He burst like a supernova onto the cycling scene in 1983, winning the Tour de France as an audacious, impertinent 22-year-old, and winning it again in '84. By rights, those victories should have defined Laurent Fignon's career. But it was the fate of the Frenchman, who died on Aug. 31 at the age of 50 from cancer, to be best remembered for a Tour he did not win.
The prickly, proud, bespectacled rider known as Le Professeur led Greg LeMond by 50 seconds going into the final stage of the '89 Tour, a 15.2-mile time trial from Versailles into Paris. Despite LeMond's virtuosity in that discipline, the American was given little chance of overtaking Fignon; the distance was too short. So believed the Frenchman, who dismissed LeMond's chances as "impossible." And so believed the editors of French papers who prepared special editions celebrating Fignon's victory.
Using triathlon handlebars and wearing a teardrop-shaped helmet—cutting-edge accessories then—LeMond averaged 33.89 mph, which stood for 16 years as the fastest Tour time trial ever ridden. Fignon, eschewing both the tri bars and helmet, finished 58 seconds behind LeMond, losing the 2,041-mile race by eight seconds.
That finish, by far the closest in the history of the Tour, eclipsed the memory of Fignon's debut. By winning back-to-back Tours he had supplanted his elder countryman, five-time-Tour winner Bernard (the Badger) Hinault, thus ushering in a new era for cycling.
"We were competitors but also friends," recalled LeMond, who also praised his ex-rival's "honesty and frankness"—likely a reference to Fignon's admission, in his 2009 autobiography, We Were Young and Carefree, that he used drugs during his career. In that book Fignon recalled once being approached by a man who said, "You're the guy who lost the Tour by eight seconds." Replied Fignon, "No monsieur, I'm the guy who won it twice."
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Miami Heat rookie forward Da'Sean Butler last week used 30 Twitter entries to post a 693-word children's story about a purple dinosaur named Barney that defecates on his kitchen table, the moral of which, he wrote, is that "sometimes you [sic] best friends can get [you] in a lot of trouble."
LIONEL CIRONNEAU/AP (FIGNON)
FOUR EYES, TWO WINS Fignon rode the Tour just twice more after losing to LeMond.