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
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
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)