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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April, 2005, 21:16 GMT 22:16 UK
Great, but there are greater
By Matt Majendie

Lance Armstrong booked an indelible place in the record books by becoming the first rider to win six Tours de France.

But for all that achievement - a truly remarkable one in anyone's eyes - debate will rage in French cafes about where he stands in cycling's hierarchy.

Lance Armstrong

Undoubtedly, his sixth Tour win is one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time.

But the irony is Armstrong is not even the most accomplished rider to have mounted a bicycle - not by any means.

Even if he were to go on to clinch win number seven before retiring in July, he will forever stand behind Eddy Merckx in the cycling annals.

The pair have a lot in common - a singular determination to be the very best no matter what as well as being universally disliked in France during their racing days.

Merckx was punched by a spectator while attempting to win a sixth Tour, while Armstrong was voted the third most unpopular sportsman in France and was constantly booed and harangued through the Alps last year.

But while it is always dangerous to compare sportsmen from different generations, the statistics scream out that Merckx is streets ahead of the man who dominates cycling in the way he once did.

The Belgian, known as the "Cannibal" because of his voracious appetite for victory at every level, won the race from 1969 to 1972 and a fifth in 1974.

MY TOP FIVE OF ALL TIME
Eddy Merckx
1 Eddy Merckx
2 Bernard Hinault
3 Lance Armstrong
4 Miguel Indurain
5 Jacques Anquetil

He would have probably made it six were it not for the aforementioned punch. And added to that, he won a total of 11 Grand Tours - including five Giro d'Italias and a single Vuelta d'Espana.

In fact, he won pretty much everything else in the pipeline, from the World Championships to the harshest of the one-day races.

Armstrong, though, has made the Tour de France his solitary aim for the season.

To his credit, he has delivered every time and even proved he could boast the versatility of Merckx this year when he won in the mountains, over sprints and, as has become his custom, against the clock in the time trial.

That is all the more impressive because in this day and age - unlike Merckx's - it has become an impossibility to be a master at every single type of riding as perhaps in previous eras.

As more and more money is ploughed into the sport, expectation has risen. There are those riders who go solely for one of the big Tours each year - the Spanish and Italians unsurprisingly often opting for their home events over the Tour de France.

Then there is the select band of the classic winners, who relish winning from tough breakaways, or the sprinters, whose power over the final metres of a race is always going to be too much to outsprint the likes of Armstrong.

Eddy Merckx has to be considered the greatest ever cyclist
Preetinder Cheema, Harpenden

Although Armstrong rests below Merckx in cycling's list of greats, the debate over who owns second is far more fraught.

There is a very strong case for the Texan, although many would argue - this writer included - he still rates behind five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault.

"The Badger" was another who loved winning everything and anything.

When asked recently where he feels he rates against Armstrong, Hinault told BBC Sport: "It's hard to compare between different generations but I'd give Armstrong a good run for his money."

Hinault's five Tour wins came in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985 and he was second twice, winning 28 stages in the process. His 200 career victories are also way past what Armstrong has achieved to date.

Hinault was crowned world champion in 1980, the same year in which he won the first of three Giro titles. He also triumphed in the Tour of Spain on two occasions.

That list knocks spots off the man who rules the peloton today.

Miguel Indurain and Jacques Anquetil both have cases to argue in the list of greats, but Indurain simply won Tours through his time trialling, while Anquetil also lacked Armtrong's overall repertoire.

Indurain, though, has the final word on Armstrong's place among the greats.

The Spaniard said: "Armstrong is the best in the history of the Tour de France, not the history of cycling."





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