The Tour de France begins tomorrow and it will not surprise long-time readers that my main concern is that Lance Armstrong does not win it again. Like any sensible enthusiast I recognise Armstrong's greatness even if, as detailed here and here, I think that the Case for Armstrong is frequently overstated. Fairly or not, I've never warmed to him. This has nothing to do with him being an American since, if that were the case, it would be odd for me to admire* Greg LeMond so much. But I do admire LeMond hugely and, at the risk of being mischievous, wonder how he and Armstrong's records would compare if it was LeMond who had survived cancer and Armstrong who had overcome being shot.
But that's not really the point of this post. Some commenters have made the point that it's unreasonable to compare eras and that modern-day cyclists are simply vastly better than their predecessors in the peloton. Porkbelly, for instance, argued that the overall quality of rider has increased to the point that, these days, it is all about "increased specialization: a Tom Boonen can dominate in Belgium but in the Tour he's nothing but a green jersey contender, whereas in Merckx's day he would win all three jerseys and the overall."
This, I think, is a widely held view and one that crosses sports. That is, Porkbelly expresses the common belief that everything has changed so much and become so much better that it's impossible to draw sensible comparisons between eras. There is, to be sure, something to this and it's a view that demands respect. But I'm not convinced it's entirely persuasive.
True, no contender for the overall classification wins stages by a Coppiesque 10 minutes or more these days and it may well be that the average domestique today is a stronger rider than his counterpart half a century ago. Then again, with the advances made in sports science it would be strange if he were not. And it is true that there's more hard racing in the first week of the Tour than used to be the case and that the hard racing starts earlier in the stages than perhaps it once did.
That racing, however, is aided by the ever-more sophisticated drugs taken (have I mentioned that my problem is not with the drugs but with the sense that the drugs are now too effective?) while the use of on-bike computers helps riders cycle within their limit and the ever-present communication - via radio - from the team car helps ensure there are fewer surprises and everyone always knows where everyone else is. (It may not surprise you that I'd ban computers and earpieces and that I think this would lead to better, more exciting racing.)
Still, how much better is the modern cyclist? Not as much as you might think. The World Hour record is a useful, if certainly imperfect, indicator. In 1942 Fausto Coppi rode 45.798Km in an hour in Milan; 30 years later Eddy Merckx, riding at altitude in Mexico City, set a new record of 49.431Km. That represented a roughly 8% improvement upon Coppi's time. Since then, of course, the hour record has been pulverised many times. But much of that has been because of technology: new and better and more efficient bikes.
Changes in bike technology queer the pitch. In 2000 Chris Boardman challenged Merckx's record using roughly similar machinery and was able to improve upon the great Belgian's mark by just 110m. Granted, Boardman was riding at sea-level, not altitude, but it's worth bearing in mind that he, a specialist time-trialler was only 8% or so better than Coppi's despite riding a better machine and having the advantage of more than half a century of sports science.
The hour record, you may think, is a somewhat artificial measurement. Well, the climbs prove my point too. For instance, in the 2004 Dauphine Libere Iban Mayo set a new record for the ascent of Mont Ventoux, conquering the Ogre of Provence in 55 minutes. Pretty impressive and seven minutes quicker than Charly Gaul's super-impressive 62 minute acent in the 1958 Tour. Lighter bikes help and so too does 50 years of sports science: but so do the roads which are significantly better these days. Factor in all of this and it seems pretty clear to me that the Giants of the Road of yesteryear were just as good as their successors these days and, frankly, given the privations they endured (longer races being the least of it) there's some reason to consider them greater than even the giants of our own era.
And, anyway, who would you rather watch? Coppi or Amstrong? It's not a fair fight even as one allows for the good the Texan has done in terms of raising money for cancer research. The guys on the block today aren't necessarily better than the guys who cycled round it in years gone by and it's presumptious to suppose they are. That doesn't make Armstrong a dwarf by any means, but he's not necessarily better than his illustrious predecessors either. And, besides, he doesn't ride with enough panache...
*OK: My Ten Favourite Cyclists since I first took an interest in cycling? In no particular order:
*My favourite. Obviously. You should read my friend Richard Moore's book In Search of Robert Millar. It's splendid and well worth the modest investment it will cost you.