True confessions: I've never attended a single bike race. Nor did I watch a second of the Tour de France until a couple of days ago when I finally found the cable channel airing it. To fulfill my professional obligation to be literate on all major sports events, I logged onto SI.com every morning for the last three weeks to see whether Lance Armstrong was still leading -- what do they call it -- the peloton? Which he almost always was.
Now, after watching the 33-year-old American cruise into Paris on Sunday for a seventh straight Tour triumph in his self-proclaimed Final Ride, I'm at a real loss: Is Lance Armstrong one of the greatest athletes ever, or doesn't anyone else in the world know how to ride a daggum bike?!
I will give him this: The string of triumphs is the second greatest individual streak ever achieved in sports. It's ahead of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, which was achieved in 1941 and hasn't been seriously challenged since; and trails only a streak that was so fundamentally implausible -- and so lengthy, it was almost boring -- that we pretty much overlooked it until long after it was over: That would be Edwin Moses' stupefying 122 consecutive wins in the 400-meter hurdles. His run that ended exactly nine years, nine months and nine days (yes, exactly) after it began in 1977 when Moses lost a race to a relatively unheralded fellow American named Danny Harris.
And this: The Tour de France is as grueling an ordeal as there is in sports. It stumps most Americans. Sure, we know it's the world's preeminent cycling event. (Most of us think it's the world's only cycling event.) And it seems to last longer than the NBA playoffs. (Sorry, that was a cheap shot.)
It's three full weeks with the cyclists covering 2,236 miles and racing on all but two of the 22 days. In the latter stages, after the time trials held at all-out, butt-busting speed, the race traverses the kind of hills -- no, mountains -- I wouldn't even want to drive.
The physical pain and punishment inflicted is staggering, unlike perhaps anything else in sports. Think of boxers punching through 15 rounds for 22 straight days. Or NFL players playing seven games in seven days. NBA players wilt on their third game in three nights. To win a grand slam tennis title, a player has to win seven matches in 14 days. It ain't easy, but it ain't the Tour.
We will not even dignify golfers in this discussion.
Winning the Tour is a feat of survival worthy of any accolade, and achievable only by someone as fine-tuned physically and mentally as any athlete in any sport. It requires strength, commitment and luck. A single stumble can cost a rider precious time that cannot be recovered. A crash could kill them.
But winning seven -- two more than anyone else in the history of the sport? That's just stupid.
All of which leads me towards anointing Lance as perhaps the greatest athlete ever. Yes, ever. But (aren't there always buts?) I do have issues: