Lance Armstrong

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.

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2 Responses to “Lance Armstrong”

  1. Tom Cahill Says:

    Goodness, what a comment on Armstrong. Everyone entitled and all that…. Seems to me you missed an awful lot about this admittedly global, media-friendly, rich, egocentric, successful bike racer, who has won more TdFs than anyone else. AND came third (in a course made for him) at a very mature age. Do we really think that his personality and style of riding and marketing is what cycling is ‘all about’? I don’t.

    What about his drugs use (oops he has never been caught, except for those pesky saddle sores? What about his embarrassing and nearly sick comments on Twitter about his team-mates and others, although when he got confronted with his poor comportment by Sastre, he did admit it and apologised. What about his strange relation with his mother (read his first book) and his wives/partners that all look like her, is this the kind of male female relations we applaud and look up to? What about his intimidation of anyone who suggests he is other than squeaky clean? What about his tacky and brutal behaviour toward riders he does not like, remembering his appalling episode with Simeoni years back, really sad. What about his boring (but effective) tactics in winning, what about his lack of interest in anything except the Tour? Sure he will no doubt win some elections in America, but look who does, nearly anyone. For nearly any reason. No doubt he will find great support in the Republican Party, for whom he will work.

    I find the usual critical and subtle views usually expressed here to be just left suddenly by the wayside. He is a creep. Even if he also masters the media, and is globally known. Contrary to your view, I think he moves with a lower purpose, not a higher one.

    No I am afraid that cycling has not necessarily found its global figure with Lance and his almost certain cheating and tacky behaviour. I prefer any of the other figures you named, even Eddy, who also used drugs and cheated.

  2. Dave Horton Says:

    Cheers Tom, great to get your thoughtful and incisive comments …

    I think I agree with most of your criticisms of Armstrong, but I’m not sure they necessarily detract from him as a major, global cycling celebrity.

    Also, whilst I certainly wouldn’t want to excuse any of his behaviour – either that we know about or that which we continue to conjecture about – I also think that no one is perfect, and Armstrong has the wisdom to – at least sometimes – acknowledge his imperfections.

    Doesn’t the point remain, though, that Armstong is the most famous, the most compelling, almost irresistible, figure which pro cycle sport specifically, and the cycling world in general, has got?

    And isn’t another point that, for all his faults, Armstrong uses his undoubted allure to get people cycling?

    Do we need our heroes to be saints?

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