Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Europeans believe that true legends win range of races


Lance Armstrong's record sixth Tour de France triumph will appear as perhaps the most important statistic in the 101-year history of the race, but not everybody is ready to celebrate.

Appreciation of his remarkable feat will be tempered by those who believe that the American's performance pales in comparison to past champions, for whom winning all of the important races on the calendar was the real measure of greatness.

What shouldn't be forgotten is that some of those who won the Tour five times, including Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Belgian legend Eddy Merckx, had their chance to win it a sixth time.

For example Merckx, arguably the most complete cycling champion of all time, gobbled up six stages on his Tour debut on the way to the first of his five wins.

After consecutive wins from 1969 to 1972, he sat out the 1973 edition to achieve a feat that Armstrong is unlikely to attempt -- the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta d'Espagna double.

The "Cannibal" returned a year later, winning the Tour's opening prologue and a further seven stages before claiming his fifth victory.

A year later Merckx, on the back of his fifth Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic, came second behind Frenchman Bernard Thevenet, his progress checked by a punch from an angry French spectator as he rode up the Puy de Dome during the 14th stage.

Merckx did not ride the Tour in 1976, but won a record seventh Milan-San Remo classic and bade farewell to the Tour a year later when he finished sixth at over 12 minutes behind Thevenet.

But for some of Armstrong's detractors, it is not the number of victories from the world's biggest bike race which matters.

It is more the fact he gains an advantage on all of his rivals by practically basing his whole season on the race -- a practice the likes of Merckx would find difficult to do.

"Armstrong is the champion of a new era, which is more professional," Merckx said. "I raced 150 days of the year. Armstrong focuses on the Tour and has a fraction of that in his legs.

Giancarlo Ferretti, the Fassa Bortolo team manager, believes there is simply no comparison.

"Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil were cut from an altogether different cloth when it came to racing," said Ferretti.

"Armstrong can't be the biggest Tour de France champion. He is programmed like a computer practically from the month of December to do one thing. That's just not cycling."

But for Ferretti, and many others, Armstrong's absence from the European peloton for most of the season leaves him coming up short.

"When you do nothing else all season, you have the time to go and look over the Tour stages," he said. "While he's doing that, the rest of the riders are out competing in races."

For Manolo Saiz, the manager of the Liberty team, the likes of Hinault raised the bar.

"Hinault, he was a great champion," said the Spaniard.

"When I saw Armstrong crossing the finish line after his stage win at Villard de Lans, I thought I could finally recognize the face of a champion," said Saiz.

"But Merckx -- he won five Tours and another 500 races.

"Armstrong is the best on the Tour in all its departments, from the mountains to the time trial to sprinting.

"But, essentially, he's the champion of preparing for the Tour. He just doesn't understand the European tradition of cycling. The mark of a real champion is to show his superiority in a whole range of races."

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