The Tour de France finished at the weekend, with a strong result for British riders.
Mark Cavendish won the final stage, so was first over the line on the Champs-Elysee, taking his stage win total to six for this year’s Tour, and ten in two years (a new British record). He came second in the points table for the sprinters’ Green Jersey, close behind Thor Hushovd. He was not likely to finish high in the overall classifications as he’s not the best at climbing, and many sprint specialists don’t even finish a full Tour (Cipollini was notorious for only competing in the earlier flat stages of the big Tour races). But, at only 24, Cavendish has years ahead of him and is already one of the most accomplished cyclists this country has every produced. If he is able to improve his performance in the mountains, he could be a major contender over the next few years.
Bradley Wiggins, who rode with Mark Cavendish at last year’s Olympics but was ultimately more successful with two gold medals, came fourth overall which equals the position achieved by Robert Millar in 1984. He didn’t win any stages, but this only goes to show that he had a very consistent Tour, able to compete in time trials and in mountain stages.
Lance Armstrong managed to come in third place, which is phenomenal for a 38 year-old who took a three year break. My feelings about Armstrong are, however, a little ambivalent. When I started to get into the Tour, Miguel Indurain was just starting his run of five yellow jerseys in a row. I can still remember the way he worked his way though the Pyrenees in 1991 to win the first of his Tours, and the seeming ease with which he retained the title the following year. So I was a bit disappointed when his record was surpassed so soon afterwards. The other thing about Armstrong is that while he has a superb record in the Tour de France, he didn’t really get far in any of the other major road races. Yes, he won seven yellow jerseys on the bounce, but he never also made a real challenge for either of the other ‘Grand Tour’ races – the tours of Italy and Spain. Indurain never won his home Tour, although he did come second in 1991, but he won the Italian tour twice and both times went on to win the Tour de France later in the year. Armstrong didn’t really compete in too many of the other major road races, such as the Paris-Nice or the five ‘Monuments’. The only other major multi-stage races that Armstrong went for were the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Swiss tour, which are used by many riders as warm ups for the Tour de France.
Of course, the most successful rider of all time would have to be Eddie Merckx, who won the Tour de France five times (1969. 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974), the Giro of Italy five times (1968, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1974) and the Vuelta of Spain in the only year he entered it (1973), giving a record of 11 Grand Tour wins. The French were so annoyed that he might win the Tour de France for a record fifth time in a row in 1973 that he was ‘encouraged’ not to compete (so it is in part satisfying that the only riders to win five times in a row are Indurain and Armstrong, which must rankle the French somewhat). He also came second in the 1975 Tour (after being attacked by a spectator), and so was very close to setting the same record as Armstrong. While winning the 1969 Tour, he also took the sprinters’ Green Jersey and the ‘King of the Mountains’ polka-dot jersey which has never been equalled Merckx also won the Paris-Nice three times, he won a record 28 one day ‘classics’, including 19 wins across all five of the ‘Monuments’. The only classic he didn’t win was the Paris-Tours, but he took the Milan-San Remo ‘Primavera’ seven times. He set a record for distance over an hour that lasted for 12 years (28 if you discount the runs during the 1980s on non-traditional bikes by the likes of Obree, Moser and Boardman). He was World Champion three times, and for one six year period was averaging a race-win a week.
I’m not saying Armstrong is rubbish, or that his achievements (particularly coming back from cancer) are unworthy. I also don’t buy into the accusations that he’s much of a cheat. He’s clearly world class and one of the best riders of his generation. But I don’t see him as being as great an all-rounder as Indurain, and neither of them are up to the incredible standard set by Merckx.