Racers and French leaders paid tribute on Tuesday to Laurent Fignon, who died following a battle with cancer.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed “an extraordinary and exceptional champion who will forever go down in the history of the Tour de France, in French cycling.”
Fignon won the Tour de France in 1983 and 1984, and was runner-up in 1989 when he lost by just eight seconds, the smallest margin in the history of the race, to American Greg LeMond.
LeMond remembered “one of the greater champions, who was recognized more for his loss in the (1989) Tour de France than his first two victories”.
“It’s a really sad day. I see him as one of the great riders who was hampered by injuries. He had a very, very big talent — much more than anyone recognized,” LeMond told France 24 television.
“We were also teammates, competitors, but also friends,” said the three-time Tour de France champion.
“The saddest thing for me is that for the rest of his career he said he won two Tours de France, when in reality we both could have won that race.”
Seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, himself a survivor of testicular cancer, hailed a “legendary cyclist”.
“Just woke to the news that Laurent Fignon has passed on. He was a dear friend and a legendary cyclist. We will miss you, Laurent,” the American wrote via Twitter.
Compatriot Bernard Hinault, a five-time Tour winner, said he was “deeply moved” by the death of his former teammate Fignon.
“He was a fighter, he fought for victory as I did, but we always had an honest rivalry. There again (faced with illness) he fought but he did not win,” Hinault told AFP.
“I only have good memories of him. Even if he was a combative rival on the bike, we shared a lot of good times. I always saw him happy with a joie de vivre even in the toughest of times.”
Fignon made his professional debut in 1982 in Hinault’s Renault team, helping his teammate win the Tour of Italy in 1982 and Tour of Spain in 1983.
Fignon (1983, 1984) and Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985) were the last two French winners of the Tour de France.