Godwin’s Law tells us that as an online discussion grows longer, so the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1. The cycling equivalent might be called the Kimmage Law. The longer a discussion about pro cycling continues, so the probability of an argument about Lance Armstrong approaches 1.
How long does it take for a legacy to become established?
It’s four years since Lance Armstrong confessed to doping.
It’s five years since USADA banned him from pro-cycling.
It’s six years since he retired from professional cycling.
It’s twelve years since he last wore the yellow jersey in Paris.
Armstrong’s ability to polarise opinions is surpassed only by his skill at doping (and whatever you think of his doping, you can’t deny he was very, very good at it). But what will his legacy be? What will generations to come remember him for?
It will be the doping, right? Maybe not. He rode in an era when everyone doped. There’s a reason the seven Tours he won remain unawarded. We’ve no idea who was clean, but can suppose most of them weren’t. These days you need the best coaching to win – there was a time when training was simply about doing the most miles. Today you need skin suits, when a woollen jumper used to suffice. Nutritionally balanced meals have replaced Jacques Anquetil’s lobster and champagne. Team mattresses are ferried from hotel to hotel when riders used to make do with whatever third rate motel they were allocated.
In Armstrong’s day, the technology that was at the forefront of pro racing was doping. If you wanted to win consistently, you needed the best doctor. The dope was nothing without the talent. Bjarne Riis rode with a haemocrit of 60. Armstrong still beat him.
Against that backdrop, history will surely be kind on his doping. Who was he cheating, exactly? Stories of Motoman will become amusing anecdotes, like Anquetil quotes are today.
So if it isn’t the doping, what is it?
He’s often credited with popularising road cycling in the English-speaking world. Before him, the argument goes, it was basically a European sport. Phil Anderson, the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey might not agree with that. Greg LeMond might not agree with it either. And what about the roles of Stephen Roche and Chris Boardman? Armstrong might have had an influence, but with history’s tendency to condense timescales, it’s hard to think history will specifically remember him for it.
Armstrong has created a legacy though. He has left us with something that will be with us long after we forget stories about the US Postal team bus faking engine trouble to allow the riders to take blood infusions during the Tour. And it isn’t a pleasant legacy either.
Plastic charity bracelets.
They’re everywhere. Every school, every hospital, every charity, every ‘campaign for justice’ has them. And it’s all thanks to Armstrong and his canary yellow Livestrong bracelets that, for a time at least, were a must have fashion accessory for people from all walks of life.
That’s what we’ll remember him for. That’s his real legacy.
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