Lance Armstrong and the Giro d’Italia

21 May 2009

Among the plethora of things I hold against Lance Armstrong is the way that his story – no matter how inspiring and heroic and extraordinary it has been – has accentuated the English-language press’s belief that there’s only one bike race of any importance each year. Apparently it’s the Tour de France first, the rest nowhere. This is irritating.

True, matters have improved in recent years and this year’s Giro d’Italia is receiving more coverage (thanks Eurosport!) than it has sometimes done in the past. Granted, this has something to do with Armstrong’s return from retirement (which is less astonishishing and, perhaps, less difficult than some might have you believe: after all, plenty of cyclists find themselves taking a two year break in their career…) and his decision to ride the Giro for the first time in his career.

And therein lies one of the reasons why claims that Armstrong is one of the three or four greatest cyclists in history are so preposterous. True, Armstrong has his seven Tour victories. But what else? The World Road Race, San Sebastien, the Dauphine Libere and the Fleche-Wallon. And that’s about it. In other words, it’s not enough. In fact, as this exhaustive survey by the Virtual Musette argues, Armstrong’s career, taken as a whole, puts him alongside Felice Gimondi on the fringes of the Top Ten riders of the modern era. Gimondi, after all, won five Grand Tours and had to compete with Eddy Merckx.

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That might be a trifle harsh, but Armstrong’s claim to greatness on the historical stage is grievously undermined by his refusal to ride the Giro and spring classics. Until this year he never even attempted the Giro-Tour double which is, rightly, the Gold Standard by which the greatest of the greats are judged. Equally, Armstrong never won any of the Monuments (Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy) while Merckx won 19 of these races, Fausto Coppi 9 and Gino Bartali 7. Bernard Hinault only won 5 Monuments and hated Paris-Roubaix, but he knew he had to win it to be a true champion.

Perhaps Armstrong would have won some of these races had he taken part during his prime years. But the failure to even try was a greater failing than racing and failing to win. By concentating on the Tour de France to the exclusion of all else Armstrong abdicated from his responsibilities as the patron of the peloton.

This, to my mind, is a greater sin than any of the doubts – some of them perfectly well-founded if still, necessarily, murky and circumstantial – about his use or not of banned drugs. The greatest champions, in any sport, have greater obligations than their lesser peers and those obligations are owed to history and to the sport itself. Even Miguel Indurain, the least charismatic of the five-time Tour victors and rider who was a stranger to panache had enough respect for cycling’s history to win the Giro twice.

Then again, the Giro’s often been overlooked in this country which may explain why there’s still no good history of the race in English. Still, I’m looking forward to reading Will Fotheringham’s forthcoming biography of Fausto Coppi. But if some enterprising publisher could commission a proper history of the Giro this would a) be an excellent addition to cycling’s impressive literature and b) sell better than they might think.

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  • haplezz

    This article was in 2009, before the “doping decision”. In hindsight, we now know why Armstrong never wanted to do both the Giro and Le Tour, and that is because he didn’t want to get caught doping. Doing both grand tours would increase his chances of getting caught (despite bribing the then-UCI at the time). So now can we conclude that not only is Armstrong not great, he is perhaps AVERAGE at best!

  • rndtechnologies786

    Your blog is nice.

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  • bob gallen

    you obviously do not know much about Armstrong. I trained and raced against him in Texas. he won over 50 triathlons in the US b4 he became a Cyslist.Did Eddy Merckx ever do that. Also, his sponsors are the one who pushed him into racing the Toyr de france every year. this is where the money is.

  • Chris

    What a ridiculous article. It is as valid and logical as blethering on that ‘so and so only won at the Olympics and did nothing else’. I suppose it’s just another example of a nonentity commenting, to the negative, on something he either knows little about or is just too dim to understand. Those who can!!

