I’ll give Lance Armstrong’s fans this: they know how to count to seven. Beyond that, however, they’re rather like members of a cult who refuse to accept that there could even be such a thing as another way of looking at matters, let alone the idea that there might be some merit to that alternative view. For daring to suggest that there could be a different view, it turns out that I’m "an absolute loser" who should, since I apparently think it so easy, try winning the Tour de France myself. This, of course, is the school of opinion that must demand that if you can’t write music like Mozart you can’t comment on his music or, in a different arean, if you couldn’t win a Presidential election yourself you forfeit the right to comment on those who do. In other words, it is absurd. And infantile.
It is true that Armstrong does not claim to be the greatest cyclist of all time. That being so, it is curious that so many of his fans – and much of the media – continue to insist that he is. He has a claim, as Miguel Indurain has said, to be considered the finest Tour de France cyclist ever but that’s the limits of his achievement. To be sure, that’s a lofty limit but it is, nevertheless, a limit.
And that was the point of my previous post on Armstrong. The sad, even depressing, aspect of his career was his total concentration on the Tour at the expense of all other races. Sure, the Tour is the biggest and best race of them all but it’s not the only bauble that matters. Armstrong’s refusal to even race, let alone win, the other great prizes in the sport was a self-imposed limitation on his career that is, in my view, to be regretted.
Some commenters suggest that the overall level of competition is higher these days than it was when Coppi, Merckx and Hinault were in their pomp. Perhaps, but like so many of the other controversies swirling around Armstrong, this is a case best considered "not proven".
Comparisons between eras are necessarily problematic and imperfect. But the question is not whether the 2002 version of Lance Armstrong could have beaten the 1949 version of Fausto Coppi, rather it is whether Coppi, given modern advances in training and preparation, could have lived with the modern peloton, let alone dominated it. Or, to put it the other way, could Armstrong, deprived of modern sports science and compelled to race as much as the great stars of yore, live with Coppi and Bartali? The answer is, probably, yes. On both counts.
As I say, these are necessarily imprecise matters. In the end all one can do is measure riders by the standards that pertained at the time. Armstrong dominated his peers but it is worth noting that only one of them – Jan Ullrich – had a shot at greatness themselves. Ullrich, in fact, is an interesting case: more naturally gifted than Armstrong, he lacked the Texan’s (admirable) toughness.
If Armstrong dominated Ullrich in a psychological sense, he was given an assist by Ullrich’s lack of discipline. It’s that self-indulgence that has prevented Ullrich from being accorded the same respect as, say, Raymond Poulidor. The modern "Eternal Second" squandered so much talent that, alas, he forfeited the right to be loved.
Which is another way of saying that, like Miguel Indurain, Armstrong was denied the the rivalry that would have magnified his (undoubted) greatness still further.
So, again: Armstrong is a great champion and there’s no doubting the inspirational quality of his story. But is that quite enough? I don’t think so, even if one can, nay must, admire the selfless fashion in which he has ridden the Giro this year. It’s just a shame he’s waited so long to make his debut in the race. He could have done the Giro-Tour double; after all, Marco Pantani did it in 1998 but, again, the failure to even try the double is an unnecessary, self-inflicted, limitation on Armstrong’s overall record.
Still, this has been an interesting, if not quite great, Giro. My hope is that Danilo di Luca will attack and crack Denis Menchov on the ascent to Vesuvius today. I don’t dislike the Russian but he lacks di Luca’s flair and thirst for attack and since I like to see flair and attacking riding rewarded I hope di Luca can give himself a chance of wearing the maglia rosa after Sunday’s short time-trial in Rome.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.