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Is Armstrong that great, or is cycling that bad?

If Lance Armstrong isn't careful, he's going to undermine his own legend, his place among the immortals of sports. How could he do such a thing? By screwing around and winning the 2009 Tour de France.

Despite all that Lance Armstrong has endured -- cheating allegations, cancer -- he's still taking it to the competition. (AP)
You read that right. By winning the damn thing.

At some point, with Armstrong within range of yet another Tour de France title, the focus should shift away from his presumed greatness to the possibility that everyone else in cycling sort of, you know, sucks. Maybe cycling isn't such a great sport. Maybe it's more like Indy Car or jai-alai -- the winners are big fish, but that's one little bitty pond.

I mean, really. Armstrong is seven or eight years past a cyclist's time-tested prime. Before he came along and won seven Tour de France championships, the record had been five titles, shared by four cyclists. All four of those guys were 29 or 30 when they won their fifth (and final) Tour de France. By age 31, they were toast.

Armstrong is 37.

And had been retired for three years.

And nearly died from cancer in 1996.

And he's damn close to winning again.

Most people, most normal and rational people, might look at that information and surmise that Lance Armstrong is simply a cycling immortal, a god among men. Me, I'm not most people. Not normal. Not rational. Not ready to anoint Armstrong anything other than the latest ringer in a sport that apparently must have one at all times. Near as I can tell, when a decent cyclist finally comes around, he doesn't just win a Tour de France. He wins three or four or five, or seven of them (and counting) in Armstrong's case.

Because the competition just isn't that good.

• Armstrong stays in third after Stage 9

Let's take a comparative look at Michael Jordan, please. He was the best basketball player of his era, maybe any era. Like Armstrong, he retired in his mid-30s and returned with a new team in his late 30s. And as good as he was with Washington in 2001, Jordan was a shell of himself. He averaged 22.9 ppg, more than seven points below his career scoring average. He was down in shooting, rebounds, assists and steals. He was up in turnovers. He "led" the Wizards to a 37-45 record.

Great player, but at that age -- and after all that time off -- not the same player.

Armstrong? Great cyclist 10 years ago, and after all that time off ... he's still the same cyclist. After Sunday's ninth stage, he's in third place, eight seconds back.

That's typical Armstrong position at this stage for the Tour. Ready to pounce. And win.

Which would be the worst thing he can do -- unless you're prepared to believe Armstrong is better in cycling than Jordan was in basketball. And I'm not prepared to believe that. Tens of millions of people play basketball around the world, dreaming of turning pro. Jordan clawed over all that humanity to be the best of the best. To compare him to Armstrong, in a way that makes Armstrong look better, would be an insult not only to Jordan, but to mathematics. There aren't millions of aspiring professional cyclists. It's a fringe sport with a fringe number of competitors. Armstrong is the best of them, obviously. But what does that mean?

Look, I can't be the only one wondering about this. And don't tell me you're merely wondering whether Armstrong is clean. I'm not going to go all Rick Reilly here and pretend the possibility doesn't exist, but the question of doping has been asked and answered. Armstrong has been scrutinized longer than Barry Bonds or Marion Jones, and unlike them, he has come out clean. And even if Armstrong isn't clean, even if he's a brilliantly evasive cheater, it's irrelevant.

Because cycling is the dirtiest sport there is.

You think major league baseball is dirty? Cyclists laugh at baseball cheaters. Amateurs. Back in the 1880s when the first cheating pitcher thought he was being slick by rubbing the ball with tobacco juice, cycling already had its first doping death -- an English cyclist reportedly drank a concoction of caffeine, cocaine and strychnine to boost his performance. Killed himself, the poor SOB.

Since then, cheating in cycling has come a long way. Teams carry around vats of enhanced blood and pump it into the athletes' bodies. Cyclists aren't like baseball players hiding in bathroom stalls, shooting steroids while their bosses look the other way. In cycling, team leaders facilitate the frauds, bringing along doctors trained to cheat.

And even with all that cheating, nobody has been able to compete with Lance Armstrong. He's older than everyone in the sport. He's coming off retirement. He's as clean as everyone else. And he's a cancer survivor. And still he's kicking everyone's ass?

Remarkable for him. But pathetic for everyone else.

And to answer your question: No, this column isn't written ironically or sarcastically. I'm not that good. I'm not trying to find some new way to write about the greatness of Lance Armstrong. I'm trying to ask a question, and I'd like someone to answer it for me:

How bad is cycling if this aging, comeback cancer survivor wins it again?

Is Armstrong that great, or is cycling that bad? - Tour de France -

I want to choke this guy. He knows nothing about cycling, nothing about team tactics, nothing about how cycling is the CLEANEST sport since we test at a rate that no other sport even approaches at all. Did he know that Astana has 4 of the top 6 riders in the tour right now? The strongest team around Lance probably ever? On and on...

What an ignorant fool. I hope others teach him how stupid he really is.

191 Posts
God, he's just a columnist trying to vie for his time in the spotlight of sports slander.

His opinion is uneducated, it's making random accusations, and it's just plain childish.

I'm surprised I even bothered reading that whole thing.

164 Posts
I wonder if this guy has ever even ridden a bike for more than a couple miles and is aware that the United States is not the only country involved in professional cycling. Just because cycling is not a huge sport here does not mean that it is not incredibly popular in the rest of the world. Let pool some money together and get this guy to something like the tour of Flanders sportive, maybe when he quits after 20 miles and sees how fanatical they are about cycling in Europe he might realize how ignorant that column is.

And yes, I am prepared to say that Lance is better in cycling than Jordan was in basketball

71 Posts
You guys ought to read the article with an open mind instead of such an obvious bias and defensiveness towards cycling.

I don't think the author was disagreeing with the sentiment that Armstrong is as dominant in cycling as Jordan was in basketball. In fact that is his main point - Armstrong is the most dominant cyclist of all time, maybe even more dominant in his sport than anyone else has been in any other sport.

But that in itself supports his point that ... this in itself might indicate that there just isn't the level of competition as other sports. For a guy to dominate that long and after a layoff is really not likely to happen in another sport that attracts a larger, steady stream of ultra-elite athletes. If cycling can't produce someone who can beat Armstrong during that 7 year period, and if he can still compete at the absolute highest level at his age after a layoff, SHOULD make one think about what is wrong with cycling if it doesn't produce people who can whip the ass of an aging person coming off a 3 year layoff.

No matter how you cut it, world-wide, cycling is a fringe sport. Compare it to basketball and soccer, just to mention two. Therefore, a best of the best aren't distilled through nearly the numbers of competitors as the other sports.

Cycling might attract more elite athletes in France, Italy, etc. than in the US. Maybe not though; I'd bet many more elite athletes with innate endurance or athletic talent gravitate to track, running, soccer and maybe even basketball! In many countries hockey and skiing (downhill and XC) are at least on par with cycling as an attraction to young, ambitious athletes.

And those sports have had dominant figures, but nothing like Armstrong. The author hypothesizes that this is related to the fact that there just aren't the raw numbers of super genetically gifted, hard working and motivated athletes competing for the elite of the elite in cycling. Not that Armstrong isn't gifted, hard working or motivated. Just that the nature of his sport makes it likely that his gift and motivation aren't as great as the best of the best in other sports who have fought through a much greater number of competitors.
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