  • blair

    here is the bottom line.back when belgium eddy was dominating there were maybe 2-3 at best that had a chance of beating him. the rest were miles behind. no rider these days could ever hope to win all 3 jersey’s in the tour de france. it’s become a specialist sport like most sports.
    60 yrs ago a guy could maybe win the 100m sprint and the marathon in the olympics. these days it could not ever happen.
    when armstrong was competing in the TDf there were a dozen guys that had a chance to win the race. and another 10 or so that were not far behind.
    who knows. maybe armstrong could have won other races, but to him his focus was the TDF. he did not enter because it would take time away from his TDF prep. a prep that he felt was so important because he knew there were so many others so close to him that he needed every advantage possible.
    there are lots os bike races around. but when i was growing up the 2 i knew about was the TDf and paris-roubaix. and ask most cyclists what race they would want to win most would answer -TDF.
    there are lots of golfing tournament and tennis tournaments. but again. ask the pros what they want to win and you will hear…wimbeldon or the US masters or british open in golf. there are other events with more prize money. but tis the prestige. armstrong rated the TDF. it was more important to him than anything else. he did not hide form other races because he was scared only to go out and dominate 7 yrs of the TDf. thats ridiculous to assume so. the writer of this story in my opinion is a fool. armstrong is the greatest. he was never given a TDf victory the way lemond was forced to give hinault. and although indurain was great i have srious doubts about his body being drug free. truth is armstrong is the most tested athlete in sporting history… fact 5 times more tested than anyone else. and still they have found nothing.
    when your told your going to die your tolerance for suffering goes through the roof. armstrong is from another planet. when his legs are hurting and he is tired he thinks to himself ” hey man, this is nothing…i should not be here…i should be dead” and that is his edge. and that is why he is the greatest there ever was and will ever be..

  • Tina Wagnon

    I think you protest against Lance a bit too much. If Lance isn’t as great as most of us think he is, then why do you and the rest of the media and press keep doing stories about him? It is because he is great and you know you can always fall back on a Lance story to sell. Stop hating on what Lance has accomplished and start supporting our American athletes as our country should. Lance is a champion because he trains his butt off. It doesn’t matter if he spreads the races out or not. The fact is, he has done something that no one else in history has done. He won the Tour De France 7 times. That is of historical magnitude!

  • Derrick

    Lance Armstrong may not be the greatest cyclist ever. However, he is one of those rare athletes that are bigger than their respective sport. MJ was bigger than basketball, Ali was bigger than boxing, Tiger is bigger than golf. All of these persons made a name inside and out of their sport. They are household names and once you reach that superstar level and influence people around the world… whether they are considered the greatest or not really does not matter.

  • Shane Glackin

    “Eddy Merckx himself, who arguably is the greatest of all time … has said that if he were racing today there is no way he would be able to win everything from Spring Classics to Grand Tours.”

    He has also said if he trained like Lance, only looking to race Le Tour, he’d still be winning it today.

    People say a lot of things, depending on who they talk to. Pele always thinks there are two joint-favourites for the next World CUp; Brazil, and whichever country he’s talking to reporters in.

  • mathias

    The writer of this article is an absolute loser. First having a go at Armstrong then Indurain, whats he thinking? winning the Tour 7 times!! after almost dying from cancer! then comingback after 3 1/2 years, is that not the sign of a truly driven and talented athlete? The writer is an abolute loser what more can I say…

  • Ronnie

    Armstrong has managed his career the way he has and that is that I’m afraid. Miguel Indurain did virtually the same thing. That is their choice but it is an enormous pity because the Monuments, for example, would have been even more interesting if these guys had targetted them.

    I remember Indurain winning Liege Bastogne Liege one year by simply time-trailing away from the other riders over the final 15Km.

    I’m sure he could have done the same at Paris-Rubaix but I guess his handlers were afraid of the cobbled sections.

  • Wild Bill

    What you say is true. Until now I’d never even heard of the Giro d’Italia.

    • alex

      Giro is 100 years of tradition is an oltrage that americans dont know the Giro, pure ignorance ! and the french are very able to publicize their shit like the tour

  • Declan

    I can’t ever remember reading Lance talk about his ‘claim to greatness’ as you put it. When he mentions Eddy Merckx he always prefixes that with ‘the greatest cyclist ever’. I don’t think you understand how great an achievement, both physically and mentally, it was to win 7 tours in a row, not least because of the media and public pressure to do so. To my mind you are trying to diminish his achievement in your piece.

  • Timothy Takemoto

    To moan about the way Lance Armstrong has encouraged the anglophone press to concentrate only on the TDF at the expence of races like the Giro, while writing in the anglophone press, without mentioning the results, history, controversy, or anything about the Giro, strikes me as being contradictory and hypocritical.

