Look away now if you’re easily offended.
I’ll never forget the first time I ‘met’ Lance Armstrong. It was during a bike race (oddly enough), and he came up and rode alongside me. He said, ‘How you doin’ there, Wiggo?’ or words to that effect, and smiled at me.
I felt ten feet tall because . . . well, because he was Lance Armstrong. Am I allowed to say that, or does it make me some sort of cycling heretic?
During the 2009 Tour, when I was effectively starting my road career in earnest, he was very encouraging. He was losing the physical and psychological war with Contador, and the consequence was that he was scratching about for a podium place with the likes of me.
It was a bike race like any other, however, and I didn’t have the impression he was trying to shaft me or psyche me out. If anything he probably had me believing I was better than I actually was, but I don’t think it was part of some Machiavellian plot to ruin my career and my self-esteem. Maybe I’m deluded, though, and maybe it wasa Machiavellian plot after all. Maybe I was just too dumb to notice . . .
Armstrong jerseys from Bradley Wiggins’ collection
Lance’s story has been told ad infinitum, but for me one of the most interesting aspects is his transformation from Classics rider to post-cancer Grand Tour rider. It’s interesting because, as a young cyclist, you tend to fall into certain ways of riding and of thinking. Sometimes they’re suited to your physical attributes, and sometimes they just aren’t.
Transforming yourself into something else altogether can be difficult but not, by definition, impossible. People who don’t understand cycling would like to pretend that it’s impossible, but it’s just a question of power to weight.
Prior to winning the 1968 Giro, Merckx was considered a Classics rider. He reinvented himself, and so did Beppe Saronni. He was a track rider who went on to win the Giro twice, while Ercole Baldini, Evgeni Berzin and Hugo Koblet (below)were time triallists/pursuiters. They all evolved into Grand Tour winners, and so did I.
Obviously, Lance was stripped of his Tours, and everyone has an opinion on that. What’s fascinating to me is that seven Tours de France equals about 160 days of it not going wrong, in addition to all the weeks and months preceding the race.
During the race you can get caught behind a crash, have a really bad day, have a mechanical failure when it’s on, get blown out the back when a gap opens, make a tactical error, anything. Then you’ve your opponents to deal with, in Lance’s case Ullrich, Pantani, Zülle, Heras, Basso and Beloki.
Whether you like cycling or not, Lance is fascinating as a 21st-century cultural and social phenomenon. There are any number of books analysing his career, the corporate interests behind it and the context in which it took place. It’s unbelievable in the most literal sense, but it’s also interesting as regards the way cycling defines itself as a sport.
Legend has it that Henri Desgrange, the ‘Father of the Tour’, envisaged a ‘perfect winner’. He was of the idea that the ideal Tour de France would have one finisher, a type of super-athlete who would not only defeat his opponents, but also whatever nature might throw at him.
It was an extreme version of cycling, and a very French one. It also explains why Tour de France winners tended to be masochistic, obsessive and, on occasion, borderline sociopathic.
The Italians – and by extension the Giro – always preferred shorter, faster races. For them cycling was about stealth as well as strength, intelligence as well as speed. Tactics and cunning were important, because they viewed sport as an extension of ‘normal’ life. Cycling was hard, but then so was life in a poor country like theirs.
To prosper you needed to be clever, so the riders often took shortcuts, both literally and metaphorically. That was to be expected because they were ordinary, working-class, home-spun blokes. They were human beings who had undertaken to do extraordinary things, and they needed all the help they could get.
When they rode the Giro they became ambassadors for their village or province. They set off with their bikes, rode around the peninsula and came home with amazing stories about the things they’d experienced – the great cities, the different people and dialects, the strange food they’d eaten, the scenery they’d witnessed and so on.
The organisers liked the stages to finish in bunch sprints, because that way they sold tickets for the stadiums and velodromes. They saw the riders as ‘personalities’ and promoted them as performers in a great travelling circus.
The French weren’t much interested in cycling as spettacolo, and their perception of it was fundamentally different. They felt no particular need to cultivate the riders as personalities, because the mere fact that they were riding the Tour did that. The stages were biblical, so it went without saying that they were super-human.
With little or no public transport, your average Frenchman wouldn’t and couldn’t conceiveof travelling 400 kilometres, let alone riding that distance on a pushbike. In 1928 the Tour was 5,400 kilometres, the Giro 3,000 kilometres. Only one in four of the Tour starters made it round, but more than half completed the Giro.
The point is that the Tour de France was always an extreme sporting event, and it was always contested by extreme human beings. They were extraordinary by definition, and people like Gustave Garrigou and Henri Pélissier (above), the winners in 1911 and 1923 respectively, were cases in point. The peloton was full of madmen, and they were probably the maddest of all.
Over the decades the racing has evolved more or less in line with society. The stages are much shorter and more human, but as a consequence the racing is much, much faster. Things like nutrition, training and machinery are virtually unrecognisable from how they used to be, and in truth the modern Giro is probably harder than the Tour.
I think the basic premise is unaltered, though, because the Tour remains the pinnacle of cycling achievement. As regards prestige and global reach it’s still way, way ahead of the Giro and the Vuelta, and always will be. Its public is bigger because it takes place during the summer holidays, France is much richer than Italy or Spain, commercially it’s a juggernaut and it has cultivated its legends extremely well. It’s won, almost without exception, by the best stage racer in the world, and he is always a very special, very driven human being.
Therein, I think, lies the paradox of Lance’s having been stripped. His opponents didn’t necessarily like him, but guys like Ullrich, Pantani and Michael Rasmussen sure as hell respected him. He was the archetypal Tour de France cyclist, and he was precisely the sort of winner Desgrange had in mind 120 years ago.
I can’t say that I really know Jan Ullrich, Lance’s great rival. I do know, however, that he was one incredibly gifted athlete and that he won the 1997 Tour at the age of 23.
Everyone in cycling was convinced he’d go on to win a load more of them, because there was nothing he couldn’t do on a bike. He was immense, and he inspired awe among fellow riders and fans alike.
Lance would tell anybody prepared to listen that Jan was much more talented, and he was probably right. He respected Ullrich and feared Ullrich, and that fear was a big part of his make-up.
Winning the Tour (or not losing it) was existential for him, and most seem to agree that the need to win mutated into a sort of siege mentality. I think Bill Shankly said something like, ‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that,’ and for Lance cycling was probably the same.
I don’t think Lance is a football fan, and my guess would be that he’s not familiar with Shankly’s ‘life and death’ quote. Regardless, in his case it seems entirely appropriate.
What was it Sir Alex Ferguson said?
Cycling. Bloody hell.
ICONS. My Inspiration. My Motivation. My Obsession. by Bradley Wiggins is published by HarperCollins on November 1 priced £25 hardback. Wiggins will launching the book at the Rouleur Classic on November 1 where copies will be available to buy and be signed. ICONS is also available for purchase from the Rouleur Emporium .
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