Laurent Fignon, the bespectacled “Professeur” of cycling, has died from cancer at the age of 50.

Laurent Fignon, 2nd wheel, on the Galibier, TdF 1992

Back in the eighties it was an American, Greg Lemond, who hooked my interest in cycling; he was someone who was from the outside shaking up the impenetrable world of European procycling. This meant that the riders I loved to hate were the spikey and arrogant French, especially Monsieurs Fignon and Hinault. In hindsight, my opinion of Laurent Fignon was entirely based on his apparent lack of approachability and not his cycling. He won the Tour de France twice and the Giro d’Italia and is one of a tiny handful of riders to have won the Tour on debut. He also won Milan – San Remo twice. His record, in other words, speaks for itself and is rightly comparable to many of the greats of cycling. Moreover, at times, such as on his 2nd Tour victory in 1984, he was almost unbeatable, and were it not for injury, he surely would have added further Grand Tours and Monuments to his palmares. What strikes me most from his biography translated into English this year, however, was his attitude towards the cheats. He retired from the sport quite simply because he couldn’t bear the fact that lesser men were beating him through artificial means. When he saw 30 riders pass him on a mountain stage in 1993 barely breaking sweat he knew his time was up, and the very next day abandoned the Tour. And for that, both Lemond and he should be remembered as great champions, and not the winner and loser of the closest Tour de France in history.

Laurent Fignon’s autobiography, We Were Young and Carefree, is definitely worth seeking out. His frank and open assessment of the 80’s and of his fellow professionals, including the likes of Lemond and Hinault, makes for a great story.

Finally, here is the ITV4 retrospective on that 1989 Tour in which the 8 second victory by Lemond remains one of sport’s iconic moments of the 20th century.

Image under a Creative Commons licence on Flickr by velodenz