Laurent Fignon: 1960-2010

We’re sad to learn of the death of Laurent Fignon. To Americans, he is most often remembered as Greg LeMond’s adversary in the 1989 Tour de France, giving the race its closest finish in history.

And while his 58-second loss in the final time trial made for one of the Tour’s most enduring drama’s, Fignon’s legacy is much, much greater. He was known to correct those who met him and recalled, “Ah, you’re the one who lost the Tour by eight seconds” by saying, “No monsieur, I’m the guy who won it twice.”

In fact, Fignon did much more than that.

He announced his arrival on the scene in 1982, just 22 years old, by winning the Criterium International. But it was in 1983 at the Tour de France when he rode his way into the yellow jersey on l’Alpe d’Huez that his fame was minted. The stylish climber confirmed his right to the throne by winning the Dijon time trial four days later.

Bernard Hinault was absent from the ’83 race, and that led to speculation that Fignon might not have been the most worthy of winners. Fignon sealed his reputation by beating Hinault soundly in ’84. Once again, he took the yellow jersey on the climb to l’Alpe d’Huez in a performance that also helped carve the mountain’s name into the mythology of the Tour. Le professeur, a nickname given him due to his studious-looking glasses, won the final time trial yet again, proving his mastery of multiple disciplines. His lead over Hinault by the time the race finished in Paris was decisive—10:32.

For those with an eye on history and destiny, 1989 is and was Fignon’s greatest season. He began the year by winning Milan-San Remo for the second year in a row. He went on to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Holland. By the time he climbed the prologue start ramp in Luxembourg, few thought he would lose the ’89 Tour.

When Fignon attacked a clearly suffering LeMond on l’Alpe d’Huez, it seemed that he would yet again ride into yellow and hold it to Paris. The time trial might not have been a formality, but Fignon was, after all, a Parisian wearing the yellow jersey on a course in his home city. What could go wrong?

History does not record all details equally. Much is made of LeMond’s 58-second victory in the time trial. What isn’t reported as often is that Fignon finished third that day, that he was accustomed to winning the Tour’s final time trial when he wore yellow. One can hardly imagine the shock he experienced.

He went on to win the Grand Prix des Nations time trial that year and rode well at the World Championships in Chambery; his late-race attack was foiled by none other than Greg LeMond.

When LeMond was named rider of the year by multiple news outlets, as well as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Fignon was incensed and asked, ‘Who won all year? I won from March to September. I was the rider of the year.’

Though Fignon did score other wins later in his career, a crash in the 1990 Giro followed by yet another in the early stages of the Tour prevented the anticipated rematch between LeMond and Fignon and he never regained the form that took him to three Grand Tour victories.

The cancer that claimed Fignon just weeks following his 50th birthday began in his intestine and metastasized to his lungs and vocal chords.

Fignon was a man of strong opinions, a rider who believed one should attack in order to win, that a win without panache was worth less.

Let’s remember him by attacking on our next ride.

Images: John Pierce, Photosport International

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14 comments

  1. SinglespeedJarv

    A true great. I missed his two tour wins, I came to cycling at the ’84 Tour, but only remember watching Robert Millar in the Mountains jersey. But the ’89 Tour I will always remember. I was rooting for Lemond all the way, but the battle was epic and not like these days when they wait for the last mountain of the Tour to attack. These days are lacking in panache.

    Au revoir, Monsieur Fignon.

  2. SinglespeedJarv

    A true great. I missed his two tour wins, I came to cycling at the ’84 Tour, but only remember watching Robert Millar in the Mountains jersey. But the ’89 Tour I will always remember. I was rooting for Lemond all the way, but the battle was epic and not like these days when they wait for the last mountain of the Tour to attack. These days are lacking in panache.

    Au revoir, Monsieur Fignon.

  3. Lachlan

    As as friend just reminded me…

    Ah, I remember you – you’re the guy who lost the Tour by eight seconds”
    “No Monsieur, I’m the guy who won it twice”

    RIP

  4. grolby

    Very sad – Fignon was a great champion, an interesting and intelligent rider and later commentator. The 1989 Tour was one of the hardest fought, most dramatic races ever. Fignon deserves to be remembered, not as a loser, but as the great fighter and champion that he was. He would have been, at least in sporting terms, every bit as deserving a winner as LeMond that day. After three weeks, what’s 8 seconds? It’s sad to know that Fignon is no longer with us. Chapeau, professeur!!

