One of the staple features for a publication covering any sport is the story or special issues that attempt to answer the question of who was the greatest in a particular era and how those athletes would have matched up against each other. Would, for example, Eddy Merckx have beaten Bernard Hinault? Or would both of them been time trialled into submission by Jacques Anquetil or Miguel Induráin? Or outclimbed by Fausto Coppi.
Lance Armstrong, of course, sits comfortably among names of this stature. When he retired in 2005 after a record-extending seventh consecutive cakewalk over his rivals, the American was ranked alongside Michaels Jordan and Johnson as one of the true greats of modern sport – a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. Aged 34, he had also equalled Joop Zoetemelk as the oldest rider to win the yellow jersey in the post-war era. The only winner ever older than this pair was Firmin Lambot, the 36 year-old Belgian winner of the 1922 Tour.
Now that Armstrong is back and gunning for an eighth Tour title, it seems that a contest which might usually get played out on the pages of magazines will be played out before bike fans across the planet. As the American builds towards a challenge for an eighth Tour title, pitted against him is Alberto Contador, a rider who, like Armstrong, has battled his way back from an almost fatal illness to establish himself as the pre-eminent stage racing rider of his time. Add in the fact that they’re on the same team, and the 2009 Tour is beginning to look like something very special indeed.
As these two riders intensify their preparation for the ‘09 Tour, each step they take towards that key objective is scrutinised closely. Does Armstrong’s unexpectedly good form at the TDU and California send a message to Contador? Does Contador’s surprising early-season victories on the Algarve and Paris-Nice send a similar message back? The riders deny it, but both riders are sure to be keeping close tabs on the form of the other.
What cannot be denied, though, is in the increasing interest this rivalry – for only one of them can win the Tour – is provoking in other prestigious, but often overlooked, races on the calendar. Media numbers are up significantly at any race either rider lines up in, spectator numbers even more so, thus achieving something that the UCI’s ProTour series aspired to but never achieved.
Having unwittingly achieved the double whammy of attracting both Contador and Armstrong to his event in late March, the organiser of the Tour of Castilla y León admitted he was suffering sleepless nights worrying how his small-budget race would be able to cope with a huge surge in interest.
For bigger races, though, this surge has only been a good thing, and especially in the case of the Giro d’Italia. Already celebrating its centenary with a route that pays homage to Coppi and a line-up that was looking stellar even before Armstrong decided on making his corsa rosa debut, the Giro is looking ahead to its most significant edition for years. Armstrong is heading there primarily to boost Livestrong, but also to give himself the real test he surely needs before taking on Contador at the Tour. Simoni, Di Luca, Basso and Cunego are waiting, while over in Spain Contador is certain to be watching.
As so often before, the Giro promises to be the best race of the season, but this year the organisers can be sure that it won’t just be the hardcore fans who are watching.