Tour de France 2015

Height of name-dropping

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 July, 2004, 12:00am

Lance has joined an illustrious band of superstars whom fans instantly recognise by just one word

The Babe. Michael. Ali. Tiger. Martina. Pele. He is a one-name phenomenon now, his celebrity needing no family name.

Even in America, where drivers of massive vehicles get all nervous when they see a bicycle legally sharing the road with them, people know one cyclist by his first name. Lance.

It helps that his last name is robust and legendary-sounding, the heritage of a stepfather he came to detest. This personal fury is part of his legacy of motivation. Lance Armstrong.

He showed Jordanesque vengeance on Friday when he chased down a cyclist who had crossed him. And on Saturday, Lance showed Ruthian dominance in acing the time trial to win his fifth stage of the Tour.

In this age of worldwide television and internet and sponsorships, even Americans know Armstrong, partly because he was given barely a 40 per cent chance of surviving testicular cancer. They know him for his foundation and his commercials to fight cancer.

Americans have also heard the rumours coming from that gallant three-time American champion, Greg LeMond, that the sport is chemically abetted, yet Armstrong has had no problems with increased drug testing in recent years. He showed his wrath on Friday when he bolted ahead to stall an escape by Filippo Simeoni, who has testified that one of Armstrong's advisers, Dr Michele Ferrari of Italy, furnished Simeoni with illegal drugs.

Armstrong has called Simeoni a liar, but his most primitive act against his critic might have been ill-advised since it called attention to his anger about charges of doping in the cycling culture.

In the big picture, Lance knows that six Tours may be enough for now. He also observes the rules of European tradition and will never claim to be better than Eddy Merckx, who came to visit him in the States when Armstrong's life was in the balance.

Even one of his best friends, Bob Roll, the former Tour rider and Outdoor Life Network sage who rode with Armstrong in the hills of North Carolina as he recovered from cancer, has deferred.

'Eddy Merckx is, quite simply, the greatest bike racer of all time,' Roll wrote in his current book, The Tour de France Companion, issued by Workman this year.

'The Belgian's list of victories is staggering,' Roll added, referring to how Merckx won the Tour five times but also the Giro d'Italia five times, the Vuelta a Espana once and the world championships three times. Merckx was known as the Cannibal for the way he ate up opponents and topography, but in 1975, while Merckx was trying for his sixth Tour victory, a villain emerged from the side of the road and punched him in the kidney. Merckx finished the Tour but had to settle for second. Likewise, Armstrong will never say he is better than Bernard Hinault, the Breton who was known as the Badger for his ferocious ways, nor will he say he is better than Jacques Anquetil, the Frenchman, or Miguel Indurain, the Basque from Spain, all of whom won it five times.

In a long interview in The Times of London last February, Armstrong told Alastair Campbell that most people would probably choose Merckx as the best cyclist in history.

'When you put down resumes of our careers side by side on two pieces of paper, his successes were incredible,' Armstrong said. 'They were so diverse: tours, world championships, one-hour records - he was an animal. But there are big differences, so you can't always compare.'

Who is the greatest in any sport? Babe Ruth's home run totals have been matched by the superb Henry Aaron and may soon be passed by the awesome Barry Bonds. Ruth was also a great pitcher, which is why he is the Babe.

That phenomenon Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali held titles three different times and proclaimed himself The Greatest. But was he even as good as Joe Louis, the so-called Brown Bomber, who reigned as heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, regularly defeating the latest Bum of the Month?

Great athletes have dominated team sports. Pele, in Brazilian soccer fashion, discarded his multiple names as a young man. The Boston Celtics never won anything until Bill Russell came along, then they won 11 championships in his 13 seasons. Michael Jordan won three titles with Chicago, took a sabbatical, came back and won three more. In that sport of tortured individualists, Pete Sampras won his last tournament, the US Open in 2002, to give him 13 Grand Slam titles, but tennis people say Rod Laver, who won 11, was the greatest player of any era because he as barred from playing in the then-amateur Slams for six years when he turned professional.

Martina Navratilova won nine titles at Wimbledon, but in the earlier years Chris Evert could cut her down with a look and a backhand. Bjorn Borg won five straight Wimbledons but never won the US Open.

Tiger Woods became a one-name wonder, but he is now struggling to stay in the top 10 in the majors, while Jack Nicklaus is phasing out with his stunning total of 18 Grand Slam victories.

Cycling has had many champions. The current one can be conjured up with one name.