Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lance Armstrong, Jimmie Johnson and the Tour De France

Editor's note, I put this together last winter before the proposed double existed with plans to post it this week , So I thank you Randy and Bruton for making this post all the more pertinent. And yes, you may say I am a dreamer...

For me growing up in Indiana for whatever reason meant that summer was spent watching non traditional team sports. Basketball and Football owned the Fall and Winter, but once Spring was upon me the focus shifted, Racing and tennis came to the fore. Go figure on that pair, but then I don’t watch much tennis these days.

The other sport that joined the summer viewing repertoire in 1989 was cycling, particularly the Tour De France. Back in those days, before the channel that Lance built (now known as Versus) existed, ABC coverage was limited to an hour on the tour Saturdays that summarized the previous week and then another hour on Sunday that covered the Sunday stage that would invariably include some sort of key mountain or time trial. In 1989, watching American Greg LeMond climb the great Alpe D’Huez and then riding the greatest time trial ever onto the Champs-Élysées erasing a 50 second deficit to a Frenchman named Laurent, who wore a long blond pony tail and later blamed losing the tour to “saddle sores” (draw your own conclusions…) LeMond did this all with 37 shot gun pellets embedded into his back with two residing in his heart lining. Needless to say I was hooked and have followed ever since.

While LeMond was the first American to win the Tour (3 times), in this country these days the event is associated with Lance Armstrong. It is a funny study in character between these two, both overcame tremendous adversity to climb to the pinnacle of world cycling, but within Europe, and specifically France itself, the two men could not be regarded differently. To this day the French love LeMond, possibly because of the last name, partly because the greatest French cyclist ever, Bernard Hinault anointed Greg as his successor. Whereas, Lance is seen differently. Despite the universal love and respect that he commands on this side of the ocean, in France, Lance is an enigma hated by many If not most. Barry Bonds if you will and similar to Bonds, Lance is widely assumed to be the greatest, sneakiest Doper ever in the history of cycling.

But how did it come to this? That a man who carried out the greatest comeback from adversity to become the greatest cycling race’s greatest winner becomes hated villain? It has to do with the relationship between the athlete and his sport and ultimately which is more important to the fan base that loves them both. Initially, Lance’s success was welcomed by all as the feel good story that followed two Tours tarnished by drug scandal. Sentiment changed however in 2004. Doping allegations against Lance surfaced and public sentiment began to turn. But why 2004? In 2003 Lance won his fifth Tour and showed no sign of stopping.

This did not sit well for a couple of reasons. First, there had never been a six time winner of the Tour. The greats Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain had all won five and no more. So here was this American with an accomplishment in his sights that no European had ever attained, but the issue I think is more complex. Popular American understanding of professional European cycling is the TDF, Period. Sort of like all the Danica fans who are surprised that there are more races than the 500 in the IICS. European cycling has three Grand tours: the Giro d’Italia (May), La Tour de’France (July) and the Vuelta aEspana (September). A triple crown if you will. A triple crown Anquetil, Merckxx and Hinault have all completed. Indurain having won two of the jewels. As for Lance? TDF and TDF only. It is not only a question of winning the other events, it is a question of even attempting to race them. In essence the issue was “Why are you ruining our record books when you haven’t bothered to fill out your own resume???” Suppose Tiger Woods ONLY played the Masters?

To be fair, Lance did race the Vuelta once, as the first race in his comeback from cancer, but once he got rolling, there was never another mention of participation in the other races. Filling this gap in the resume was to be goal one of the current comeback. Lance was to be the team leader for Astana in the 2009 Giro, but a fall and broken collarbone put an end to the plan. By the time Lance was ready to ride again, it was TDF time, but Team Astana had planned to lead with Alberto Contador, the 2007 TDF champ, who had taken 2008 off from the TDF to…….Win both the 2008 Giro and Vuelta and complete the career triple crown. But Lance had not made another comeback to play Domestique to another rider and a battle for team leadership played out during the 2009 Tour. Ultimately the younger Contador won out and Lance was vanquished. To this day, the only American to win one of the other great tours of Europe remains Andy Hampsted, who won the Giro back in the LeMond era.

If you were to ask a European cycling fan who was the greatest cyclist of all time, who would they say? Probably not Lance, despite being the winningest rider in the sports greatest race, most cycling fans would say Eddie Merckx and his 11 grand tour victories or Hinault and his 10 victories.

So what does this have to do with Racing? Well when this post is published, it will be Brickyard week at the Speedway, the week nascar comes calling to the greatest race course in the world. Nascar is having its own struggles these days, many blame the COT, some blame the series leaving its rural southern roots behind and then some blame Jimmie Johnson. JJ has won four straight Cup championships and is probably well on his way to his fifth championship. While Petty and Earnhart both won seven total titles, these runs were not in a row. Until Johnson, the record for consecutive cup victories was three. Many will argue that Johnson winning five will chase away fans and is a contributor to the ratings and popularity declines that nascar has seen of late. The naysayers are now beginning to say that it is crew chief Knaus who is winning all these titles and that Jimmie is just the fortunate driver at the wheel. After all it wasn’t Lance who won all those TDF’s, it was the drugs. Does the story sound familiar?

A couple years ago ESPN.com created a list of the greatest race car drivers ever. Much to the shock of the stock car faithful, the top spots on the list didn’t include Petty, Earnhart or even Gordon. Likewise, the F1 crowd was shocked to not see Schumacher, Senna or Fangio. The top 2? Foyt and Andretti.

Why? Simple – it was success in ALL forms of racing that placed them at the top of this list. Each completing their own “triple Crown of Racing”. Besides being the first to win 4 Indy 500’s, Foyt’s resume includes wins in the Daytona 500 and the 24 hours of LeMans. Andretti’s resume includes the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the F1 world championship.

It seems to be considered the greatest in cycling or racing, one has to be willing to take on all challenges and be victorious at them. Which brings us back to Jimmie Johnson, what will it take for Jimmie to have a chance at the all time greats? After a 5th cup title, more cup titles don’t add much more to the argument and I think Jimmie knows this. He has begun to participate in champions of racing karting events and now Grand Am events running in the 24 hours of Daytona. But honestly, does immortality require a Grand Am victory?

Jimmie, as you take in sights and sounds this week at IMS, you know which race victory would set you above your peers, above even Petty and Earnhart. Randy Bernard and Bruton Smith are doing their best to make it financially appealing and physically possible. It doesn’t have to be forever, no one would ever expect you leave cup behind. But in 2011 give it a thought, a couple ovals to get acquainted and then during the month of May take a stab at immortality. The 500 is calling.

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