Fignon died of cancer which had been chasing him down over the past couple years. He was one of the first riders I ever remember seeing race the Tour. And he raced it.
The old saying about 15 seconds of fame - well Laurent Fignon was twice as good as most of us, he only need 8 seconds to immortalize himself in our cycling memories. The Tour de France will forever be connected and pass through that 8 seconds on the Champs-Elysee in 1989.
In a CyclingNews article on Fignon's life it quoted, "Cycling is a big family and when a young former champion dies at just fifty years of age, it cannot but move us," former Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said on the France Info radio station. "His death has come too quickly and too soon." He was only 50.
Greg Lemond was quoted today in the French media, "He was a great person, one of the few that I find was really true to himself. He didn’t have an ego. He really knew himself."
Over and over today in my mind's eye I kept replaying that moment in Paris in 1989 when Fignon crossed the finish-line and had collapsed, literally and figuratively in defeat to American Greg Lemond by 8 seconds - no other Tour before or since was reduced to such a fine line between victory and defeat. That image of him wilting in exhaustion and heartbreak also reflected Fignon's future - never again would he ride the Tour or any race with the same panache and schoolboy aggressiveness as before. When he finally retired in 1993 he conceded the fire was gone he said. Laurent Fignon was not someone who could ride without fire.
Part of what I enjoyed most about Fignon was that his fire on the bike was within him, it was honest intensity and he wore it off the bike as well. I'm sad that I don't know French well enough to have heard his TV commentary - it reportedly also had fire and honest intensity, took no prisoners in its criticism of riders and directors. Equally you did have to ride a bike to earn his criticism. A story goes that he said that the French never did like him when he was winning, but after losing to Lemond by that 8 seconds, he never had to buy a drink, the French love a loser.
Laurent you were definitely no loser - ever - and today even your countrymen know and recognize that.