Tuesday, August 31, 2010

UPDATED: Laurent Fignon is Dead

Laurent Fignon, twice winner of the Tour de France and runner-up in the race's greatest edition in 1989, is dead. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 50 today in Paris, France.

"I don't want to die at 50 but if my cancer is incurable, what can I do?," he lamented to Paris-Match magazine in January.

Fignon, a Parisian known in the peloton as "The Professor" for his bespectacled appearance, won the Tour in 1983 and 1984, the Giro d'Italia in 1989 and Milan-San Remo twice, in 1988 and 1989.

Considered to be one of the best riders of the 80's, Fignon could also count in his palmares victories in two editions of the Critérium International, the GP des Nations, and Flèche Wallonne; he was the 1984 French professional champion.

But 1989 was his most memorable season.

Despite fighting a see-saw battle with Greg LeMond during the '89 Tour, and swapping the race leader's yellow jersey four times, Fignon could not best the American. He started the final stage - a 25km individual time trial - with a 50-second lead, but would be pipped by eight seconds in the end, the closest margin ever.

As Fignon raced down The Avenue des Champs-Élysées and headed towards the finish of the race, British commentator Phil Ligget exclaimed, "Fignon is bouncing off the barriers! He's lost the Tour de France!" (see 4:38 in the video included below) It was a watershed moment in cycling history, and one that clearly marked a transition between old and new.

While he configured a dual-disc set-up for his time trial bike, Fignon chose to race that day without the benefit of an aerodynamic helmet, or the newfangled clip-on handlebars for which his rival LeMond had opted.

And despite only a year's age difference between them, the pony-tailed Fignon seemed older and more fragile after crossing the line - a spent force - while LeMond's post-race joy and wonderment were popping.

In a book published in June 2009, "We Were Young and Carefree," Fignon revealed he had been diagnosed with cancer. He also admitted to having used doping products at various points throughout his career, but said he did not know if they had caused his illness.

"I love life, I love a good laugh, travel, books, good food. I'm a typical Frenchman. I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to die."

After he retired, Fignon managed races including Paris-Nice before becoming a television consultant. He worked for France 2 television on the last Tour, despite a voice broken by his illness, and said at the end of the race that he would be back in 2011.

As Greg LeMond told me several years ago, "Fignon was a great competitor and he pushed me to push myself to do my best."

Aloof. Aristocratic. Ferocious. Fierce. In retirement - rejuvenated. Fignon may not have feared death, but he is, undoubtedly, gone too soon.

This report includes writing by Jean-Paul Couret and Editing by Clare Fallon (Reuters).

Notes: LeMond's effort was the fastest individual time trial for a distance longer than 10 km ever ridden in the Tour (54.545 km/h average speed). Fignon finished third in the final time trial, averaging 53.59 km/h (33.33 mph). Fignon’s Super-U teammate Thierry Marie took second on the stage, at 33 seconds.

UPDATE: On a day filled with tributes to Fignon, these words by LeMond stand out:

"It's a really sad day. I see him as one of the great riders who was hampered by injuries. He had a very, very big talent, much more than anyone recognized. For me he was one of the greater champions that was not recognized. He was more recognized for his loss in the Tour de France than for his two victories.”

“When he lost the Tour de France in 1989 it was one of the few victories where I felt we both won. The saddest thing for me is that for the rest of his career he said he won two Tours de France, when in reality we both could have won the race."

I apologize to those who thought it was a poor choice to feature video of Fignon actually losing a bike race - rather than winning. It was 1989 when I started cycling, however, and my first - and enduring - memory of Fignon was his epic battle with LeMond. If you have links to video clips of Fignon winning races, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I'll add them to this main body of the post.


  1. Nice post, great video, thanks for including a pic from the Giro. Noticing a lot of TT shots! whew. Wow.

  2. The death of Fignon is a tragedy for cycling, French sport, humanity - but you have written a respectable - respectful - note on his death and for that we people of France acknowledge you. Let us hope it is not the death of another of our hero'es that brings forth yuor talents again.

  3. Holy shit! Fignon is dead?! But he's like 49 only, right?

  4. Thanks for your comments so far, folks. Fignon was 50, actually, having just celebrated a birthday this month, I believe.

    As I just told a friend of mine, today is
    a sad day, for sure, but we must celebrate Fignon and ensure that his memory is firmly established w/in the realm of internet-based cycling history, and that his name is etched into the pantheon of cycling greats.

    I finished second-from-last in my first bike race, which was in 1989, but decided to stick with the sport because of the inspiring story that was the battle for the Tour b/w LeMond and Fignon.

    Hopefully some amateur team in the US will decide to reprise the Super-U kit and will make it the basis for their team’s 2011 design!

    Gitane is a great bike, but I think "Fignon" would be an even cooler brand name.

    Maybe Trek can start making commemorative models in ltd #'s to commemorate all of the Tour winners pre-Armstrong.

  5. Ummm, it would have been nice to watch video of Fignon winning something, not losing to LeMond.

  6. No being over in europe, I know it's hard to understand how integral a part of cycling Fignon had become with commentary. He could be harsh at times (and I'm sure many cyclists grimaced at his insightful analysis), but he spoke from his own experience and spoke true. And when he spoke, I always listened. He was the voice of cycling to me that I most respected and enjoyed.

    I was gutted when he announced he had cancer.

    And could he ever be funny -- he had an absolutely wicked sense of humour! He had me in stitches this Tour, even raspy voiced, with the noises he made whilst Andy Schleck descended after the Chaingate incident.

    His love of life, of cycling, was evident even to the last. He was a fighter and it showed, both with his words and deeds. I think his death hit everyone so hard because we really thought he had what it took to win this one, against the odds. He never gave up and fought it with such beautiful dignity.

    Whilst i admired him as a cyclist, I will honestly will miss him most of all, selfishly, for his brilliant commentary.

    The Tour will never be the same.

    R.I.P. Laurent!

  7. Cam, thanks for your heart-felt words and expression of true emotion at the death of Fignon.

    If you have an especially memorable clip (audio or video w/ sound) of Fignon doing commentary, please send me the link and I'd be happy to post it.

  8. I was in France during the Tour this summer. Fignon was providing commentary on the last 10km of each stage because he was too weak to spend hours on TV. It was evident he wasn't doing well - his voice was in BAD shape. Nevertheless, he passed more quickly than I anticipated.

    I was always (still am) a LeMond fan and I thought of Fignon as the guy with the black hat. But, over time my opinion changed and I came to respect him a great deal. May he RIP.

  9. Anon, thanks for sharing your experience w/ Fignon's 2010 work. I wish I'd known that he was so on the ropes...for some reason I'd just assumed that he'd battled back to a position of stability w/ the disease.

    Fignon as a person I really know nothing about, unfortunately. He was finishing his career when I was still a junior, and not speaking French, I wasn't able to access efficiently his body of work.

    Is there an english-language version of his biograhy/memoirs?

    Lastly, has anyone or any network put together a good video montage in tribute to Fignon and in celebration of his career? If so, someone please post the link.

  10. "We Were Young and Carefree" is the english translation of his autobiography: Nous étions jeunes et insouciants and it was released this year (and available at Amazon).

    Still looking for suitable clips to link... I'm afraid all I've come up with are in French (including a rich one from Vélo Club with LeMond in 2007 where they talk about the '89 Tour).

    He was very opinionated which I loved! He could be cranky and harsh and did not suffer fools... But he loved cycling and, most especially, racing. I think would have enjoyed his commentary, Joe.

  11. Nice post, great video, thanks


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