    Concentrating on the main event (such as TDF or Lance Amtrsong) is an effective tactic, for both cyclists and journalists, to gain publicity and be successful.

    Moaning at the same time is not something that Lance Armstrong does.

  • Tina

    Mr Massie,

    Why would you say that Armstrong’s decision to focus mostly on one of his favorite races is a “failing?”

    How can you say that Armstrong is guilty of a “sin” for not having competed in the Giro? ..and that if Armstrong has not competed in a race, it must be because he does not respect that race?

    I have not competed in every event that is held in my chosen sport. I don’t think that makes me a failure or a sinner. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the events that I have not attended.

    Mr Massie, you have not written articles for every major newspaper in Europe. Does that make you a failure or a sinner?

    If you have not yet submitted an article for a certain newspaper, does that mean that you are showing disrespect to that newspaper?

    Or is it simply a logistical unavoidability that one writer cannot possible write for every paper?

    Hhmmm.. the smell of hypocrisy and personal vendetta is wafting from your direction. It’s not an enjoyable aroma.

  • Tina

    Mr Massie,

    Why do you demean English-speaking journalists for feeling special sympathies for English-speaking sports heroes?

    It is human nature to cheer on and feel proud of the accomplishments of those with whom you identify in some way.

    For example, in the early ’90s, when Brazilian racecar driver Ayrton Senna was a 3-time Formula One champion, Brazilian journalists celebrated his accomplishment more than most other (non-Brazilian)journalists. They had an extra measure of pride and happiness. That’s no crime.

    I’m sure that in Australia, people take a lot more pride in Cadel Evans than, say, Norwegians would. Makes sense. Evans is Australian.

    English-speaking people taking special pride in Armstrong’s accomplishment is no different.

  • Tina

    Mr Massie,

    You write as if Armstrong had declared himself the greatest cyclist, and as if you are dismissing his boastful claim. However, Armstrong never claimed to be the greatest cyclist of all time.

    You dismiss his TDF accomplishments as if they are not that big a deal. Why don’t *you* go win the TDF for 7 yrs in a row? Then you can write ad nauseam about how meaningless such an accomplishment is.

    Why are you in charge of which races cyclists should choose to enter? It’s impossible these days for any cyclist to enter and dominate every majotMaybe Armstrong always had the personal dream of being in the TDF

  • Tina

    Why has my comment not been posted?

    I entered it several hours ago. Also, I can see that others’ comments, written after mine, have been posted.

  • porkbelly

    Eddy Merckx himself, who arguably is the greatest of all time (he won more than half the races he entered during his career, for instance) has said that if he were racing today there is no way he would be able to win everything from Spring Classics to Grand Tours. In the old days training consisted of “ride hard – lots”…there was little concept of peaking for a particular race or for course reconaissance, much less power output training and VO2 max. It was a simpler time for pro cyclists (doping was simpler too). The other thing to remember is the fields then were much less talented – below the level of the top riders were lowly, ill-paid domestiques who today would not rate a spot in the pro peloton…today you have any number of national champions, world record holders and so on contesting every race. The result is increased specialization: a Tom Boonen can dominate in Belgium but in the Tour he’s nothing but a green jersey contender, whereas in Merckx’s day he would win all three jerseys and the overall. All this is to say that Armstrong’s ability to beat riders like Ullrich in the time trial and Beloki in the mountains puts him among cycling’s elite, and while he probably isn’t the greatest of all time odds are nobody after Merckx ever will be – even if he’s Eddy’s reincarnation. Would you still feel the same about Armstrong if he wasn’t from Texas?

  • John Childs

    An excellent article. You present a well documented case, Armstrong indeed is not the greatest cyclist of all, when you measure using the cycling yardsitck. (And if your measuring cycling, that’s the stick to use.) Arguing who is the greatest provides all sports fans with hours of great conversation, and is an entertaining passtime. I would point out that it is not the 7 victories that make Armstrong the greatest cyclist, although they certainly do make him a geat cyclist. It is the 7 victories *and* the hundreds of millions of dollars he has raised to help people all over the world that make him a great cyclist and a great humanitarian. Armstong’s genious was to focus on only the Tour, because he knew that his American audience understood that, and that enabled him promote his cause at the same time that he won his Tours. How many dollars did the *great* Eddy Merckx raise to help his fellow man? When you talk about Lance Armstrong, you *have* to talk about more than cycling.

