By Balanced Sports columnist, Ben Roberts.
I must admit to mixed feelings upon the second retirement Lance Armstrong. Maybe it is the nature of a second retirement that I am neither happy nor sad, nor feel any great pull of nostalgia. However it has just struck home for me, having returned from a quick spin on my bicycle after finishing work for the day, that the main reason why I developed an affinity with the sport is the effect that was Armstrong.
I, with a large number of other westerners, rode the wave of attention poured onto Armstrong as he began his run of seven wins in the Tour de France, astonished with his success and his return from testicular cancer. We also loved that he was a rebel, a straight talking man's man in a sport dominated by continental Europe. Yes, there had previously been Greg LeMond, but he was more an ad hoc curiosity than an icon. Lance was LANCE.
Armstrong’s autobiography, It's not about the bike, still continues to sell strongly 11 years since its release. Most of us who have a copy will have lost count of the times we have read his story, following a struggling childhood, through the rigour of cancer and onto the podium of the Champs-Élysées. Maybe this is where the trouble is in loving Armstrong now – you can only become the champion once. While you are becoming the champion, you can be rebellious, but you wear the risk that it will all fall through. Once you are the champion its harder to rebel as it's only against yourself.
The Tour de France became secondary to the phenomenon that was not just Armstrong's immense cycling talent, but the one-way PR machine that followed. Not only would Lance speak with a confident and brash manner, so would team mates, sponsors, fans, and Johan Bruyneel, the Team Director. Everything became stage managed and controlled so much that the media and other riders built up strong resentment towards him and Bruyneel. Throughout it all Lance remained Lance, no mellowing with time.
Every month more circumstantial evidence is released that points the finger at Armstrong for use of performance enhancing drugs. Former team mates, masseurs, and doctors have bleated loudly that he used drugs. The more the circumstantial evidence builds the more we doubt him. But despite this as he has always pointed to his negative test results. He remains innocent until proven guilty as it should be.
He didn't just win, he would romp it in. Outside of 2003s victory that was by a mere 61 seconds, his wins were by relative miles over his challengers. Every year for seven years the cycling world would watch Armstrong dominate the race from any position. He had a team around him that seemingly frightened the field into falling into line – these were Lance's races; don't even bother. All things being equal you cannot question his right to be called one of the greatest cyclists, but in the world of cycling in many opinions (including my own), he is not the greatest.
Though there are other greats, I will restrict this analysis to those who have won the tour five times as they most likely compare more easily to Armstrong's talent. The Spaniard Miguel Indurain who claimed his five wins consecutively from 1991 through to 1995 was probably the most like Armstrong. He won like a finely tuned machine, surviving in the mountains, and killing them in the time trials. I believe Armstrong the stronger rider than Indurain. To go with the Armstrong machine he had the talent on the climbs and showed a dynamic ability to take the race on when challenged.
Jacques Anqetil had his career somewhat defined not just by his success, but his success at the expense of fellow Frenchman Raymond Poulidor. Anqetuil was chased to his tour wins by a hungry Poulidor. The unfortunate Poulidor continued to challenge well beyond Anqetil's retirement for that victory that always eluded him. Armstrong by contrast was able to dominate an era that had great riders, but not the sort that fear would drive him. Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich both collected a tour win prior to Armstrong's first, but history leaves the late Pantani as an incredibly troubled individual and Ullrich inconsistent and flaky.
Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx are the main road blocks, however, against me lifting Armstrong to the title of the Greatest. Whereas they were riders who rode to win everything, Armstrong rode the tour and any race purely in preparation for the tour. Hinault added to his five tours, three Giro d'Italias and two Vuelta a Espanas. He won all three jerseys in the tour at least once, and a number of one day classics.
'The Cannibal' Merckx was even more ferocious and hungry. His five tours were added to five Giros and one Vuelta. Displaying his hunger further is that he won every jersey in the tour and in 1969 won all three. Add to this he is one of the few cyclists to have won all five monument classics, and he set the 'Hour record' on the track. Merckx and Hinault raced for everything, every time they were on a bike. Pre-cancer Armstrong did win the World Championship and a number of other races, but post-cancer Armstrong had eyes only for 'Mellow Johnny', the Maillot Jaune. Armstrong was a phenomenon, but compared to these two he is miles behind.
Cycling didn't need Armstrong to return, Armstrong wanted Armstrong to return. His stated motivations appear to have been purely about raising the cancer awareness, but his desperation in the 2009 tour said that there was more. That he finished third was incredible after four yours since his last victory. But very few champions in any sport are irreplaceable, others will always rise to prominence rendering the past a memory. Perhaps outside of Bradman only Nicklaus and Jordan will endure above all others in their sport.
Reading back through what I have written I realise what a 'wet blanket' I must appear. But this is Armstrong's second retirement, his first left behind a phenomenal performance, his second a serviceable encore. In time, mine and others hearts will warm to reminiscing about Armstrong's glorious seven consecutive tour wins, but in the mean time we move on. He definitely was the reason I came to love the sport of cycling, but as an individual he can never be bigger than the game; he isn't the reason I continue to love it.