Tour de France '05
The tour all wrapped up then?
Personally I can't see how Lance can lose, he has a massive advantage over his rivals of being exclusively supported to win one race. And obviously this means he's so focussed, but there's more to it than that. Discovery (and US Postal before) see very little value in him winning the Tour of Flanders or the Worlds (both of which I'm sure he could, as he already has a Worlds medal). It's the Tour they want. OK, Ullrich is also supposed to be the T-Mobile Tour winner, but they can't risk all on him - so they, and the rest of the teams on the Pro Tour, HAVE to go out and win other races. They get tired too, possibly more so in the process - Discovery don't. We, as cycling fans, have to realise that the UCI have an uphill battle with trying to make the Pro Tour work, when the big teams within it are doing very little to help.
The 'Armstrong effect' must not be underestimated too. He single-handedly controls and inspires the riders around him to greater levels and pulverises anyone outside of the team. Even ex-team mates, who rode well when riding for him. They crumble when foolishly attempting to take him on themselves.
Who can imagine cycling without Lance?
So what happens when there's no more Lance? Will the Tour ever be the same? or will it go back to being that quaint thing that happens in France in the summer and stops all the traffic? I suspect it might. Media interest in the UK has already taken a knock with the Tour only showing on pay-for TV. And in the wider media, the UK/US press are obsessed with Armstrong, something that he, his sponsors and the team are all to aware of. They exploit this like Jacky Durand exploited his attacking style (the more traditional way to get on TV). The Lance marketing machine is spot-on.
What we have ended up with is a professional athlete who is paid millions of dollars a year to ride a handful of races, when there are guys in the peloton who get paid fairly poor wages and have to race hard for 8 months, just to make a reasonable pro-sportsman's wage. It's so unlike European Football or US Basketball, no matter how much they pay riders to support Lance there are many hundreds more who earn a pretty meagre sum in one of the most dangerous and difficult sports known to man.
However, where cycling is similar to Football is in countries like the UK where we have a few teams with International class riders who can't even ride a small continental tour, let alone a Pro Tour event. So you get that 'FA cup feeling' all too rarely, when the minows get to take on the giants. Thank heavens for the Tour of Britain then...
The media takes charge
So the truth is that Lance has put cycling firmly in the media spotlight. However he has created the story too, which is almost too good to be true. Sure he has endured a fair amount of critics along the way and, although I don't criticise Lance himself, I do think that the Pro Tour (and cycling as a whole) is suffering in his wake. Mainly because he is the focus now, not cycling itself. The result being that races like the Worlds, the Classics and the Olympics even, have all lost their value. Over the past ten or so years they have grown into the 'scraps' of cycling rather than the monuments they once were. I hope Lance can do something, when he packs up, to re-develop the calendar as a whole and re-focus the media on cycling year-round and not just for three weeks in July.
What really wrangles is the fact that races without Lance now, have no media, and therefore, very little public value. Whilst Lance has inspired millions to get on a bike, I have lost count of how many times someone has said to me "Is Lance Armstrong riding" about events as diverse as the World Cyclo-cross champs and The Revolution in Manchester - So perhaps cycling has already become value-less without him?
So, who is the greatest cyclist ever?
As an aside (seeing as we're trying to put things in perspective) let's look at the figures. Statistics count. Although 6(or 7) Tours is a considerable achievement for a cancer survivor it MUST be placed into some cycling context. Pros like Lance who have been riding since 1992 are now few and far between. Eric Zabel (of similar vintage, and yes we know he's a sprinter) has some 192 victories to his name. Lance currently has 88. And it's not just Lance, riders like Greg Lemond who started the 'peak for the Tour' mentality and Miguel Indurain who continued the theme, may appear through their TdF exploits as being 'greats' in cycling. But Big Mig's 132 victories and Greg's 42 don't even register on the 'real greats' league.
Victories (what else?) in pro races are a way to judge a rider's and more importantly, a team's credentials, so here's a few more victory counts that might surprise you:
Jan Ullrich: 57
Malcolm Elliott: 134
Fausto Coppi: 149
Mario Cipollini: 191
Sean Kelly: 194
Francesco Moser: 194
Joop Zoetemelk: 214
Bernard Hinault: 215
Roger de Vlaeminck: 257
Eddy Merckx: 445
So if you are looking for 'real-terms' great riders look away from the Tour for a moment and consider specifically those riders who could win from any situation (Zoetemelk is a good example) and just because they were quiet, unassuming and just got on with bike racing, they had a far less recognised effect on the sports world as a whole. Perhaps the real problem is the media and marketing men have a greater hold on Armstrong than even he can comprehend.
Lance is, without question, the greatest ever Tour rider. But just Imagine, for a moment, if Roger de Vlaeminck or Eddy Merckx were born in America, were sponsored by a large sports clothing company and possibly just weren't Belgian – I'm sure there lives would have been a lot different.