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.
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.