Tour de France, cycling a clash of cultures for Americans, Europeans
Europeans care deeply about cycling; by and large Americans couldn't care less
Bike racing in Europe is what boxing is in the States -- a poor kid's way out
Americans are outraged by riders doping to gain edge; European fans expect it
Alberto Contador is a 26-year-old professional bike racer from Spain who in two seasons has won the Tours of France, Italy and his homeland. It's a feat matched by only four other riders in history, and by last fall Contador's performances had depleted the European press of its supply of superlatives. Then, in March, wearing the yellow leader's jersey one week into the Paris-Nice stage race, he did what even the finest racers are occasionally known to do, but Contador since his rise to prominence had not yet done. During a mountain stage, he cracked.
What followed revealed the abiding gulf between the cultures surrounding pro cycling on either side of the Atlantic. European sportswriters spilled liters of ink on this revelation of Contador's humanity. He is one of us! He is plus sympathique! He is ... Sartre on a bike!
Contrast that over-the-top reaction with the off-the-radar response in the U.S.: [Crickets] ... and this terse tweet from Lance Armstrong, Contador's American rival on the same Astana team: Unfortunate day for Alberto. Amazing talent but still a lot to learn.
Even as the U.S. has produced, in Armstrong, the sport's most dominant performer, cycling remains a virtual cipher in the States. When it's consumed at all, it's consumed differently than in Europe. It's framed differently. And as Armstrong returns to the Tour de France after a three-year absence, that ongoing pas de deux of mutual loathing and suspicion, Lance vs. France, is only part of a larger cultural loggerheads.
Here's a stab at what's behind it: Bike racing in Europe is what boxing is in the States -- a poor kid's way out. A chimney sweep won the first Tour de France, and since then honors have gone to carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, welders, baker's apprentices and metalworking trainees. (One of the greatest, Italy's Fausto Coppi, wasn't even a butcher, but an errand boy for a butcher, which is how he learned his way with a bike.) The European peloton is a clan with a code, a sweatshop on wheels that doubles as a testing lab for designer doping products. Fans make the biggest heroes of those who suffer most; the founder of the Tour, Henri Desgranges, believed that the ideal race would be one survived by a single rider. If these hero-sufferers take drugs, goes the continental line of thinking, it's because no one can be expected to survive such an ordeal without palliatives, and besides, cheating has been woven into the Tour since its second staging in 1904, when the winner of the first, that chimney sweep, hopped a train for part of the route.
The men who plied the roads of Europe a generation ago run the sport today, and why should they begrudge their heirs the pharmaceutical relief they once enjoyed? Even fans see little stigma in a positive test. As the Sixties-era rider Rudi Altig of Germany once put it, "We are professional cyclists, not athletes."
In the U.S., bike racing is a way out too -- a way out of high school hell for geeky middle-class boys blown off by the jocks and cheerleaders. They take up cycling for the romance, for "breaking away," as that Indiana italophile, Dave the Cutter, did in the 1979 movie of the same name. Otherwise a bicycle is either a child's toy or an affluent middle-aged adult's means to health and fitness. In 1981 the first American to ride the Tour, Jonathan Boyer, traveled with a Bible, a blender, and a cache of nuts and dates. California's Bob Roll, who was living in a tent in Switzerland when the U.S. 7-Eleven team picked him up to ride the 1985 Tour of Italy, would inscribe his sidewheels with poetry.
Watching her adolescent son get bewitched by the John Tesh soundtrack on CBS's weekly Tour wrap-up shows 20 years ago, Jonathan Vaughters' mom had to tell him, "You know, when you're actually racing, there's no inspirational music playing in the background."
Vaughters learned quickly enough, competing in Europe for nine seasons before taking over as director of the current U.S. team Garmin Slipstream, whose rookie riders he now disabuses of his gauzy old misconceptions. "I tell them that European cycling is like working in a coal mine," he says. "You wake up, turn on the light on your miner's helmet, and go down into the ground. It's the furthest thing imaginable from wine-swilling aristocrats."
Yet if pro cycling is known today to the typical Stateside sports fan at all, it's through a single race, the Tour de France, which to casual followers exists only to supply climactic scenes in over-the-top red-white-and-blue Movies of the Week like Yank with shotgun pellets in body overtakes Frenchman on Champs-Elysees, and Texan dominates wine-swilling Euros seven times after cancer wracks lungs, abdomen, brain and testicles. "Greg [LeMond, who wrote that first narrative] and Lance [who wrote the second] brought the sport into the American mainstream, and once it was there, it was entertainment," says Andy Hampsten of the U.S., who won the Tours of Italy and Switzerland during a career that overlapped those of both of his superstar compatriots. "And once it's entertainment, do we really want to know that cyclists are on drugs? It would ruin people's fun."
Brian Gilley is an anthropologist at the University of Vermont who studies the sport's constituent parts and how they interrelate. He attributes European fans' cynical sophistication to what Italians call dietrologia, or "behindology" -- the widespread belief that there's more to anything than what appears. Gilley is struck too by what seems like the guild system that began in Europe during the Middle Ages. "You can't get a job in European cycling unless you know someone," he says. "The guild has its rules and customs -- and 'the rules' don't have as much to do with doping as with paying your dues and kissing the ring."
LeMond had been different from his American predecessors in his talent, but he was also willing to kiss the requisite rings -- moving to Europe, learning French, and faithfully riding in support of French teammate Bernard Hinault's 1985 Tour victory. "Greg was perfect for the 'American invasion' -- all smiles, Opie Taylor, everything fascinating to him," says Joe Parkin, the Minnesotan who raced in Belgium during the LeMond era and learned Flemish by reading subtitles on Alf re-runs. "Things started to go south when Greg realized he could just concentrate on the Tour. Europeans didn't really like that."
The guild also permits sundry corruptions and collusions, which Parkin would discover in Belgian kermis races that were fixed on the fly, and Dutch criteriums that involved more aforethought: "All the riders would dress in the same room and a list would get passed around," he recalls. "At the top was the time the winning breakaway would go. There'd be a check mark next to the names of the riders in the winning break. And the name of the winner would be underlined."
Then there was the expectation, even obligation, of doping. A cyclist who failed to ride "lit up," Parkin explains in his new memoir A Dog In a Hat, was made to feel unprofessional. If Belgium is the West Virginia of Europe, pot belge or Belgian mix, a speedball that might contain cocaine, amphetamines, caffeine, heroin, liquor or corticosteroids, was continental crystal meth. "A lot of riders in the European peloton stop going to school at age 13 or 14," Gilley says. "They put their trust in a directeur sportif and basically accept what he says -- and he may say, 'Here, take this.' That's part of the guild, too: It removes from people the power to use knowledge to challenge authority. With American riders, by contrast, doping is their own calculated risk. They're being American about it. Every U.S. small business owner I know has committed some sort of tax fraud. Whereas Europeans tend to see it as, You either ride by the rules of the guild, or you don't ride."