PARIS (Reuters) - Laurent Fignon was so close to his third Tour de France victory on the penultimate day of the 1989 race that newspapers began preparing their editions with the Frenchman splashed across the front page.
Fignon was making his way back to the top after seasons of struggle, and the prospect of his victory, five years after his second Tour win, delighted those following the three-week race who anticipated a great story.
It was not to be, however, and Fignon, who died of cancer on Tuesday, ultimately lost out by just eight seconds to American Greg LeMond who rode the fastest time trial ever to snatch victory from the Parisian in the race’s most dramatic finish.
LeMond, who was back in action after nearly dying in a hunting accident, overturned Fignon’s 50-second lead to win by a final margin that remains the slimmest in the 107 years of the Tour.
He averaged 54.545 kph over 24.5 kms on the Champs-Elysees.
Fignon, the bespectacled rider with the long blond hair who was dubbed “The Professor” because he was one of the few riders to have passed the Baccalaureate exams, had seemed certain to go down in the record books as the man who beat both Bernard Hinault and LeMond.
His third Tour win would have placed him on a par with French cycling greats such as Louison Bobet.
At the start of the final day, Tour journalists maintained that it was impossible for LeMond to bridge the 50-second gap with Fignon.
None foresaw that LeMond, racing in the ramshackle Belgian team ADR, would produce such speed on the final day.
In hindsight, though, there were signs that an upset might happen.
On the high-speed train taking the peloton from l’Isle d’Abeau to Paris on the Saturday evening, Fignon refused interviews.
His team director, Cyrille Guimard, had the familiar, tense grin he always sported on bad days. It later turned out that Fignon was suffering from lower back pains that made it nearly impossible for him to sit on the saddle.
The media blamed Fignon’s reticence on his typically aloof attitude toward journalists.
The Frenchman had made no secret of the fact that rivalry, almost hatred, was necessary for him as a competitor and he had few friends in cycling.
In this year’s Tour, Fignon, who had become a respected consultant for French television, made clear that he found it ridiculous that Spain’s Alberto Contador and Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck should declare themselves the best of friends.
Fignon was also a secret, withdrawn character, who never complained about his woes, be it back pain or cancer.
On that same train back in 1989, one journalist spent the whole 90-minute trip seated next to the friendly, outspoken LeMond, who told him of the new triathlon handlebars he had used to win a previous time trial in Rennes and how he expected them to make a difference again.
The journalist took no notes and the story of the handlebars did not make the media.
The next day, those handlebars made an eight-second difference on what was to become the last occasion that Tour organizers staged a time trial on the final day.
Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org