Laurent Fignon, the Frenchman who won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984 and lost to Greg LeMond in 1989 in the race's closest finish, died Tuesday of cancer. He was 50.
His death was confirmed by the French government and the French cycling federation. Fignon said in June 2009 he had advanced cancer of the digestive system and was undergoing chemotherapy.
Fignon had been a television commentator in France since 2006. He worked through this year's Tour, which ended barely a month ago, his voice gravelly from his illness and treatment.
"He was a great champion who used a combination of talent and will to win the Tour de France twice," French Cycling Federation president David Lappartient told The Associated Press. "He had an iron will, and was also a very intelligent man."
Seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, called Fignon a "dear friend" and a "legendary cyclist."
"I will never forget the early 90s when I first turned pro, of course terrified of these 'older guys.' Laurent was always a friendly face with words of advice," Armstrong said in a statement. "He was a special man to me, to cycling, and to all of France."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a cycling fan, hailed Fignon as an "amazing and exceptional champion who left an indelible mark in the history of the Tour de France and French cycling."
In 1989, Fignon lost to LeMond by eight seconds. The two dogged each other for weeks, the leader's yellow jersey passing back and forth. Finally, with only the last-day time trial left, Fignon had a 50-second lead that appeared decisive.
But LeMond, riding with an aerodynamic helmet and new triathlon handlebars that Fignon maintained were illegal, set a blistering pace. It was the fastest full-length time-trial stage ever ridden at the time.
Fignon rode last, using traditional handlebars and with his ponytail blowing in the wind. He gave everything he had, collapsing to the ground after finishing. But it was not enough. LeMond took the Tour by the smallest margin of victory.
"The cyclist who doesn't know how to lose cannot become a champion. ... 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," Fignon said in his autobiography, "We Were Young and Carefree," published last year.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme said Fignon's 1989 Tour defeat was steeped in cycling legend.
"This glorious defeat of 1989 is stronger than anything else in terms of media impact," Prudhomme told the AP. "I remember that lost look in his eyes on the finish line at the Champs-Elysees, which contrasted with Greg LeMond's indescribable joy."
"Fignon was a great person, true to himself," LeMond told French television. "We were competitors, but we were friends. ... He had a very, very big talent, much more than anyone recognized."
In the book, Fignon admitted to doping, describing drug-taking in the 1980s as widespread. He said it was recreational rather than performance-enhancing — aided by the strong Colombian involvement in cycling at the time and accompanied by large quantities of cocaine.
He said doping in cycling was revolutionized by the arrival of the blood-booster EPO in the early '90s. Fignon said he refused to take it and retired from competition in 1993 when he realized that mediocre riders were now keeping up with him.
"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."
Fignon took up cycling because his friends did — initially against the wishes of his parents, who disliked the fact that amateur cycle races took place on Sundays, which they considered 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 races while completing his army service before being signed up by respected sporting director Cyrille Guimard to the Renault team.
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 injured four-time winner Bernard Hinault.
Fignon put on the yellow jersey for the first time at the top of the legendary Alpe d'Huez, and held it for the final five days, cementing his victory by winning the time trial on the next-to-last day. At 22, Fignon was the youngest postwar winner of the Tour.
If doubt still hung over Fignon's victory because of Hinault's absence, that was to be dispelled the following year when the two men went head to head. Fignon, already second in the Giro d'Italia earlier in the season, captured five stages and finishing more than 10 minutes ahead of Hinault.
"He was a fighter and like me was always vying for victory. We always had fair battles," Hinault said. "He fought this disease, too, but lost the battle."
Despite his disappointment in 1989, Fignon finished the year as the world's top-ranked cyclist. But he never again came close to winning the Tour.
Fignon is survived by his wife, Valerie, and a son from a previous marriage.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.