The French rider, nicknamed Le Professeur due to his studious looking appearance, won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984, and was runner-up in 1989 when he lost by just eight seconds, the smallest margin in the history of the race, to American Greg LeMond.
His first victory in the world’s most famous cycling race in 1983 was helped by the crash of the yellow jersey rider Pascal Simon and the absence of eventual 5-time winner Bernard Hinault, but he showed the win was no fluke by going on to win five stages and the overall race the following year just ahead of Hinault, who finished second.
He showed his skill in all types of races — including victories in both one-day classics and stages races in his palmares, having won the prestigious Milan-San Remo twice in 1988 and again in 1989 before finally winning the Tour of Italy in 1989, five years after finishing as runner-up to Francesco Moser in a controversial final day’s time-trial. He also won the Grand Prix des Nations (the unofficial time-trial world championship) in 1989. Fignon achieved a total of 76 victories during his career.
In his autobiography, We Were Young and Carefree, Fignon admitted taking amphetamines and cortisone during his career but did not establish a direct link with his cancer of the digestive system.
“In those days everyone was doing it,” he explained in the book. “But it is impossible to know to what extent doping harms you. Whether those who lived through 1998, when a lot of extreme things happened, will get cancer after 10 or 20 years, I really can’t say.”
Fignon never really recovered from his hometown defeat in the 1989 Tour. In his book, he also recalled a time when he was once recognised as the man to have thrown away the maillot jaune. When a gentleman said to him, “Ah, I remember you: you’re the guy who lost the Tour by eight seconds,” the defiant Fignon responded with the line: “No monsieur, I’m the guy who won it twice.”
Fignon, who had worked as studio commentator with the France 2 television station after his retirement from the sport in the early 1990s, announced in June 2009 that he had advanced cancer of the digestive system and was undergoing chemotherapy, and commentated on the Tour de France in 2009 and 2010 despite the treatment he was receiving.
My thoughts go out to Fignon’s family and friends. Even though, as an American, I was pulling for LeMond to win in 1989, the battle was incredible to watch, and Fignon’s defeat on the final day was heartbreaking. Thank you for helping to solidify my love of this sport.