  5. Blaireau

    I’ll miss the TV commentator also. Always had a strong opinion and wasn’t afraid to express it. He was out there on the Tour just a month ago fighting against a voice that was failing him.

    Adieu champ.

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  7. toddk

    Fignon was always an exciting cyclist to follow and was a great animator on the bike. I remember the 89 tour very well. You had two former winners of the tour, neither of whom had been in contention for a few years. They were no longer young upstarts, but instead were matured cyclists attempting to redeem their place in the Tour peloton against a gradual influx of newer combatants. That they each persevered to be back at the higher levels of the sport and then subsequently provide a Tour with so much natural drama that it could not have been scripted any better had some one set out to write it from a fictional perspective, makes it one of th most exciting stories in the sport. That Fignon raced in a nearly identical manner that netted him two prior wins just underlines how hard it is to come out on top in the Tour.

    It is somewhat unfortunate that that one defeat looms so large on his palmares as it underscores some great successes. I most like to remember him for his dominance in the 84 Tour where he won five stages and in doing so completely dominated Hinault (and by the way his Renault- Elf team mate Lemond) in winning the Tour by more than 10 minutes. In typical Hinault fashion, he threw everything but the kitchen sink at Fignon, but Fignon had mastered his former master and took the race by the reigns. That he was reportedly nonchalant about it all was a fantastic contrast to Hinault.

    His career fell into an interesting crossroads during the 80’s where technology, tactics and the introduction of Americans into the peloton were starting to alter the traditions of the sport. In some ways he was very symbolic of that transition between the old and new in that had some elements and attitudes of the new, but still had his feet planted in a lot of the traditional elements of the sport.

    One thing is certain: He definitely had style on the bike!

    Adieu Fignon!

  8. michael

    Panache. That word will forever in the dictionary in my mind have a photo of Fignon storming up the Alpe next to it. The 1983 Tour was the first once I watched as an 11 year old. The 1984 Tour was the one that sucked me into cycling at the age of 12.

    Fignon will forever be tied to my love for cycling. By the time 1989 rolled around I was already in at the deep end. His last year of greatness, and I fondly remember shedding some tears as he buried himself trying to make it to the line.

    After watching in disbelief and sitting on the floor in the living room stunned for what seemed like hours, I got up, dusted off my ass and went out for a ride – raging against the wind, imagining I was bearing down on Lemond and passing him as my minute man in payback to the afront of him defeating my hero only moments earlier.

    Listening to his commentary over the years and especially during this last Tour was a privilige. None of the drivel being sputtered by Phil and Paul, proper analysis interspersed with moments of humor, deep insight, raging sarcasm and outright indiginancy. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    Chapeau, Monsieur Fignon. Vous etes mon hero depuis mon enfance et la source d’inspiration qui m’a fait enfourcher mon velo a travers tout les pire journees de ma vie. Vous allez nous manquer.

    Adieu.

  9. randomactsofcycling

    I would like to think I could add something to this, but Michael has phrased it much better than I am capable.
    Rest in Peace Monsieur Fignon.

  10. Hautacam

    There is a great clip from a post ’89 Tour (where Fignon rode in a supporting role — on Gatorade, for Bugno perhaps? Can’t recall at the moment). Anyway, in one of the mountain stages he did a blazing descent in dicey conditions, pulled himself back into the gruppo on the valley floor, and then sliced right through the gruppo to set the pace on the front, not wasting a second to chat or even to glance at the other riders. While it was clearly a mind-boggling effort, the footage is even more remarkable for how composed he looks during the whole thing. I can’t imagine what went through the minds of the riders in the gruppo when they saw who had overhauled them, and the manner in which he did it — as if he were out on a Sunday pleasure ride.

    Love him or hate him, Fignon was a class act. Chapeaus and adieu, Professor.

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