One was a rider known more for the Tour de France he lost than the two that he won. The other was a classics rider who won more accolades as a coach than for what he did on the bike.
They are Laurent Fignon and Franco Ballerini, two well-respected figures in the cycling community who died during 2010.
Fignon lost a long battle with cancer on August 30. He was 50. Known as “the professor” for his trademark wire-rim glasses and fluttering ponytail, the urbane Fignon was a marked contrast to his peers in the 1980s.
Fignon burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, winning back-to-back Tours de France in 1983-84. A knee injury kept him from his best for two seasons but he returned with third in the 1987 Vuelta a España and victory in the 1988 Milan-San Remo.
Fignon seemed back on top during the 1989 Tour in what later became one of the most famous showdowns in racing history. Fignon famously lost a 50-second lead in 24.5km in the final-day time trial, losing the race by the Tour’s smallest margin of 8 seconds to Greg LeMond.
Devastated by the loss, Fignon held on for a few more seasons before retiring in 1993. After retirement, he bought Paris-Nice in 2000 and sold it to ASO two years later in a deal that he said cost him money but saved the race.
He later found his voice and beguiled a new generation of fans with his expert commentary on French television during the Tour de France broadcasts. In his excellent autobiography, “When We Were Young and Carefree,” Fignon admitted to taking some banned doping products and didn’t hold any punches in recounting his career. He was diagnosed with cancer in April 2009, and despite chemotherapy treatments, he died the following summer. Fignon broadcast his final Tour on French TV in July, only to die five weeks later.
Ballerini became one of the most prolific classics riders of his generation and helped herald the Italian dominance of the northern classics in the mid-1990s as part of the Mapei juggernaut. The big, brawny Tuscan won two Paris-Roubaix (1995, 1998) and other one-day races such as Het Volk and Paris-Brussels.
Ballerini later became an incredibly successful national team coach, helping to soothe the egos and nerves of the perennial favorite Italians. After taking over as head coach, he delivered the Italians the rainbow jersey with Mario Cipollini in 2002 and followed that up with the Olympic gold medal for Paolo Bettini in 2004. His riders won three more rainbow jerseys in consecutive years from 2006-08.
Ballerini died of injuries suffered during a car rally race in Italy on February 7. He was 45.
Another notable Italian to die in 2010 was Dr. Aldo Sassi, who succumbed to a brain tumor on December 12. He was 51. Early in his career, Sassi helped prepare Francesco Moser for his successful run at the hour record in 1984. He later became general manager of the highly successful Mapei team and helped create the Mapei Training Centre in northern Italy and became an outspoken advocate of clean racing.
Among his clients were Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers. Ivan Basso promised Sassi he would never dope again and under Sassi’s guidance, won the 2010 Giro d’Italia. Never afraid to take on controversial riders, Sassi agreed to work with Riccardo Riccò. In April, however, doctors discovered a brain turmor. He underwent brain surgery and chemotherapy treatments, and worked until his final days.
The Vuelta a España was sent into mourning when Txema González, a popular Spanish soigneur on Team Sky, died of a sepsis blood infection in Sevilla on September 3. The entire team later pulled out of the race in honor of their staff member, who was 43.
In a bizarre story from Argentina, cyclist Armando Borrajo committed suicide on December 18 by jumping off the roof of his home. Borrajo had evidently been kidnapped and just days after his release jumped to his death in a mysterious ending. He was 34.
Cycling proved yet again to be a dangerous profession when it comes to training, and a handful of riders were killed while riding. Jure Robic of Slovenia was struck by a vehicle in a head-on collision in September while Jorge Alvarado of Mexico of the now-defunct Bahati team was struck down by a vehicle in San Bernardino, California, on April 8.
Thomas Casarotto, a promising young Italian rider, died after colliding with a car along the race route during the Giro del Friuli Venezia Giuli in September. He would have been 20 this week.
Others to have passed away this year include:
Fermo Camellini (I-F), 95
Won 1946 Paris-Nice, 1948 Flèche Wallonne, 7th 1947 Tour de France (plus stage win) & 8th in 1948
Lionel Cox (Aus), 79
Aussie track sprinter, won Olympic gold at 1952 Games (tandem with Russel Mockridge), silver medal in match sprint
Nino Defillipis (I), 78
Italian star of the 1950s and 60s. Won 1958 Tour of Lombardy, Italian champ in 60 and 62, 3rd in 62 Giro (won stages at Giro, Tour and Vuelta)
Lucien Gillen (Lux), 81
Track star, won 12 six-day races
Jean Kirchen (Lux), 90
1946 Luxembourg champion, 5th in Tour de France in 1948 and 1950, won 1952 Tour of Luxembourg
Guy Lapébie (F), 93
Olympic gold medal in 1936 Games in road team race, 3rd in 1948 Tour de France (plus stage winner), won eight six-day races
André Mahé (F), 90
Equal 1st in 1948 Paris-Roubaix (with Serse Coppi), won 1950 Paris-Tours
Radomir Simunek, Sr (Cz), 48
Was world cyclocross champion (amateur title in 1983 and 84, pro in 1991); Father of Radomir Simunek, Jr
Richard Van Genechten (B), 80
Won 1956 Flèche Wallonne (2nd in L-B-L same week), 1st 1958 Volta a Catalunya