By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; B06
Laurent Fignon, a French cyclist whose two Tour de France victories were later overshadowed by a spectacularly narrow loss in that race to American Greg LeMond -- a defeat that came to define his career and rank among the most dramatic moments in sports history -- died Aug. 31 of cancer at a hospital in Paris. He was 50.
The Tour de France, a race in which riders cover more than 2,000 miles in just over three weeks, is one of cycling's most prestigious and grueling events. Mr. Fignon first won in 1983, just a year after he turned professional.
He was 22 at the time and the youngest man to win the race in half a century, and his victory was thought to be largely because of the absence of stronger riders. Partway through the race, leader Pascal Simon had withdrawn after falling and breaking his shoulder, and Frenchman Bernard Hinault -- then a four-time Tour winner and one of the greatest cyclists of his day -- was injured and unable to compete.
The following year, however, Mr. Fignon proved his strength by whipping past Hinault on the Tour's punishing climbs and winning the race once more.
For the next several years, injuries forced Mr. Fignon into a dry spell. But by 1989, the Frenchman had returned to top form, and the Tour became a neck-and-neck showdown between Mr. Fignon and LeMond.
LeMond was also a former Tour champion on a comeback. Since becoming the first American Tour winner in 1986, he had broken his wrist and endured an emergency appendectomy. He had also nearly died after losing two pints of blood in a hunting accident in Northern California -- LeMond's brother-in-law, reportedly mistaking the cyclist for a wild turkey, had shot him in the back.
More than 60 pellets lodged in LeMond's liver, kidney and intestines. During the 1989 Tour, he still had dozens of them in his body, including at least two in the lining of his heart.
As the race progressed, LeMond and Mr. Fignon battled for the famous yellow jersey worn by the Tour's overall leader. For nine stages in the middle of the race, they were separated by no more than seven seconds. In the final 17 stages, they traded the yellow jersey four times.
Then, as the Tour climbed into the Alps, Mr. Fignon attacked. He built a 50-second lead going into the last stage, a 15.2-mile time trial on an urban course from Versailles to the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
"Barring an accident, I think I have won the Tour," Mr. Fignon said the night before that last stage. "Greg believes he can win, but it is impossible. I am too strong in the mind and the legs. Fifty seconds is too much to make up in such a short distance."
Despite the fact that he was a native Parisian racing in France in an event prized by the French, Mr. Fignon had repelled the media and Tour fans with his dour cockiness. A television crew caught him spitting into a camera lens in response to a request for an interview, and to a woman who asked him to smile for a photograph, he replied, "Why should I smile? I'm just as cute when I don't smile."
LeMond, who had a quick grin, endeared himself to the crowd. Nevertheless, most cycling experts agreed with Mr. Fignon that it would be impossible for the American to overcome a 50-second deficit in the race's last stage.
LeMond turned to what was then cutting-edge technology -- aerodynamic handlebars pioneered by triathletes and a helmet made to slice the wind. He asked his team to refrain from distracting him by calling out his time, and then he tucked his head and pedaled hard.
Before an astonished crowd, LeMond finished the stage 58 seconds faster than Mr. Fignon, eking out a win in what remains the Tour's closest race in history. The eight-second margin of victory came after more than 87 hours of riding; it was the equivalent of winning the 2,023-mile race by 100 yards.
Mr. Fignon collapsed in tears at the finish line while LeMond celebrated. The Frenchman later blamed his loss on saddle sores and LeMond's newfangled handlebars, which Mr. Fignon deemed illegal despite their approval by race officials.
"The cyclist who doesn't know how to lose cannot become a champion," Mr. Fignon wrote in his autobiography, "We Were Young and Carefree," published in the United States in 2009. "But to lose like that, on the last day, with such a small gap, and principally because of handlebars that were banned under the rules, no, that was too much for one man."
The moment catapulted the American to stardom -- even in the United States, where cycling champions had until then been more ignored than celebrated -- and he went on to win a third Tour in 1990.
It was also a turning point for Mr. Fignon, whose career never recovered. He retired from competitive cycling in 1993.
Laurent Patrick Fignon was born in Paris on Aug. 12, 1960. He grew up playing soccer before he discovered a talent for cycling as a teenager. He won numerous amateur races despite the fact that he had started the sport late and rode his father's ancient bike.
He studied material sciences at the University of Villetaneuse near Paris, and though he left before graduating, he was later known on the cycling tour as "the Professor" for his ponytailed, bespectacled look.
Survivors include his wife, Valerie, but a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.
Mr. Fignon continued cycling during and after a stint in the Army, and drew attention in the early 1980s when he managed to keep up with Hinault during a race in which amateurs and professionals rode together. In 1982, he was offered a spot on Hinault's team.
In his autobiography, Mr. Fignon admitted to doping. At the time it was so common that it was "not viewed as cheating," he wrote, "which must now seem completely incredible."