Laurent Fignon, a Frenchman who twice won the Tour de France but was defeated by American rival Greg LeMond in arguably the event’s greatest race, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was 50.
Fignon, who had worked as a television commentator for the state-backed France 2 network for the past five years, announced last June that he had advanced cancer of the digestive system and was undergoing chemotherapy. France 2 TV reported his death Tuesday.
The gargantuan battle between Fignon and LeMond in the 1989 Tour de France produced the narrowest winning result in the history of the world’s most famous cycling race: 8 seconds.
"He was a great champion who used a combination of talent and will to win the Tour de France twice," David Lappartient, president of the French Cycling Federation, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "He had an iron will, and was also a very intelligent man."
The Centre Laurent Fignon, a sports and activities center in the Pyrenees mountains, could not be reached for comment.
"The guy was a real character, both on and off his bike," said Marc Madiot, a former Fignon teammate and Francaise des Jeux team manager. "Hats off to him."
Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour champion who himself battled cancer, wrote "Allez Laurent!!!" (Let’s Go Laurent!!!) on his Twitter feed late Monday — a sign that he was aware of Fignon’s condition.
Born Aug. 12, 1960, the blond, bespectacled Fignon excelled at sports as a child and took up cycling because his friends did — initially against the wishes of his parents, who disliked the fact that amateur cycling races took place on Sundays, which they considered to be a day for family activities.
Despite his reputation for being well-read and his nickname "The Professor," Fignon dropped out of college. He competed in cycle races while completing his army service.
Fignon won the Tour on his first attempt in 1983 in just his second year as a professional, seizing the opportunity presented by the absence of four-time winner and defending champion Bernard Hinault. He also won in 1984.
Though feted by the cycling-mad French, Fignon never achieved the public adoration of Hinault, and footage of him spitting at journalists in 1989 cemented his reputation for testiness and a certain arrogance. He was awarded the "Prix Citron" for the least likable rider after the 1989 Tour.
"At least I won something," he noted acidly in his autobiography.
In 2006, Fignon opened a hotel complex in the foothills of the Pyrenees as the Centre Laurent Fignon, offering enthusiastic amateur cyclists guided rides up the Col du Tourmalet and other famed Tour de France climbs.