No one has ever ridden smarter than Armstrong, who has always had a sixth sense for avoiding Tour-ending crashes. But an all-out sprint for a stage finish doesn't require grace under knee-knocking, throat-closing pressure. It's just about guts and heart.
Armstrong has as much of those as any man or woman who ever competed in any sport.
But is he a greater clutch performer than Jordan or Ali or Montana or Nicklaus? When has Armstrong ever been tested under huge-moment fire the way those greats were? No, he doesn't belong in the same argument with them.
Similarly, how can you debate Armstrong's place among great all-around athletes when cycling calls upon such a narrow range of ability? Does Armstrong's sport demand hand-eye coordination or full-body athleticism the way ball sports do? No. Armstrong is the first to admit he's no good at ball sports.
Yes, some hand-eye and body control are required to steer a bike at high speeds through traffic or crashes or around curves. Yet Armstrong doesn't have the rare reflexes required to connect with 95-mph fastballs, or to throw baseballs or footballs, or to catch 60-yard passes on the dead run, or to make 25-foot jumpers or spinning, hanging circus shots over leaping giants.
Jordan was the greatest basketball player and greatest clutch performer ever -- but he failed miserably at baseball. So if you want the greatest all-around athletes -- combining the widest array of talent and skill at the highest levels -- choose your favorite from this list: Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown, Bjorn Borg, Wayne Gretzky, Bo Jackson, John Elway and Deion Sanders.
I make the greatest all-around case for Sanders. In his prime, Sanders was the greatest cover corner ever. Fastest man (and one of the quickest) in football. Excellent hands as a ball hawk, receiver or kick returner. Underrated upper-body strength that allowed him to control bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage.
And Sanders did not fail at baseball. Sanders was a regular outfielder for the Yankees, Braves, Giants and Reds. For the Braves, Deion was 8-for-15 in the 1992 World Series.
You can argue that Bo Jackson was a better combination football/baseball player because he made one Pro Bowl and one All-Star team. Yet Jackson was too stiff to be much of a basketball player. Sanders was an all-state high-school basketball player in Fort Myers, Fla. Advantage, Deion.
As a runner, Armstrong's 10K times were good but not great. He doesn't have the rare speed of a Sanders or Jackson -- or the lightning quickness of Allen Iverson. Armstrong and Iverson are about the same size. But Iverson not only has the NBA's best body control but also could have starred in college football as an option quarterback.
Armstrong isn't in Iverson's all-around league.
Yet the argument I always get is: Yes, but could Deion or Ichiro or Iverson win the Tour de France?
I have no idea how genetically gifted they are at processing oxygen in endurance sports. Iverson's VO2 max might surprise you. But the point is, none of the three had any desire to subject themselves to the grueling training required to win long-distance bike races.