  • bob arsenault

    Nope. You’re wrong. Armstrong is still the best ever, sorry, nice try. No one, not one of those gents won 7 Tours. Armstrong did, end of story!! and probably could have won more. Whether he focused on just this event or rode in others isn’t the point, he won 7 that is the point. so keep dreaming and scheming about why he’s not the best. it bounces on deaf ears.

  • Tina

    Mr Massie,

    You make a lot of presumptions. I don’t recall Armstrong’s ever having declared himself the greatest cyclist in history, so there is no need for you to list all the reasons why you believe he is not.

    Why do you think you are the authority to decide which races individual cyclists should enter? Every person likes different things and has different goals. Perhaps Armstrong just really was in love with the Tour de France? Why does that bother you? Why do you believe that every cyclist is required to race in every race that YOU think is important? Why can’t a cyclist just enter the races he is interested in, without being scorned by you? If you think it’s so important to enter every single race, then why don’t YOU do it… and let other cyclist make their own decisions?

    You do not seem to acknowledge that human beings tend to identify more with those in their own groups and tend to ”cheer on” those with whom they have things in common. So why should it bother you that English-speaking reporters will likely cheer on English-speaking cyclists? In the early 90s, would you have written an article criticising Barzilian reporters for having a more exageratedly positive response to the feats of 3-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, who was Brazilian?

    It’s clear that you have some sort of personal vendetta against Armstrong, as you grasp at straws to find ways to write negatively about him.

    Last, I would like to suggest to you that if you think it is so simple to win the Tour de France 7 years in a row, I would like to invite you to try to do it, before you dismiss the accomplishment as unimportant.

  • Pat D

    Geesch. Don’t judge a man until you have walked just one mile in his shoes. I beet you can’t ride to the park and back.

  • Whodoneit

    Your statements simplfy the magnitude of Lance”s accomplishments.The fact is,when you win 7 tours you train-tapper and race in the most qualified field in the world.You win the tour,you can win any of them any time anywhere!
    He is the man at time trailing-tactics etc,,,Move on and enjoy the man.

  • Blognor Regis

    I once blogged a BBC Sport report about Paris-Roubaix which mentioned that “Lance Armstrong had never won the Hell of the North.” Er, that’d be because he’d never ridden it. (Nor did Indurain of course – his motor would have served him well there I reckon.) I had a comment pointing out that a similar blind spot occurs in the UK media around Paula Radcliffe. Not long beforehand the world marathon or half-marathon had been broken; BBC report: “Radcliffe third…”

    As to comparing the greats through the ages, it’s a near impossible task IMO. In fairness to Lance Armstrong however, back in the day the top riders were head and shoulders above the rest of the peloton both in ability and rank. Since the 80s, since Hinault I suppose, there hasn’t been quite such a feudal system. It’s possible that a domestique one day could be team leader the next.

    A Giro tale would be mightily interesting. Full of all-sorts of political and social history; the mysterious death of Bottechia, probably at the hands of fascisti, the pleblicite for Trieste, Roche and Visentini, Francesco Moser plus helicopter versus Laurent Fignon and of course the whole Coppi-Bartali avant-garde v conservative dynamic.

  • Ashley C

    lovely to get some cycling comment – look forward to more over the coming weeks and months, alex.

  • betsy baker

    Sorry but I don’t ever recall Lance Armstrong presenting himself as the greatest racer of all time. He is annoying as hell to many but never have I read a statement by him stating he “is one of the three or four greatest cyclists in history”. Methinks that you are confusing an addled press with the arrogant Texan.

  • Josh

    I agree with what you are saying…that he has only won a few select races. I would have loved to see him take a serious try at some other races. However, in this day and time, i believe that training is so specific, that some races fit some riders more than others. Not being a huge cycling fan, i wonder if The Paris-Roubaix would be more suited to a sprinter. Also again, with training being so scientific, i question the amount of competition that these greats had during their prime.

  • Shane Glackin

    Great piece. Armstrong is unquestionably a great, great rider, but the historical magnitude of his achievements has been ludicrously exaggerated in the anglophone press.

    Hopefully the success of yer Cavendishes, Cookes, Deignans, and petits Roches will lead to a more educated cycling public, and a less one-eyed cycling coverage in the media.

    But I doubt it.

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