In the early 1990s the cycling world rumbled with displeasure at the incredible success of mountain biker Juli Furtado and road racer Lance Armstrong. Furtado went a whole season undefeated until she DNF’d at the World Championships. Armstrong wasn’t winning everything in sight, but his shockingly successful season, culminating with a solo win at World’s had folks worried that he might corner the market on the V.

As if.

Every few years a rider comes along who initially stuns us with their brilliance. We revel in the miracle of their skill and bravado. We celebrate them as the newest confection at the candy shop, our latest favorite. Lance Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France victory remade him for us. He was as fresh as a newly picked strawberry. The second harvest and even the third were just as delectable.

But invariably, we tire of the new flavor. My personal stomach upset came with Miguel Indurain’s fourth victory in the Tour de France. He was precise. He was consistent. He displayed nothing so much as data. I felt like I was watching a clock tick for all the emotion he betrayed.

On group rides talk of Armstrong has turned sour. While he still has some fans; my informal tally of what I hear is that most riders not only don’t want to see him win another Tour de France, they don’t even want to see him play his own card; support Contador or go home seems to be the dominant theme.

Judging from the comments here on RKP, Cavendish’s two successive stage wins threaten to cast him with the same distasteful brand of dominance that caused us to turn on Furtado, twice on Armstrong and Indurain; before them there were others we turned on, but it has been long enough that most are too young or too old to remember how we tired of Eddy Merckx’s unwillingness to leave behind table scraps.

The problem with a dominant rider isn’t success per se, it’s political. The rider who wins too much becomes a tyrant. We may not be socialists, but our sense of what is fair is that no one wins in straight sets day after day.

So what if Cavendish were to sense our reluctance to celebrate his brilliance and deliberately botch a sprint. As unlikely as that scenario is, we’d disdain him even more for not giving his best; the only thing worse than a gift used too much is a gift poorly used.

I like the bravado that comes with Cavendish. Clearly Columbia has developed the most effective leadout train since Cipollini’s; yes, I think they do a better job than Petacchi’s teams did. When he compared his competitors to juniors, it was a refreshing bit of smack-talk. Thems fightin’ words!

I do have one issue with Cavendish. He wins so much he seems to think he needs to keep changing his victory salutes to keep them fresh, or different, or something. As a result, they end up looking contrived. I get that Columbia-HTC has a new sponsor (the aforementioned HTC). What’s more: I get that HTC makes phones. What I don’t get is the need to remind us with a silly I’m-making-a-call victory salute. One might wonder if he was just phoning his victory in.

We love a true champion. And I’m willing to follow Cavendish as he takes stage win after stage win. I hope in the high mountains we get occasional glimpses of him suffering as he does what’s necessary to earn that green jersey he is wearing. But if I could ask for one thing from him, it wouldn’t be to win less, it would be to drop the predetermined victory salutes. Forethought is to passion what math is to art.

Cav, if you want to keep me, keep the rest of us as fans, show us how you really feel when you win. Drop the artifice and give us a guy who is just as thrilled to win this as he was his first race as a junior.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International.

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  1. bikesgonewild

    …i understand what you’re saying about cav but i’ll bet if he wins a tight one, we’ll see more of “the real stuff”…that’s two in a row he’s won riding away, so monday’s celebration was contrived for sure…
    …but he’s so damn good, that either way, i’m a fan forever…

    …emotion, within the context of our favorite sport is something we need to see & appreciate…vicarious or not, it speaks to us…

    …miguel indurain as a bike racer was everything you suggested plus he was a great champion, a classy gentleman, a decent individual & i hated the guy (on the bike) because cycling is about emotion & he displayed NONE of it…a quiet, self conscious smile on the podium was the extent of it…

    …god lord, i wanted to see him bested by someone, anyone not afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve…..

  2. bikesgonewild

    …whoops…ought ta read “good lord” which expresses my abject frustration w/ senor indurain…

  3. brian

    This is a very insightful post; it has made me think about champions, and how I view the long standing ones, in different ways. For me it does not come down to the fact that they seemingly win all the time, but in how they win. Your Indurain example was perfect in this regard. Cav is so young and fresh in the cycling world, but for me his wins have already become boring. As if each replay of victory is from the same race. Perhaps he knows this and that is why he is looking to change his victory salutes.

