Laurent Fignon twice won the Tour de France but will be forever remembered for the one he lost – and by how much. On the final day of the 1989 Tour the Frenchman seemed assured of victory, only to lose to his American rival, Greg LeMond, by a heart-breaking eight seconds, the closest margin in the race's history.
Going into the 1989 Tour Fignon was in superb form, and for three weeks he traded blows with LeMond, who was coming back from a two-year lay-off after a hunting accident. By the final stage, a time trial from Versailles into Paris, Fignon had a lead of 58 seconds.
But he also had a saddle sore, and had hardly slept. The American, thrust forwards over his extended triathlon handlebars (which Fignon maintains were illegal), broke the record for a Tour time trial, and waited at the finish. Fignon, out last as race leader, rode into the Place de la Concorde still ahead by two seconds, but up the Champs-Elysées he faltered and LeMond gasped in disbelief as he realised he'd won. For Fignon there was only desolation. "I go into shock," he wrote. "I walk like a boxer who's concussed, in an improbable world of furious noise."
With his blond hair and spectacles, Le Professeur, as he was referred to, cut a flamboyant, if taciturn, figure. He was born in Paris in 1960, his father a foreman in a metalworks. His first love was football, and he played for his département. Encouraged by friends, though, in 1976 he rode – and won – his first bike race. In his second season, while still at school, he won 17 more. He was spotted by a former rider who ran the Renault-Elf team, Cyrille Guimard, who signed him up. They formed a potent partnership, eventually establishing a new model for team ownership, until an acrimonious parting towards the end of Fignon's career.
In the team was Bernard Hinault, one of cycling's great champions, and Fignon's first Tour win came in 1983, when his illustrious team-mate was kept out by tendinitis. Fignon wasn't fancied, but on Stage 17, which culminated in the climb to L'Alpe d'Huez, one of the Tour's hallowed finishes, he took the race leader's yellow jersey for the first time, and held on to it.
His time trial win at Dijon on the penultimate day made him a worthy winner. "He crowned his fair and honest overall victory with a demonstration of strength that silenced all attempts to play down his win," L'Equipe wrote. He was the youngest winner since 1933, and in last year's autobiography, Nous Étions Jeunes et Insouciants ["We Were Young and Carefree"] he admitted it went to his head: "You are made to feel you are the centre of things, so you begin to think that way."
The following year Hinault was back, now riding for Bernard Tapie's new La Claire team and looking for his fifth Tour win, and the race was presented as a clash of the generations. Though the older man won the prologue time trial Fignon won three of the five alpine stages, and, as he had done the previous year, made his decisive move on L'Alpe d'Huez, shrugging off Hinault's attempted breakaways. Fignon had his second win, by 8min 58sec.
He missed the 1985 Tour with an inflamed Achilles tendon, leaving the way clear for Hinault, with Greg LeMond in second place. In 1986 LeMond reversed the positions, while Fignon abandoned on the 12th stage. Inconsistency in 1987 left him in seventh place, and he abandoned in '88, poor form compounded by a tape-worm. Pedro Delgado won that year despite a positive drugs test (it turned out the governing body hadn't updated their list of banned substances).
Fignon twice tested positive himself, for amphetamines, though he maintained that the first time was a set-up, and admitted to taking cortisone – "everyone did it". But in the doping culture that swept cycling during the latter stages of his career, he became used to seeing mediocre riders sweep past him, and in 1993 he retired.
He turned to promotion, managing the Paris-Nice stage race. Four years ago he established a training centre for amateur cyclists at the foot of the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. He also commentated on the Tour for television; he announced last year that he had cancer of the digestive tract but he was working at this year's Tour, his voice hoarse and cracked.
Intensely private and brutally honest, he could be moody and sharp-tongued – after the 1989 Tour journalists awarded him the Prix Citron, awarded to the unpleasantly unco-operative. As he said in his autobiography: "Within every champion there is a streak of spite, brutality, violence, the urge to dominate." But he also wrote: "I always wanted to grab life in both hands. Otherwise, what's the point of being on this earth?"
Laurent Patrick Fignon, cyclist, businessman and commentator: born Paris 12 August 1960; Tour de France champion 1983, 1984; married firstly (divorced 2008; two children), 2008 Valerie; died Paris 31 August 2010.