I'm compelled to respond to Henry's Eddy Merckx slander. To be sure, the collective performance of professional cyclists is better today than it was in the early 70s. To be sure, Pogacar's average speed for the TDF is higher than Merckx's. But these are not the only objective measurements of excellence. Winning percentage, average victory margin, and total career wins are also objective measurements of excellence. Pogacar and his contemporaries may be faster than cyclists of the 70s because they take an entirely different approach to racing, picking and choosing particular races to make their maximum efforts. This is undoubtedly a smart strategy that maximizes performance. By contrast, Merckx raced virtually every week and tried to win every race he entered. He succeeded at those things to an astonishing degree, and he routinely crushed the entire peloton with solo breakaways. His achievements in all of these respects dwarf the comparable achievements of any other cyclist before or after his career. No-one has ever come close to dominating his contemporaries in the way that Merckx dominated the late 60s and early 70s. Unlike Henry, I don't think it's so easy to conclude that Pogacar is the best ever because his average speed is the highest. In my view, the generational differences in technology, competitive contexts, and strategic approaches warrant caution about cross-generational comparisons. (See this interesting article: https://pezcyclingnews.com/toolbox/comparing-cycling-gerations/). And, with respect to the title of "best ever," I think it's unwise to compare a young rider whose palmares is impressive but brief with another rider whose palmares is incomprehensibly long. In time, Pogacar may prove to be the best ever, but, notwithstanding Henry's insinuations, I don't think that stanning for Merckx means that one is a fusty old fuddy duddy who disdains objectivity and reason.

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Paul you have already made one dream of mine come true: we have hijacked the comments of a basketball website to talk about cycling.

I don't want to fight with you, and doubt we disagree much. We agree on discussing cycling, and that's the main thing.

Also, I'm being a little dramatic to make a point, and I don't know much about Eddy Merckx, to be honest. But I do know this: Pogacar has the advantage of infinite innovations since the time of Mercx. The tires the food the rest the hydration the whole thing. Pogacar is the beneficiary of the work of thousands, one of whom was Merckx. That's all real.

And that's how progress works. That's why cars are faster now, too. The dumb luck of birth year contributes to Pogacar. If it's a question of who deserves the most credit as a badass, we have a debate.

But if it's a debate about who knows the most about riding fast, it's probably not the guy who let go of the thread of innovation in the 1980s. (The maker of the calculator was a hero fighting long odds and the culture, but the maker of the iphone better knows engineering.)

Michael Jordan played decades ago, against people whose conditioning sucked compared to today. We have an easy time saying he was the GOAT.

Today's players play against whole teams who train like MJ did or better. Nobody flies above the whole defense anymore, because the defense hangs in the air like MJ did. It's totally possible the best players of all time are happening right now. But the crowd isn't comfortable with that, yet.

This is my bigger point: it takes some courage to call out the best ever when he or she is the best ever. I respect those with the courage to do so. Is "we'll see" as much of a bummer to you as it is to me? I've been in the arena for some crazy amazing plays and players. We really need a decade to decide how good they were? MJ played his best ever in the mid-1990s when they said he had a lot to learn. Then years passed, and THEN we started saying that the mid-1990s was the best play of all time. Hats off to people who didn't need the delay.

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Jul 13, 2022Liked by Henry Abbott

I agree that our agreements are greater than our disagreements. And I appreciate your engagement with cycling. But those small disagreements are important, at least in some respects.

For one thing, the differences in our professions may dictate our preferences about judgment-making. I could be wrong, but, as a journalist, you value the ability to make the broadest correct judgment in the moment -- at the time of an event. As a former history professor and current lawyer, I prefer to reserve judgments for when all the evidence is in. That's a meaningful difference, but not a moral one. In the end, we may both share the same principles about how to make judgments, even if we differ about when to make them.

But I do think we differ about more than the timing of judgments. And that difference is especially significant in the context of cycling, or, perhaps more accurately, in the context of determining what constitutes greatness in cycling. As I understand your points, you prefer to measure greatness in terms of absolute standards: the faster cyclist is the greater cyclist. I think that, at least in part, this preference is premised the entirely reasonable idea that better informed performance is faster (or, more generally, better) performance. I would not try to argue anyone off of that position, but I don't entirely share it. And I think cycling presents an interesting case for why faster may not always be better and for why athletics may involve something that's important and objectively real but that can't be readily quantified or measured by an absolute standard.

Professional cycling is an absolutely insane endeavor that presents a different question than just about any other sport. Most sports implicitly ask the question: what heights of performance can human beings reach under optimal conditions and with optimal training? Cycling implicitly asks the question: what happens if we ask athletes to perform in completely unreasonable conditions, which can, and sometimes do, invite collapse and/or injury? If, as you often note, athletes perform best when making a few (is it 5?) maximum efforts every two weeks, what do we make of a cycling grand tour, where the winner will probably have to make at least a dozen maximum efforts in three weeks and will have to make a significant effort about nine or ten other times in that same period? The greatest cyclists have to exhibit a force of will that propels them beyond any reasonable expectation of human capacity. This force of will is what distinguishes the most celebrated achievements in cycling, which cycling fans and journalists call "exploits." Hinault at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1980. Andy Hampsten on the Passo Gavia in 1988. Merckx winning the yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys in 1969. (There are more recent examples, but they aren't springing to my mind at the moment). In an exploit, one cyclist finds a way to do something that is truly unimaginable and that transcends the boundaries of his opponents. Of course, this is why professional cycling is and always will be riddled with drug use; the demands of professional cycling are almost literally inhuman. But, drugs aside, I don't think that the force of will that is required for an exploit can be improved through scientific progress. It's not something quantifiable. But it is real, and I'd argue that it's also objectively ascertainable, despite the fact that it can't be quantified. And that adds a dimension to cycling that I find enormously appealing.

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All acknowledged.

But still, the delay in our perception remains a thing. I don't think it's as a journalist that I'm bothered by the length of time it took historians and lawyers and everyone to change their views on, say, Jordan's play in 1995. Nothing about that season had changed by the time the Last Dance came out. (In the interim he had added to his body of work, but all in all most agree he had played worse than in 1995. How could more seasons of under-his-peak play elevate prior play to the best ever? There's a difference between gathering evidence and changing your mind about the same evidence.)

What changed, I would argue, is the molasses of conventional wisdom got a chance to shift. This is my point. The best athletes in history pop up all over and move fast. Our collective acknowledgement moves a decade or so slower, so much slower to be almost uselessly inaccurate in real time--it's too freighted with "well let's not be hasty now" vibes.

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Coach always talking about the need for patience in regards to player development and projecting young players reminds me of one of my all-time favorite quotes from David Foster Wallace:

"Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

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