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."
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.