The Lance Factor: I [published 1/5/10]

I am a sports fan.  As a kid in Boston I rooted for the Braves, the Red Sox, the Bruins, and even the Celtics.  I’ve had my heroes, but always for what they have done in competition—Bobby Orr, greatest of hockey players; Bob Cousy, best of the old-time basketball guards (or “gahds” in New England); Ted Williams, “the greatest hitter who ever lived.”  Superlatives.

When I got into cycling I also followed the supreme achievers.  Greg LeMond, first American to win the Tour de France.  Johan Museew, the “Lion of Flanders” in the spring classics.  Andy Hampsten, American son of two English professors and winner of the Giro d’Italia.  Americans were just getting into European racing in the ‘80s.  It was a trip for them.  American-sponsored racing teams, first 7-Eleven and then Motorola, ran in an environment that was much more intense than any stateside racing.  They built the base of American professional cycling, though concurrently LeMond raced for European teams, the only ones strong enough to assure his victory in important races.

In the early ‘90s LeMond was on the wane, victim in part of a hunting accident that left his system weakened and septic.  That’s when Armstrong came along.  A brash young Texan, champion junior triathlete and overachiever, Lance could rub you the wrong way. His intensity was (and is) amazing—no offseason Mexican food diets and ice cream for him.  He trained daily for several hours 48 weeks a year.  And he had some success, including victory in the World Championship race in 1993.

After a crippling bout with testicular cancer in 1996-97, he almost literally came back from the dead to rise to the pinnacle of bike racing, winning the Tour de France for seven straight years between 1999 and 2005.  But even after all those years and all his success, allegations about doping dogged him, especially after the cancer.  Not once in his career did he ever test positive despite being the most tested professional rider, so either he was a the cleverest doper ever, or he’s been slandered.   As I watch him on his 2009 comeback via DVD, he looks to me not like a doper but like a superb athlete in great condition and with uniquely intent focus.

In 1927 Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a single season.  That record lasted almost 40 years.  But what is so stunning is the degree to which Ruth exceeded the skills of his peers.  In the record year the second most home runs hit were 47, by Lou Gehrig; the third most were 18, by Tony Lazzeri (all three were Yankees).  No other entire team hit as many homers as Ruth alone; the Philadelphia Athletics were second best at 56.  In short, Ruth’s skills simply towered above his peers; it’s well known that his “training” focused on booze and broads, neither of which has ever been a proven performance enhancer.  Lance, in contrast, is the epitome of focus and form.  But like Ruth, I would argue, his skills simply tower over those of his stage-racing peers.  Superlative.

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