The Legacy of Lance
The Age of Armstrong has ended. Having announced his retirement last April, Sunday?s final stage of the 2005 Tour was his last race.
Armstrong?s departure will be felt most strongly in the Tour de France. This was his principal venue since his emergence from illness in the last 1990?s. All other races he entered were subordinate ? indeed training for -- the Tour.
Armstrong was the ultimate Tour specialist. Was he also the greatest cyclist of his time?
Since the Tour is widely regarded as the sternest test on the professional cycling calendar, Armstrong can lay legitimate claim to this status.
But, with the passage of time, some may feel that Armstrong was too specialized to be spoken of in these terms.
They will say that there is no doubt that Eddy Merckx was the greatest cyclist of his time (or Bernard Hinault of his), because of his all-round domination, not only of the Tour but also of the Giro d?Italia and a number of one-day classics.
They may rank Armstrong, rather, with Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour five times in the 1950?s and 60?s.
Anquetil was not the physically dominating ?Cannibal? that Merckx was, but was rather an innovator in cycling technique and technology.
Armstrong similarly has innovated in the entire area of race preparation, bringing the latest ideas and advances in nutrition, physiology and aerodynamics to bear on his own body and his equipment.
On Saturday, for example, he had a newly developed time trial bike for his convincing win. You can bet that this bike will be quickly copied.
Prior to Saturday?s race, Armstrong?s long-time conditioning guru Chris Carmichael was writing a column about what Lance would be eating, and when he would be eating it, before the race.
Looking forward to the 2006 Tour, one wonders if the next winner will adopt the Armstrong paradigm. Or will we get a winner more in the Merckx mould?
If the latter, look for Alexandre Vinokurov to emerge as a dominating force. On Sunday, he powered away on the Champs-Elysees to take his second stage win. He showed once again that he is a great all-rounder -- a man who can win Liege-Bastogne-Liege and stages in the Tour de France. More important, still, he demonstrated that he could animate the race, make things happen.
But the more likely eventuality is that the Armstrong example will hold sway. So look for the leading contenders to focus on the 2006 Tour to the exclusion of all else.
Jan Ullrich has already adopted this strategy, and it would appear others would follow. This is something to be regretted.
Yes, the Tour de France is incomparable but pro cycling is surely more than something that happens for three weeks in July.