    It is this cocky bravado that I do not appreciate. Many champions have it, but with Cavendish it feels put on, almost like he is trying to cover something up. He is perpetually the young schoolboy trying to prove himself to the big kids, and that just doesn’t do it for me.

    But on the other hand, I never tire of seeing Tom Boonen win. Like Cav in the sprints and Armstrong and Indurain in the tour, Boonen seems to have quite a lock on the spring classics these last four or five years. He also has his own style of cocky bravado, but it appears far less contrived. And everytime he wins he looks like he is celebrating his first victory ever. I love that. Now if only he could kick the coke habit.

  4. NinjaPonyDad

    There’s something endearing about greatness coupled with humility. Like “wow, look what happens when I get to be a pro and train and have a great leadout…” The contrived finishes seem to dis the efforts of those that helped get him there.
    Indurain and clock ticking….that was good!

  5. bordured

    I know these days that it’s “cool” to bag on Armstrong, and I get that some people don’t like his arrogance, domination, etc., but you have to admit that he has made cycling very interesting so far this year. He went off in the bordure yesterday, for hell sakes, and took 40 seconds on Contador and every other GC threat. That makes for some exciting bike racing!

    Not to mention, every US cyclist should thank Lance Armstrong every time they go for a ride. Before Lance, road bike races in the US were small affairs, with very few attendees or participants. Because of Lance, many new riders got out on the road, started racing, etc. That benefits us all: better, more organized races, more cyclists on the road (which makes us all safer, as car drivers get used to seeing cyclists in the streets), and more mainstream coverage of our beautiful sport.

  6. Charles Cushman

    It may seemed contrived, but what a way to show the new sponsor that they made the right decision.

    On another note I am truly sick of Armstrong. But it is not his fault, the coverage of him is unbearable. The epitome being Versus tracking the location of all the jerseys AND Armstrong on the information ticker.

    1. Author

      Thanks all for the great comments. Like many of you, I’m a fan of humility. Fabian Cancellara is one of my all-time favorites because while he is unapologetic about his fitness, his speed, he knows that the competition is always there. A humble champion is the best. However humility does not preclude exuberant shows of emotion and I love the range of expressions that riders will show on crossing the line.

      I try to separate Lance Armstrong’s incredible media overexposure from his exploits as a person and athlete. I still like him; I still admire him. I separate that as well from any preference I have for who leads Astana, wears the yellow jersey or wins overall. I know as surely as I know the sun will rise in the east that the tour de France would be less interesting without him. His mere presence gives me something to think about.

  7. Brooke Hoyer

    I’m enjoying the excitement that wild card Armstrong has brought to the Tour this year. I’ve watched a few of his videos and I quite enjoy them — that one on Independence Pass in the snow was classic. Whether he wins or not (I think not), he’s upped the Tour’s exposure in the US once again.

    I love Cav. He’s awesome. Right now we have the chance to watch a gifted sprinter being lead out by one of the best trains in history. His kick to leave Farrar in his vapors in stage 2 was breathtaking. Columbia’s cagey tactic that split the field and left Cav to toy with an undermanned Thor Hushovd was a delight. When Cav proved his naysayers wrong by making it over the hills at Milan-San Remo and taking the classic, I thought it was a beautiful victory.

    Cav appears to be working on his weaknesses and understands that his team is integral in his fantastic success. I’m sure we’ve all seen him embracing each team member after one of his victories. He speaks candidly about his performances and sure, there is some bravado. I don’t think he’s crossed the line from cheeky to obnoxious (atmo).

    I’d love to see Farrar take a sprint against Cav. But I’m not sure it’s gonna happen. Mark Cavendish is on fire.

  8. George

    Truly, it’s not LA’s fault that I’ve grown so tired of him. It’s all because of OLN/Vs and the fact that he’s just about the only thing discussed by Phil and Paul ever! And Indurain was like tim Duncan in the NBA a truly great athelete but just about as exciting as grass growing…

    I love watching Cav win, and I do agree that preplanned victory salutes decrease the value…

    Maybe if he snuck in without the train once in a while. I guess that I want each win to be like Milan San Remo.

  9. steve

    Yeah, who was sufferin’ at the front of Columbia this morning? It made me respect him a lot more! Great to see.

