Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lance Armstrong: Best of the Best...Regardless

Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France races in a row. No matter how you cut it, no matter how you view it, he is the best of the best of all time, regardless of how he accomplished it.

From a competitive standpoint, it simply doesn’t matter whether he used performance enhancing drugs or not.

It has been pretty well established, without naming names here, that virtually all of his main challengers in his seven tour victories were either directly or indirectly associated with some type of devious and clandestine plot to artificially increase their own chances of winning the tour.

Lance Armstrong beat them all convincingly.

This is not intended for anything other than pure speculation, but the way I see it, there are three possible scenarios that explain his dominance in the Tour de France:

1) Armstrong is an extremely talented athlete, even at the rarified elite level, and he raced clean. His incredibly focused and specific approach to the TDF, his mental fortitude, his bike handling skills, his drive and dedication to be the best, enabled him to overcome the illicitly gained “advantages” that many of his competitors had. He also consistently benefited from not only the strongest team, but a team that was extremely well coached and dedicated entirely to his cause. Depending on the drug, how it is administered, and the doctor interviewed, one is led to believe that drugs in sports can give an elite endurance athlete anywhere from a 5-15% performance edge. Armstrong closed, and then exceeded that gap, entirely through natural methods.

2) Every top level professional cyclist of the era was taking performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong had more talent than anyone else, still had the best team, still had the mental toughness, and therefore was able to dominate the 180+ person professional peloton and win seven Tours in a row. The “playing field” had effectively been leveled, and he still was the best.

3) Every top professional was taking drugs, Armstrong still had the other advantages, and in addition to that, he had the best medical team.

Regardless of which, if any, scenario makes any sense at all, one fact remains. Lance Armstrong is the best cyclist ever to compete in the TDF, and then there are the others, all five time winners. Seven of a kind trumps five, and Armstrong’s tour victories came in the modern era. As in most sports, today’s cyclist athletes are more highly trained and talented, and consequently participate in a more competitive sports environment.

Jack Nicklaus dominated professional golf in an era during which it has been acknowledged that there were a few top level golfers who were quite a bit more talented than the rest. In fact, they were called the “Big Four”, and there was Palmer, Player (this has to be the all time greatest name for a pro athlete!), Trevino, and Nicklaus. Most of the major tournaments of the day were won by these four, with Nicklaus being the most dominant. In today’s world, the Big Four could be equated with the “Big 100”, as the skill level is so elevated just to gain entry to the professional golf tours around the world, let alone win a tournament of any kind, that a type of parity has occurred.

Despite this perceived parity, Tiger Woods has managed to dominate the game like no one since Nicklaus, and he is well on his way to being the greatest golfer of all time. He is the Lance Armstrong of golf.

Most physiologists seem to agree that in terms of raw physical capacities at the highest levels of elite cyclists, differences of a few percent exist amongst the athletes. Greg Lemond reportedly had a Vo2 max of 90, and that number has been associated with Floyd Landis. Armstrong’s team has largely been silent on this subject. After Armstrong retired, Dr. Ed Coyle published the results of a long term study of Armstrong’s physiology tests. These tests dated back to the early 90’s when he was first a member of the international peloton, and long before his cancer. Even with Armstrong’s well documented weight loss, Coyle’s tests revealed a Vo2 max of between 82 and 84 when Armstrong was at his peak.

While this level certainly places him among the most physically gifted endurance athletes in the world, his aerobic capacity as measured by Vo2 max alone does not alone explain his dominance. Of course, there are many other physiological metrics critical for success, but Vo2 max has long been one of the gold standards, along with power at LT, that has been used to gauge an athletes’ odds for success.

As I stated above, I don’t really believe it is important exactly how Lance Armstrong was able to win seven Tours in a row. He was the best of the best amongst a very deep, talented field, many of whom have been linked to drugs.

I think he is still the best, and I think he has come back to prove it. At age 37, out of the game for almost four years, he has reentered the sport. He’s done so at a time when even the harshest critics of cycling feel that significant progress has been made in the fight against doping, and that the 2009 Tour should be one of the cleanest tours in the last two decades. The playing field should be as level as it has been in a very, very long time.

Why would he come back if he didn’t intend to race clean? Why would he risk his legacy when he has nothing to gain, and everything to lose?

Just imagine if he wins the Giro, and/or the Tour de France. That will shut everybody up, once and for all.


Cascade Cyclist said...

I've also heard a couple other variations on the conspiracy theme--that Lance's chemotherapy somehow altered his physiology for the better (yeah, right! If anything it shortened his lifespan.), or that he developed a tight relationship with the maker of his cancer drugs and they brewed up some custom masking agents for him.

I'm with you on the "even playing field" idea.

John Lam said...

Lance can tolerate extremely high levels of blood lactate and still function. That's probably the biggest physiological difference between him and the rest of the field.