The Best

"I told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been."

- Charlie Daniels, Devil Went Down to Georgia

This week, Lance Armstrong once again referred to Astana teammate Alberto Contador as the “best in the world” in an interview with L’Equipe. I’m going to go ahead and assume he meant “best cyclist,” not best driver, best architect, or best lover, because simply declaring a best in any of those areas would be way too subjective, and would ignore the multitude of qualifiers and areas of specialization that would have to be considered in making any meaningful assessment of superiority. Wait a minute…

Yes, indeed, declaring a “best” in cycling is tricky business, too, what with the plethora of disciplines and even finer grains of specialization within each, all leading to a physiological diaspora so broad it’s hard to believe we call all of them cyclists. How do you compare a Contador to a Chris Hoy? Or a Chris Hoy to a Bruno Risi? Or even a Bruno Risi to a Mark Cavendish? You really can’t, and most lucid people steer clear of throwing the term around without a lot of qualifiers, save the writers of the mandatory year-end awards in web sites and magazines, organizers of let’s-all-have-a-banquet prizes like the Velo d’ Or, and the soft-minded lunatics who write them to argue about the winners.

Bests are hard to pick in this fractured little sport, even if you were to attach an irritating number of qualifiers, but there is one I feel we can all agree on: the Best at Naming the Best. This title is awarded to the entity that goes out of its way to chew our meat for us, to throw the one, true “best” into the light without the pesky shadows of nuance, and to crown from on high the bona fide kings of cycling.

For nearly a decade, the title has remained tightly in the iron grip of the long lineage of Johan Bruyneel / Lance Armstrong collaborations, from the adolescent years of U.S. Postal, into Discovery’s middle-age, and straight on through to the doting golden years of those team’s brother-from-another-mother, Astana. Year after year, regardless of scandals, transfers, retirements, un-retirements, and re-retirements, nobody picks out who’s best and lays it right out there for you like the boys from Bruyneel. Conveniently, it turns out that “the best” is usually them.

Make no mistake, this is no individual award, nor is the title limited to Armstrong and Bruyneel. It’s a team prize, and declaring bests has become some sort of reflexive verbal tic of any and all who receive a Bruyneel-signed paycheck, from who-the-hell-is-that-guy domestiques to franchise superstars, from Australians to Americans (and probably beyond, but who interviews non-English speaking riders?). Over the years, these oracles-in-blue have identified for the gurgling, glaze-eyed masses a select group of easily digestible bests, including Armstrong and Contador (both multiple time bests), Ivan Basso (2006), and even the whole damn team (1999-2009). Here’s just a smattering of the announcements from the mutual admiration society, conferring a variety of titles (emphasis mine):

“I know Lance is a good teammate. I don’t have a lot of worries about that. People can look at it both ways, like oh, it’s bad, because now the best rider in the history of cycling comes back, and he’s on my team, and it knocks me down. But I tend to look at it the other way. If I am around the best riders, that’s going to make me the best rider I can be. And I think that is what happened to me over the last couple of years. I came to the team with the best riders in the world, with Alberto and Basso there, and it really motivated me to step it up, because there was no choice. I had to.”
- Levi Leipheimer, going for the record, VeloNews, October 6, 2008
"I think there is room for all of us on that team: myself, Alberto, Levi (Leipheimer) and (team director Johan Bruyneel), who is quite the personality himself. Alberto is the best rider on the planet right now. We have to understand that, we have to respect that."
- Lance Armstrong, stopping short of taking it intergalactic, VeloNews, September 24, 2008
"I don't see how anyone can stop me from hiring the best rider in the world. I am very happy with my decision.”
- Johan Bruyneel on Ivan Basso, the best rider in the world he signed in between best riders in the world Armstrong and Contador, VeloNews, November 18, 2006

“The Tour de Georgia is a wonderful race, but the Tour de France is another story. To beat Lance, I’m sure it would mean the same to anybody. He’s the biggest star in cycling, the best cyclist ever.”
- Floyd Landis, still instinctively towing the party line after transferring from Postal to Phonak, VeloNews, June 28, 2005

“Sure, tomorrow will be a little stressful. But I'm on the best team in the world and I'm very motivated and the team is very motivated, and we have the smartest people behind us, so we'll have to see."
- Tom Danielson, also conferring the optional and rarely seen “smartest people” award,, April 2005

“As I have said before, if I get a chance one day I will do my best to take it. But if not, it's just great being part of the best team in the World!”
- Steve Cummings, tackling the Giro with enthusiasm,, May 21,

"I ride for the best team in the world and it's not usually my role to win races. You can get a bit complacent because you're in the number one team with the best rider but I've got a new attitude and I've got to do some stuff for myself as well."
- Matt White, doing the double,, December 8, 2002

Though it’s an impressive body of work, compared to most of Bruyneel’s victories, this title may ring a bit hollow. Champions, after all, are made by the quality of their competition, and over the years, serious challengers have been few. Former CSC/current Saxo Bank occasionally mounts a feeble if well-meaning effort. Others try to take up the scepter but fall short, adding as they do confusing time- or discipline-based qualifiers or tasteless, gutless multiple choice offerings. Really, the dominance of Bruyneel-led teams reflects a certain lack of commitment on the part of the competition. After all, they don’t have to actually win anything, or even believe what they’re saying. They just need to vociferously, doggedly, and mindlessly repeat that their teammate or team is the best on this godforsaken rock, and, if they’re feeling frisky, spice it up with some sort of infinity-based time element, like “ever” or “since the dawn of time.” How hard is that?

Anyway, thanks for reading. You guys are the best.