Lance Armstrong and the Giro: Part 2

28 May 2009

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. 

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Good think.

  • Ronnie

    What Alex is talking about is panache!!! Armstrong is awesome, of that there is no doubt but he has never ridden with panache.

    Mercx rode with panache. Hinault rode with panache. Bugno rode with panache. Pantani rode with panache. Chiapucci rode with panache and all of them were winners. Indurain didn’t and neither does Armstrong although they are both great champions. It’s not just about racking up victories, its about how they are won.

    I don’t understand why we are not talking about Greg Lemond. The first great American rider who won the TDF by 8 seconds in the final time trial in Paris.

    Now that is panache.

  • Jaja

    Dear Mr. Massie,
    Agreed Lance Armstrong is not the greatest cyclist ever but he has undoubtedly contributed to a greater awareness of the sport. What sport wouldn’t want an higher profile?

    For many, if not most, Americans, Armstrong was their introduction to the sport. Armstrong’s career rose and is closely aligned with the rise of the Internet and of widely available cable/satellite television. Before access to a diversity of television broadcasts and world-wide newspapers, a U.S. citizen could seldom access real-time or in depth news about the major tour events.

    The opportunity to follow pro cycling was almost non-existent before the 1990’s in the U.S.

    I submit this lack of access to the events limited the knowledge and interest of U.S. citizens. It’s very difficult to be a fan of a sport one cannot view or follow in a timely manner.

    I was seriously ill for several months, confined to bed, and going crazy with boredom when we got our first satellite television dish in the 90’s. I was flipping channels and found this bike race. It was the TdF and I was so naive about cycling, I could not understand why the guy who was leading the race wasn’t trying to race up to the front but was staying in this pack of riders called the peloton. Why isn’t he trying to win today, I asked the television. Tell me what a domestique is, I shouted at the announcers.

    Now I consider pro cycling one of the most exciting, dangerous, and challenging sports of all.

    Tomorrow I will attend the school graduation of an 18-year-old man. He is an avid Green Bay Packer Football fan as am I. But this young man believes ex-Packer quarterback Brett Favre is the greatest Packer ever, in part because Favre was the only Packer quarterback this young man knew for the first 17 years of his life!

    Many American Armstrong fans root for Armstrong because he was their introduction to the sport, he is who they know, and because Americans always love an underdog and he was certainly that.

    Yes, I know of Greg LeMond’s tour victories but was never able to follow his career because there was no internet and cycling coverage during LeMond’s time was restricted to about one hour of programming on the tour on the final day.

    So forgive we ignorant colonists and our adulation of Lance: it is what we know.

  • Glenn Showers

    Those pesky Armstrong cultists can a least spell arena.
    Rolls Eyes and smiles

  • Gino

    I appreciate the eloquent writing and analysis but I can personally say that I THANK Lance for concentrating on the TDF. He said during a Charlie Rose interview that he saw he could dominate the TDF once he had one it once and so he did it again and again. Also, remember, assembling his team was no FREE. He needed Million dollar sponsors who would BENEFIT from him winning not just PARTICIPATING. If he tried to do it all and became just above average in all the spring classics and then came in third or fourth in the TDF due to fatigue we would be saying LANCE WHO? and his campaign to help CANCER AWARENESS would be a long forgotten memory.
    LANCE has a plan and he works that PLAN. He’s a model of 21st century ‘LASER FOCUS’.

  • Lance Fan (Non Cult Section)

    Out of curiousity just what is “a different arean”?

    Aspirations for Greatest Spectator writer ever are in jeopardy. All hope is lost in broader category of Greatest Writer ever…:)

  • porkbelly

    Perhaps you don’t appreciate how much the sport has changed since the days of Coppi – there is a good reason why riders who win the Giro don’t win the Tour: the level of bike racing is so consistently high today that it is impossible to be at your peak for the two races. Pantani was the exception because he took exceptional risks with his health, boosting his hematocrit well over 60%. Remember that in the old days the Giro’s opening week consisted of leisurely rides at 30kph for several hours culminating in a short sprint. Today they race hard from the opening prologue. Right now Di Luca and Menchov are at their peaks while Basso, Armstrong, Sastre and Leipheimer are plainly not at that level. Wait six weeks and the tables will be turned – remember Simoni’s pathetic attempts at the Tour after his Giro triumph? Coppi never had to deal with this level of intensity in the Grand Tours, or else he would have become a specialist like every other rider today. You might as well say that Schumacher was not as great a driver as Nuvolari because he only raced F1. What counts with Armstrong (and Schumacher) is that they dominated the sport and made every other competitor (none of whom were racing to lose) seem grossly inferior. Armstrong may not be a nice guy but great champions rarely are, and there is no gainsaying that he has done more for his fellow man than most.

  • Derbyshire Ben

    Nice to see more cycling articles Alex. Thanks.

  • Derrick

    I’m not sure if your American or not. With that being said, I had never heard of the Tour De France until after Lance Armstong had one it 5 times. What I like about Lance is his story is so compelling. I didn’t watch basketball until M. Jordan came of retirement in 95. Many people did know of Muhammed Ali until he decide not to got to Vietnam. With Lance, had he not had cancer, not won the TDF some many times in a row,not been hated so much by the french, no ordinary American would care. He has a cult following as you say simply because he has a awesome story.I still watch cycling, the NBA and boxing because of the effect the above persons had on me personally. If Lance Armstong is anything, he is by far the most entertaining cyclist…that fact that your have written part 1 and 2 on him proves that…best or not makes little difference to me.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here