In pur­suit of great­ness

It’s one thing to win a lot of races. It’s an­other to as­cend to the sta­tus of leg­end, says Frank Strack

Cyclist - - The Rules -

Dear Frank

Chris Froome’s Tour/vuelta dou­ble this year surely puts him in the pan­theon of cycling’s greats, yet he seems un­able to com­mand the rev­er­ence given to other win­ners of the past. What are the Velom­i­nati’s cri­te­ria for award­ing a rider leg­endary sta­tus? James, via email

Dear James

One of the hall­marks of a great cy­clist is that their count­less hours in the sad­dle usu­ally lead them to a sup­ple­ness and grace upon their bike that makes it dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain pre­cisely where the rider ends and the ma­chine be­gins. Eddy Mer­ckx, in fact, was said to be half man, half bike – a kind of Darth Vader of cycling. Ex­cept with­out the evil­ness, so long as you don’t con­sider his al­leged can­ni­bal­ism as be­ing evil.

De­spite his count­less hours do­ing the work, this grace is some­thing that has so far eluded Mr Froome, who looks about as com­fort­able rid­ing a bike as a spi­der does hump­ing a light­bulb. Be that as it may, he can make his bike go bat­shit fast enough to have won him four Tours de France and, this year, his first Vuelta a Es­paña. That’s an im­pres­sive record, more so than any other Grand Tour rider of the past sev­eral gen­er­a­tions.

When it comes to com­mand­ing rev­er­ence, how­ever, I think we need to look far­ther back than even the last sev­eral gen­er­a­tions. There hasn’t been a rider who has truly earned the re­spect of the pelo­ton since Bernard Hin­ault, who re­tired in 1986. Greg Le­mond was per­haps the last com­plete rider to win the Tour de France when he won the third of his ti­tles in 1990, but even he was too spe­cialised to be con­sid­ered a sea­son-long force in the pelo­ton. In fact, as the first cy­clist ever to earn a mil­lion­dol­lar salary, his ca­reer marked the be­gin­ning of the age of Grand Tour spe­cial­i­sa­tion, which from my per­spec­tive marked the end of the ro­man­tic era of cycling.

Spe­cial­i­sa­tion is the crux of the prob­lem. The sport has be­come so prof­itable that spe­cial­i­sa­tion in a block­buster event such as the Tour de France is suf­fi­ciently lu­cra­tive to en­able not just a sin­gle rider to fo­cus on just one event – which was the case for Le­mond – but an en­tire team, as is the case for Team Sky. It means that rid­ers can be ghosts through­out the sea­son, rac­ing as few days as nec­es­sary to keep their skills and con­di­tion sharp, and show up to their tar­geted event in top form and ready to take their prize.

But com­mand­ing re­spect isn’t some­thing that’s achieved through win­ning a ti­tle – it’s done by set­ting a con­sis­tent ex­am­ple through ac­tion. It’s done by be­ing vis­i­ble in the pelo­ton from the be­gin­ning of the sea­son to the end; by win­ning not only the most pres­ti­gious events, but rac­ing to win from the time the cur­tain goes up in Jan­uary un­til it goes down in Novem­ber.

Le­mond’s gen­er­a­tion – which in­cluded Sean Kelly and Lau­rent Fignon – was the last where cham­pi­ons rode all the spring Clas­sics such as the Tour of Flan­ders and Paris-roubaix, as well as the Tour de France, the Road Race World Cham­pi­onships, and the au­tumn Clas­sics such as the Giro di Lom­bar­dia. But even in that gen­er­a­tion there was a lack of dom­i­nance out­side the Grand Tours (Le­mond and Fignon) or the Clas­sics (Kelly).

It was a gen­er­a­tion ear­lier – that of Mer­ckx and Hin­ault – that we last saw gen­uine sea­son­long dom­i­nance. A rider like Mer­ckx would spe­cialise in the Clas­sics, of­ten gain­ing ki­los of weight in mus­cle mass to have the power and dura­bil­ity re­quired to win a race such as Paris-roubaix, be­fore lean­ing up and get­ting trim enough to win the Giro d’italia and Tour de France, then bulk­ing up again for the World Cham­pi­onships and late-sea­son Clas­sics. Mer­ckx was a le­git­i­mate threat in all those races, of­ten win­ning a sam­pling from each of them dur­ing any given year.

I don’t have to tell you that the idea of Chris Froome win­ning Paris-roubaix is more than far-fetched. Even he would agree. At the same time, the re­verse is just as true: Tom Boo­nen would never have con­sid­ered him­self a vi­able threat to the yel­low jer­sey at the Tour. In the mod­ern cul­ture of the sport, they sim­ply can’t af­ford to take their eyes off their pri­mary ob­jec­tive to chase se­condary tar­gets.

The con­se­quence is that no sin­gle rider is rac­ing at the front and tak­ing con­trol of the pelo­ton through­out the en­tire sea­son, like Mer­ckx or Hin­ault did. As a re­sult, no mat­ter how im­pres­sive their achieve­ments, they can’t com­mand the same kind of re­spect from the pelo­ton or the pub­lic.

Frank Strack is the co-cre­ator and cu­ra­tor of The Rules, and a high priest of the Velom­i­nati (for il­lu­mi­na­tion, see velom­i­nati. com). He is also co-au­thor of The Hard­men: Leg­ends Of The Cycling Gods (£12.99, Pro­file Books)

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