Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Laurent Fignon Dies at 50

Were Drugs A Factor in Cancer Growth?
Sept. 1, 2010. Pic courtesy of free share at Wikipedia.
A cycling great passed to the other side yesterday at the age of 50, Laurent Fignon of France. The man who was known for his ever present ponytail was a two-time Tour de France winner in 1983 and 1984. The cause was cancer which had spread from his lungs to other parts of his body.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong said in a statement. "He was a special man to me, to cycling, and to all of France." Fignon is survived by his ex-wife, two children and his second wife Valerie whom he married in 2008.

"He was a great champion who used a combination of talent and will to win the Tour de France twice," said French Cycling Federation president David Lappartient in a statement to the Associated Press.  "He had an iron will, and was also a very intelligent man."

In 1989 Fignon lost the great French stage race to Greg LeMond by 8 seconds. That was the last time that he came close to winning the Tour, even though that year he overtook Sean Kelly as leader of UCI World rankings. That same year Fignon won a stage at Milan-San Remo and the Giro D'Italia. 

Below a blow-by-blow of the close loss to LeMond in 1989, thanks to Wikipedia. The back and forth exchange of deficits is reminiscent of the close race between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck in this year's 2010 Tour de France:
LeMond won a minute in the time trial in stage five, using aerobars (handlebars which enabled a new and more aerodynamic riding position, also known as tri-bars as they had previously only been used in triathlons), a new type of teardrop-shaped aerodynamic helmet in the time trials and a rear disc wheel. Fignon used normal road handlebars, wore no helmet with his ponytail also creating additional drag and a bicycle with both front and rear disc wheels, which left him more affected by cross winds. LeMond lead the general classification after that stage by 5 seconds. In the tenth stage, Fignon beat LeMond by 12 seconds, and became the new leader, 7 seconds ahead of LeMond. Before the final stage, a short time trial of 24.5 km, the time difference betwen LeMond and Fignon was still 50 seconds, which seemed enough for the victory. French newspapers had prepared special editions with Fignon on the front page, preparing for his victory. Although it was considered unlikely that LeMond would be able to win back 50 seconds on the 24.5 km, LeMond gave his best, and rode the fastest time trial to date. Fignon had developed saddle sores in stage 19, which gave him pain and made it impossible to sleep in the night before the time trial. Fignon, who rode after LeMond, lost 58 seconds during the stage, and although he became third in the stage, he lost the lead to LeMond. It was calculated afterwards that if Fignon would have cut off his ponytail, he would have reduced his drag that much that he would have won the Tour.
After his loss in 1989, Fignon continued to compete. In 1992, he had a bad Giro d'Italia, and then in  the 1992 Tour de France, he came in 23rd.  Fignon's last victory was in the early-season Ruta Mexico in 1993, after a fight with Francisco Villalobos and after surviving a massive collision when the group was hit by a tow truck driven by a drunken man.  Fignon retired in late 1993.

Fignon admitted using banned drugs, notably Amphetamines and Cortisone, the same types of drugs that had been allegedly used by his biggest competitor, Greg LeMond. LeMond's alleged use of those drugs was documented in a history of doping in sports by Alessandro Donati, according to testimony by Lance Armstrong in his deposition in a case with SCA Promotions in which Armstrong won the case against the company.

However, BBB was unable to corroborate any specific references to LeMond in the Donati report.

Fignon was diagnosed with cancer in April 2009. At that time it was in his digestive system, but in January of this year doctors discovered that the disease had originated in his lungs.

It is not clear if his use of banned substances which have been linked in laboratory tests to cancer, particularly among immuno-suppressed people, were the cause, or part of the cause of his disease. A 2006 study by Ingrid Herr and clinicians of Heidelberg University Hospital has shown that persons with lung cancer who take steroids respond less well to cancer treatments, and in others, such as breast cancer, cortisone was found to be the cause of cancer growth.

After retiring in 1993, Fignon went on to organize bike racing in France, including the classic Paris-Nice which may be the second most vaulted race for French riders after the Tour de France. That race was eventually taken over by the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) in 2002 who among other competitions also runs the Tour de France. More recently he was a sports commentator for cycling for the French media, including coverage of this year's Tour.

Fignon wrote an autobiography Nous ├ętions jeunes et insouciants ("We were young and carefree"). "In this forthright and unflinching account the former champion spares neither friends nor opponents, nor even his own image. In doing so he gives cycling fans a tantalizing glimpse of what really went on behind the scenes of this epic sport,  the friendships, the rivalries, the betrayals, the scheming, the parties, the girls, and, of course, the performance-enhancing drug," writes a review of the book by Google.

Fignon died at 12.30 pm local time on August 31, 2010 at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris.

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