    And Lance love him or hate him he was only a 1/10th sec. behind because he spent more time on the front than the others. It was great to see Contador really pitch in. This whole thing is surreal. What’ll happen next? Gee wiz.

  10. Robot

    I like my champions with a bit of humanity. That may take the form of humility (Cancellara, Poulidor, et. al.) or some fatal flaw (Simpson, Anquetil, Virenque).

    While some are outraged when a great champion’s veneer cracks, like when Zidane headbutted Materazzi, I am thrilled. I love finding out that the guy with the million dollar legs is an asshat just like me. I think it’s beautiful when people who are all too human can do inhuman things, and vice versa.

    At this stage, Cavendish’s awkwardness is endearing. He’s simultaneously cocky and humble, dominant and insecure. He’s arrived on a stage much larger than he could ever have imagined, and I’m not sure he’s figured out quite what to do with it (other than the winning sprints bit). That’s why, in some interviews, he swears needlessly, or he talks smack, or he gives all the credit to his team. He’s all over the map, and right now I like it.

    As for Armstrong, the hype really is the problem. The guy is intelligent, articulate and passionate. He’s also an incredible cyclist. I don’t happen to like the way he’s amassed his very lopsided palmares, but he’s alright. I also prefer Batman to Superman.

  11. Robert

    I’m loving what Bike Snob has had to say about the phone call:

    “–He’s saying: ‘Who’s on the phone? Victory? Why, yes, I’ll take that call.’

    –He’s saying: ‘Who’s on the phone? Losing? Sorry, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong number. Cadel doesn’t live here.'”

  12. Jonny

    I believe the strong leadout is what gives the ‘distasteful brand of dominance’. I always enjoyed watching Robbie McEwen come out of nowhere to steal the win, he had the skills and he earned it.

  13. UtRider

    I didn’t mind the phone call victory salute. Much better than sucking on a pacifier in my opinion. Speaking of which, I still don’t really understand what that was all about and I have a 3 week old baby.

    BTW – I like your new space. Very well done.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the kind words. Hope you’re still as fast as ever.

      Likewise, I thought Sastre’s salute was ridiculous. It’s difficult not to ridicule, and while I might have a critical eye, I try not to go there.

      Congratulations on the new team member. Ours should be here Saturday.

  14. Adam

    I don’t think we’ll tire of Cav, there’s a progression in the careers of most young sprinters and he’ll start to seek out more diverse victories. He can’t be satisfied indefinitely with winning stages, and he won’t always win classics on first entry like he did at San Remo. I reckon he’ll try his hand at Roubaix, San Sebastian, Het Volk, Paris Tours and the Worlds. He’ll fail to win some of those, but we’ll see him gutting himself trying for the victory and it will make great cycling to watch.
    It’s the mould of Museeuw, Bonnen and Sean Kelly and it’s what made those three great riders.

  15. Thom

    I’m an “old guy” who’s a roadie and I still like watching Lance race, and I still cheer for him. He’s an “old guy” now too and I’d like to think that we all have a little left in the tank to go out there every day and not embarass oursleves. The thing about any champion who wins consistently, year after year, it’s not about their ego (even in Hinault’s case) it’s about their drive to compete; they say – in effect – “You don’t want me to win, then best me”. Lance will lose a Tdf when someone rides a better race than he does (this could be the year) and until that time he’ll continue to put himself out there.
    As for Cav, his antics are for the benefit of the sponors, without whom he wouldn’t have a job. Even in winning Cav remembers where his paychecks come from on the Pro Tour. If I had his paycheck, I’d mug for the camera too; it’s all in a day’s work on the Pro Tour.

  16. Gnome

    I suppose Cavendish has the right to be contrived if the Pelican is going to give him that much time to think about it.

    The dominance of a sprinter doesn’t last long. He’ll have to work for the victories soon enough, and in that, be genuine.

  17. michael

    cav is the mouth of sprinting as pantani was the mouth of climbing in a certain way, they both make outlandish ego driven statements of fact that are fascinating and vastly entertaining to listen to from a pure trash-talking point of view. every sport needs a few athletes like this to add some sizzle to the steak frites being served.

  18. Vlaanderen2010

    i surprised myself and read through everyone’s comment, and actually feel like there is intelligent life out there when it comes to talking about cycling. perhaps thats because the responses are generated by such intelligent writing. well done.

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