We’ve never seen a cyclist quite like Lance Armstrong.
I think it’s fair to say that he is the first bike rider to have assumed a major global significance, reaching far beyond the realms of cycle sport. The careers of other cyclists have clearly resonated more widely than racing cycling (I’m thinking of, as examples, Major Taylor, Fausto Coppi, Jeannie Longo, Beryl Burton and Eddy Merckx), but Armstrong undoubtedly has the capacity to touch and inspire lives across the globe.
Recently, he announced via his Twitter site (which has almost 2 million followers) that he would be going for bike rides in, first Paisley and then, Dublin. With very little notice, hundreds of people in Scotland and more than a thousand in Ireland turned up to join him. That’s some pulling power, and here’s Armstrong again innovating, crossing boundaries, applying this power in order to do things – make a difference, change the world.
Though his power is palpable and hugely seductive, it seems unlikely that Armstrong’s consciously intending to, or even that he will, start some kind of movement here. What is true, I think, is how cycling promotion works – in often strange and unexpected ways. Lots of people, understandably, want some kind of magic bullet in getting more people onto bikes. They ask, with urgency, ‘but what really works?’. There are some obvious answers – major political will, serious funding, restraining car use. But cycling also grows culturally, through lots and lots and lots of little events, experiences, word-of-mouth encouragements, and the kind of situations which Armstrong, via Twitter, recently orchestrated in the UK and Ireland. We can all promote cycling all of the time, if perhaps not quite so effectively as Lance …
Whatever you may think of him as a bike rider, Armstrong’s charisma is immense. He is about more than the bike, he seems to move with a higher purpose. From the brash young world champion – via his very moving and gracious finishing line tribute to his fallen comrade Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour de France (surely one of the finest, saddest moments in the history of our sport), by way of his battle with cancer, his comeback, his 7 Tour wins, his high profile public life, his battles within the sport, and his second comeback – to the man he is today, Armstrong is a wonderfully rich, engrossing global personality.
We would do well to keep him cycling, to keep him within cycling, so that he can – in all manner of weird and wonderful ways – broaden cycling’s appeal. He is better positioned to do this, I would argue, than anyone else living, or who has ever lived. Bike racers may think more of living champions such as Maertens, Merckx, Hinault, Roche and Kelly, but Armstrong – even whilst still a competitive athlete – is fast becoming an elder statesman of the sport we care so passionately about, and we should I think embrace him with open arms.