Lance the Greatest? – Rant

Aug 3 2005

Every time Lance Armstrong wins a tour, scads of sportswriters (generally American sportswriters) spew forth venomous diatribes about how Lance is not the greatest athlete of all time. The strange thing is, I don’t believe anyone out there really insists that he is the greatest athlete of all time. A few misguided souls think he is the greatest cyclist ever, but most of these people are speaking out of ignorance, and I think it’s still general consensus in the cycling world that Eddy Merckx is #1. But I, purely for the sake of argument, will here attempt to reduce Armstrong’s greatness even further; yes, I am going to say that Lance is not even the greatest Tour de France rider of all time.

Now, in general terms, I am a fairly empirical guy. I like to go by the numbers. Best Best cyclist ever: Eddy Merckx, 525 wins in any event you can name. Simple. So best Tour rider: Lance Armstrong, seven straight Tours, right? Eh, not so fast. Sure, 7 makes him easily the winningest rider, but let’s look at the next tier down, the club of 5-time winners.

Of these four (Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain) only Indurain won his tours consecutively, and was soundly beaten in ’90 and ’96, before his rise and after his fall. So he probably couldn’t have packed any more in. Now, Hinault missed two tours due to tendonis, but these wouldn’t have been gimmies; the Badger got thrashed by Laurent Fignon in 1984, and was lucky teammate Greg Lemond let him win in 1985. Eddy Merckx claims to this day that a sucker punch from a spectator cost him the ’75 tour, and a win in ’73 (a year he sat out the Tour after winning the Giro/Vuelta double when the Vuelta was held in June) added to that might have given him 7 wins, but it should not be overlooked that Eddy was over 7 minutes down on Luis Ocaña when the Spaniard crashed out on stage 14 of the 1971 edition, leaving the Cannibal with 6 coulda-woulda-shoulda wins. This leaves, of the 5-time winners, at least, only Jaques Anquetil to challenge Armstrong’s dominance.

Anquetil won his first tour in 1957, at the age of 23, during the era of the National teams system. As a result, young Jaques was in some very elite company – three-time Tour winer Louison Bobet, and potential winners Roger Riviere, Andre Derrigade and Raphael Geminiani were all his teammates by default. Though the cards shuffled out in his favor in ’57, in ’58, Anquetil was forced to abandon after hacking up blood through the night before the final time trial, despite being the best time trialist of the several riders with a shot at victory that year. In ’59, Frederico Bahamontes rode to victory while Anquetil and “teammate” Rivere battled each other throughout the race. Anquetil eventually finished only 3rd, 5 minutes down on yellow, but 12 seconds ahead of Rivere, which was probably all he was trying for. In ’60, the feuding Frenchman skipped the race entirely after Rivere was selected as team leader, but after Rivere’s career-ending crash on Stage 14 of that race, and the emergence in 1962 of the trade team system, it was clear sailing and 4 straight victories for Anquetil.

Now, if Roberto Heras, Jose Azevedo, Manuel Beltran and Floyd Landis had made a habit of attacking Lance in the hills, rather than shredding the field to bits for him, Lance would have had a much harder time of things. Of course, as we all saw this past summer, on Stage 12 and again on Stage 14, Lance is perfectly capable of watching after himself against the best climbers in the world, but still we can chalk up two lost “what if” Tours to intra-team feuding, which would have given a fully-supported Anquetil 7 wins. It all comes down to the final TT of that 1958 race. Victory was by no means a given for the blonde-haired Norman, but it wasn’t a longshot, either. Charly Gaul, the eventual winner, had bested Anquetil by 6 seconds in a 46k TT earlier in the race; it could have been a finish on par with 1989, but instead Anquetil bailed and Gaul put over three minutes into the closest GC contenders, winning the race in the process.

Though Anquetil is the only 5-timer with a solid “could have” claim on ≥7 wins, there are several other riders who deserve consideration. And no, Greg Lemond, you are not one of them. Even if you had rightly beaten Hinault in ’85, and not ended up on the wrong side of a shotgun after your win in ’86, you were thrashed as badly as everyone else by Fignon in ’84 (even if you were his teammate) and all the EPO in the world would not have saved you in ’91 (don’t gimme that shotgun pellets thing – you didn’t even take a stage in ’90).

No, I am speaking of riders like Joop Zoetemelk, who started 16 tours, finished first once, second SIX times, and never abandoned. Though Armstrong faced down champions Ullrich and Pantani, these two were nowhere near the riders that Merckx and Hinault were. (Pantani was one-dimensional, ala Chiappuchi, and I’ll rank Ullrich even with Fignon). Zoetemelk only won once, but he lost repeatedly to two of the best riders of the century. Raymond Poulidor was similarly unlucky, running up against Anquetil and Merckx. Then there’s Gino Bartali, who won the race only twice, but seperated by a hiatus of 10 years, so Europe could settle a little brouhaha called the Second World War. Bartali might have won even more after 1948, but ever the gentleman, he dedicated himself to the cause Fausto Coppi to ensure Italian victories in ’49 and ’52; in 1950, he passed up yet another chance at victory by leaving the race after being assaulted by French spectators.

But of course, direct comparisons are impossible. There’s the “modern peloton,” with every pedal stroke monitored by a fleet of TV motos, helicopters, video-equipped team cars and a radio in every ear. When Eddy Merckx made his legendary breakaway in 1969, he got around the corner and was gone. If Armstrong had gone up the road this past summer, every rider in the field would have gotten time gap splits every minute, on the minute. And then there’s the dope; sure, it’s always been there. Hell, the Tour’s first drug scandal broke in 1922; it’s just that the older drugs tended just to let you go harder, and killed you out during the race, so everyone knew about it. Today’s drugs can turn a marginally successful Danish roluer into a Tour de France winner, with almost no outward effects other than the occasional mysterious death while sleeping.

And perhaps the biggest change has been the money. When Hinault came looking for #5 in 1984, he revolutionized cycling in the process by creating the first Superteam: La Vie Claire. For pre-La Vie Claire riders, the Tour was more about honor than dollars. A Tour win meant fame, but not necessarily fortune. Merckx himself says he made his name on the road, but his money on the track, doing popular, televised six-day races. Bartali’s teammates still collected small shares of prize money for serving their leader, but all had winter trades; in 2005, Armstrong’s teammates’ share of the winnings was over 53,000 Euros a man, and this for only three weeks of work. You think Pavel Padernos will be waiting tables in Prague this winter to make ends meet? I most sincerely doubt it. Hinault dropped out of the 1980 Tour to salvage his income for the rest of his season; nowadays, as Armstrong has proved, there’s only one part of the season that matters: Le Tour de France.

So, yeah. Armstrong has more Tour wins than everyone else. And if that’s your sole criterion for determing the best rider the Tour has ever seen, Lance is your man. But be sure to keep in mind the circumstances that allowed him to get that record, and the circumstances that prevented others from attempting it.

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