you.”

French president and cycling fan Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Fignon as “an amazing and exceptional champion who left an indelible mark in the history of the Tour de France and French cycling.”

The gargantuan battle between Fignon and LeMond in the 1989 Tour produced the narrowest winning result in the history of the world’s most famous cycling race.

For three weeks they dogged each other, the leader’s yellow jersey passing back and forth between them. Finally, with only the last-day time-trial to go, Fignon had amassed a 50-second lead that appeared decisive.

But LeMond, riding with an aerodynamic helmet and new-style triathlon handlebars that Fignon maintained were illegal, set a blistering pace — the fastest full-length time-trial stage ever ridden at the time.

Fignon rode last, using traditional handlebars and with his ponytail blowing in the wind. He gave everything he had, collapsing to the ground after crossing the finishing line. But it was not enough. LeMond took the Tour by eight seconds — the smallest margin of victory ever.

“The cyclist who doesn’t know how to lose cannot become a champion. … But to lose like that, on the last day, with such a small gap, and principally because of handlebars that were banned under the rules, no, that was too much for one man,” Fignon said in his autobiography, “We Were Young and Carefree,” published last year.

“I counted eight seconds in my head, and the more I counted the more I realized what a ridiculous period of time it was. In eight seconds you don’t have time to do anything!”

Tour director Christian Prudhomme said Fignon’s 1989 Tour defeat was steeped in cycling legend.

“This glorious defeat of 1989 is stronger than anything else in terms of media impact,” Prudhomme told the AP. “I remember that lost look in his eyes on the finish line at the Champs-Elysees, which contrasted with Greg Lemond’s indescribable joy.”

Fignon devoted the first chapter of the book to the defeat, acknowledging it as the defining moment of a career that had otherwise seen much glory.

In the book, Fignon also admitted to doping, describing drug-taking in the 1980s as widespread but not organized, often recreational rather than performance-enhancing — aided by the strong Colombian involvement in cycling at the time, accompanied by large quantities of cocaine.

He said doping in cycling was revolutionized by the arrival of the blood-booster EPO in the early ’90s. Fignon said he refused to take it — and retired from competition in 1993 when he realized that mediocre riders were now keeping up with him.

“The guy was a real character, both on and off his bike,” said Marc Madiot, a former Fignon teammate and Francaise des Jeux team manager. “Hats off to him.”

Born Aug. 12, 1960, the blond, bespectacled Fignon excelled at sports as a child and took up cycling because his friends did — initially against the wishes of his parents, who disliked the fact that amateur cycle races took place on Sundays, which they considered to be a day for family activities.

Despite his reputation for being well-read and his nickname “The Professor,” Fignon dropped out of college. He competed in cycle races while completing his army service before being signed up by respected sporting director Cyrille Guimard to the Renault team.

Fignon won the Tour on his first attempt in 1983 in just his second year as a professional, seizing the opportunity presented by the absence due to injury of the Renault team leader — four-time winner and defending champion Bernard Hinault.

Fignon put on the yellow jersey for the first time at the top of the legendary Alpe d’Huez, and held it for the final five days of the race, cementing his victory by winning the time-trial on the penultimate day. At 22, Fignon was the youngest postwar winner of the Tour.

If doubt still hung over Fignon’s victory because of Hinault’s absence, that was to be dispelled the following year when the two men — now in different teams — went head-to-head.

Fignon, already second in the Giro d’Italia earlier in the season, dominated the race, taking five stages and finishing more than 10 minutes ahead of Hinault.

Fignon was unable to defend his title in 1985 due to injury, and Hinault took it back. When Renault withdrew from sports sponsorship at the end of that season, Fignon and Guimard went into business together, establishing a new model for cycling where the team was no longer owned by the sponsor.

Fignon and Guimard’s partnership ended in a deeply acrimonious split six years later and they never reconciled.

After a pair of glorious victories in the Milan-San Remo one-day classic but three relatively dry years in the major stage races, Fignon won the Giro d’Italia in 1989, only the third Frenchman ever to do so.

Despite his disappointment in the Tour de France, Fignon went on to win the Tour of the Netherlands that season and finished the year as the world’s top-ranked cyclist. But he was never again to come close to victory in the Tour.

Though feted by the cycling-mad French, Fignon never achieved the public adoration of Hinault, and footage of him spitting at journalists in 1989 cemented his reputation for testiness and a certain arrogance. He was awarded the “Prix Citron” for the least likable rider after the 1989 Tour.

“At least I won something,” he noted acidly in his autobiography.

After his retirement, Fignon tried his hand as a race promoter, but claimed his attempts to raise the profile of the Paris-Nice race were stymied by the dominance of the Tour de France organization.

In 2006, he opened a hotel complex in the foothills of the Pyrenees as the Laurent Fignon Centre, offering enthusiastic amateur cyclists guided rides up the Col du Tourmalet and other famed Tour de France climbs.

Fignon is survived by his wife Valerie and a son from a previous marriage.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.
Posted on August 31, 2010 at 6:01 AM
Updated today at 9:02 AM

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