A colleague of mine often refers to opinions as being like sphincters – everyone has one. Get road riding fans on to the subject of Lance Armstrong and the same is true (about the opinions, obviously, not so much the sphincters). It’s a debate that ranges from the most serious accusations of cheating to blind reverence.
Here is a rider who fought cancer and then won not one, two, three or four Tours de France, but seven. Fausto Coppi only managed it twice. Here is a rider who represents the consummate professional. Always meticulously well prepared, a professional who took his work hours very seriously indeed. No mechanicals, no missed feed zones (well, maybe one or two), very aware, riding state-of-the-art frames and knowing more about his rivals than they knew about themselves. The modern, automaton bike racer. But these days no one ever seems to talk about that.
There is a cliché in sport: “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Yet the argument that Lance was bad for the sport is a tenuous one. The ‘Lance effect’ raised the profile of modern cycle racing to an entirely new level, both in terms of global reach and mainstream appeal. If that’s a bad thing, then tell that to the bike industry.
And while we’ve seen a good deal of ‘sportsmanship’ from him concerning peeing into containers and so forth, if you look at many of his successful predecessors – Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault or Indurain – they all display similar characteristics, that obsessive drive to beat the competition, to win at any cost. Indurain, in particular, set the precedent for training for one goal – the Tour – identifying it as the prize that everyone, from the sponsors to your own grandmother, wants you to win.
There are, of course, more appealing characters within road riding’s dramatis personae: the idiosyncratic geniuses, the underdogs and mavericks; think Poulidor, Fuente, LeMond, Chiappucci or Pantani. Yet who’s to say that Armstrong isn’t a genius either?
As for my own opinion of Mr Armstrong, it’s hard not to sit on the fence. I don’t particularly like him as a bike racer, nor as a politician, but then I don’t particularly dislike him either. I do know that I’d rather watch clips of ‘Elefantino’ climbing, or look at photographs of Jan Ulrich drinking beer, than relive any of Armstrong’s victories. Yet I also know that, like Merckx and Indurain, both of whom turned the races they dominated into boring spectacles (unless you enjoy watching time trials), Lance Armstrong knew how to win.