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