Lance Armstrong was a very good cyclist, perhaps the best the greatest who ever lived. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring history.
Yes, he was a pathological liar who ruined the lives of many people (a masseuse, a reporter, several former teammates, a former teammate’s wife) by going scorched earth. His epic fall from grace was almost unparalleled in modern sports. (Juliet Macur’s Cycle Of Lies is the best and most thorough book about Armstrong’s downfall.) Alex Rodriguez, America’s resident sports villain and the closest thing Armstrong has to a peer in terms of media scrutiny, didn’t even have it as bad as Lance. There have been documentaries and feature films made about him. He went on Oprah. Oprah! Lance Armstrong, a professional cyclist, was of such great interest to the American public that he got the full Oprah couch confessional treatment.
But when it comes to bike racing, I still think Lance was the GOAT.
Armstrong was discarded so quickly and completely that people fail to acknowledge just how good he was. He was a bulldog Texan who was brash and arrogant and 100% American. His team was sponsored by the United States Postal Service! (This is, naturally, part of a multi-million dollar lawsuit.) He had Americans excited about cycling in 1999, when the Internet hadn’t yet made relatively obscure sports easily available to all. He won seven consecutive Tours. Forget your moral quandary about doping for a minute. Cycling is a cruel sport and winning one tour, let alone seven in a row, is equal parts fitness and luck. Lance never crashed out. Never let a bad day on the road ruin his chances. And, for seven straight years he rode into Paris in yellow.
He was cycling’s first and only singular superstar. Diehard cycling fans and weekend warriors will certainly disagree, shouting the names of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond—all dominant in their own right. But Lance Armstrong was a legitimate international star in a sport that was previously just ornery sunburnt dudes in spandex. Lance Armstrong was the first cyclist to find his way into the gossip pages. Lance Armstrong left his wife for a rock star. Lance Armstrong was a cancer survivor who won the toughest endurance competition in all of professional sports. Lance Armstrong was truly and without question a sensation cycling had never seen before and will never see again.
I was one of the countless Americans intoxicated by the Texan’s dominance. In the late ‘90s and early aughts I came home from cross country practice every day in July, poured myself a massive bowl of cereal, and flipped on OLN to catch the last few hours of each stage. I am not ashamed to admit that I had a Lance Armstrong poster in my bedroom.
All of the haters will say he doped. (And how! You have to admire just how precise and detail-oriented his doping regimen was.) To this I say: So what? This tidy New York Times graphic shows just how prevalent doping was when Lance was on top. But I am here to tell you that it doesn’t matter. Don’t let moral handwringing over purportedly performance-enhancing drugs banned due to arbitrary determinations by a corrupt anti-doping agency retroactively ruin otherwise thrilling moments in sports.
In the late summer of 1998, I stayed up late watching nationally televised Cardinals games waiting, I shit you not, to hit record on my family’s VHS to capture Big Mac’s 70th dinger. And you know what? Whatever “PEDs” McGwire was taking, the fact that he was taking them doesn’t tarnish that memory. The summer of 1998 was exciting as hell. And so was every July from 1999 through 2005. Knowing that Lance was doped to the gills—along with nearly everyone else in the peloton—doesn’t make those seven tours any less exciting.
Look, I am all for a clean sport—whatever dubious distinction that means. But EPO didn’t take Lance Armstrong from a nobody to the greatest cyclist of all time, the same way that whatever drug du jour Major League Baseball felt like criminalizing didn’t take Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez from replacement-level bench guy to world beater. They were already that good.
There are countless grainy YouTube videos of Lance wrecking shit in the Pyrenees and Alps that I could use to illustrate just how great he was, but none is more iconic than The Look. During the 10th stage of the 2001 Tour de France climbing the legendary Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong turned around and stared down his rival Jan Ullrich—who finished second overall to Lance three times—before taking off up the mountain as though he’d been shot out of a cannon. It is Babe Ruth’s called shot. Jim Harbaugh’s guaranteed victory against Ohio State. Armstrong looked Ullrich dead in the face and essentially said Go ahead, try and follow me up this mountain. He beat Ullrich, who finished second on the day and second overall in that Tour, by one minute and 59 seconds.
This clip of complete and utter dominance is lost to history, an obscure YouTube video deep in Google searches underneath Oprah clips, haughty Nike commercials, and countless news segments about the disgraced cyclist’s fall from grace. Lance Armstrong lied to a lot of people for the better part of two decades, bullying anyone who crossed him. He deserves any and all criticism for the wreckage he left in his wake. He’s Nixon on a carbon fiber frame. When it comes to his actual bicycle riding, though, the only thing more absurd than cycling’s refusal to acknowledge that it is synonymous with doping is its refusal to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong was the greatest of all time.
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