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Hercules on Two Wheels

Could bicycling be bigger than baseball again?

By Mike Crissey, 6:00AM, Sat. Nov. 12, 2011

Hercules on Two Wheels

Why isn't the Tour de France in America? I mean, besides the obvious fact that the French started it 108 years ago and it takes place over three weeks through roughly 2,000 miles of countryside there. Hear me out.

I know, bicycles are “alternative transportation.” They are the puerile, pedal-powered playthings of likely unshaven, eccentric malcontents and ne'er-do-wells who refuse to grow up and accept the internal combustion engine. I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Paul Revere's Ride was all about protecting our inherent right as Americans to freedom of movement: to never propel ourselves under our own power. And, apologies to Lance Armstrong, but I'll argue that asexual, eternally adolescent Pee-wee Herman best represents what most Americans think of bicyclists.

It may not be that crazy. Armstrong and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently brought a professional road race back to the U.S. with the seven-day, 518-mile USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August. Richmond, Va., is hosting the 2015 UCI Road World Championship, the third jewel on the triple crown of bicycle racing with the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia. It will be only the second time the 84-year-old bicycle race has been staged on U.S. soil. And coming soon to a theatre near you is Premium Rush , a bicycle action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a courier who picks up the wrong package and is chased by a dirty NYC cop.

I can't get the idea out of my head since I devoured William Fotheringham's thorough, well-written, and absorbing love tome to the bicycle, Cyclopedia: It's All About the Bike (Chicago Review, 488 pp, $25). Fotheringham, cycling corespondent for the Guardian, writes about bicycles with a keen eye and a droll tone honed by 30 years on a bicycle seat and tempered by covering the Tour de France and three Olympic Games.

Take this passage from the entry on soigneurs: “For a century, these men were the emineces grises of professional cycling, providing massage, magic remedies, and advice to the riders. There were no qualifications other than who a soigneur had worked with. They began working life as gravediggers, fishmongers, and bus drivers. Knowledge was handed down through generations. … The first was 'Choppy' Warburton, the only Briton to figure in their ranks. It almost doesn't matter what Warburton did, his nickname alone means he qualifies.”

How about Fotheringham's unvarnished, sober summary of the most (in)famous soigneur, Italian Michele Ferrari, nicknamed Dr. Evil, who worked with Armstrong from 1998 to 2004: “The most celebrated and controversial trainer in modern cycling; a miracle worker to his disciples … but tainted with doping allegations, according to his adversaries. … [H]e told reporters that the banned blood booster EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice unless it was abused. … Ferrari jokingly said that Parmesan cheese should be banned because it was good for those who ate it, thus giving them an unfair advantage.”

The Tour de France, “cycling's flagship race, the only event in the racing calendar that has significance in every country, and the biggest annual sports event in the world,” Fotheringham writes, was born as “an outlandish, mammoth publicity stunt … as much a commercial as a sports event,” and its “success has been founded on excess and that will always be the case.” I think I read at least four American values in that description.”

Bicycles are publicity machines. Cyclists have engaged in a number of stunts to further the sport, staging races against horses, dog sleds, trains, time, and sleep deprivation. The Queen of the Classics, the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race which is part of the professional cycling circuit, started in 1896 as an advertisement for a newly built velodrome. For a stateside example, Madison Square Garden was built in 1891 specifically for bicycle track races, including six-day races, macabre contests of endurance and sleep deprivation settled by who could ride the farthest during a six-day period. The final day would often sell out for the ghoulish spectacle of the corpse-like wretches on wheels making their final weary circuits of the track.

Journalists and politicians, those skilled salesmen and purveyors of public opinion, have used bicycles to peddle their causes, whether they be simply selling more newspapers or propping up their regimes or worldviews. Richard Lesclide, editor of the first cycling magazine, Le Velocipede Illustre, created the Paris-Rouen, the first place-to-place bicycle race, in 1868. The Giro D'Italia, the Paris-Brest-Paris race, and the Tour in France are the progeny of warring sports newspapers. Today, the Tour de France is run by a former French television sports reporter Christian Prudhomme. (Writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas and Walt Whitman, have also found two-wheeled inspiration.)

For politicians, bicyclists seem to be as irresistible as photogenic babies, and some have have chased cycling champions hoping to attach themselves to cyclists' cults of personality and bolster their own. President Ronald Reagan (a former sports announcer and golfer) invited Greg LeMond to the White House when he won the Tour and Bill Clinton (a jogger) and George W. Bush (a runner) hosted Armstrong after his wins. Bush, who has a shaky image on a bicycle following a 2004 spill, has cultivated a relationship with Armstrong, recently inviting the star cyclist on a 62-mile charity ride for wounded veterans this spring.

Benito Mussolini was a bigger fan of cycling's antipode, auto racing, but he still sent fascist courtiers to woo young Gino Bartali, a fervent Catholic known as both “the Pious One” and “the Iron Man,” and who went on to win the Tour twice (1938 and 1948). He declined Mussolini's advances, but Bartali was not immune. In 1948, with Italy on the cusp of revolution following the assassination of a Communist party leader, the Democratic Italian prime minister telephoned Bartali on the Tour and beseeched him to win the race for the good of his country. Bartali answered the call, winning a key stage in the Alps to seal his victory, and revolution was averted.

The Vuelta a Espana began in 1935 as a thinly-veiled public relations ploy by Spanish military dictator Julio Franco, a soccer fan, and his mouthpiece newspaper to unify the country under his boot heel under the pretext of a patriotic race. Franco staged both the first and last legs of the race in the independent Basque country, the heart of his most fervent opposition, as a blunt reminder that it too was under his thumb. It is still political fodder to this day. The Vuelta a Espana no longer ventures into Basque country, and Tour de France stages in the Pyrenees draw Basque protesters who line the road with signs demanding freedom for political prisoners.

(Nazi German propagandists may have been the best at using pedal-power to push their politics. They held bicycle rallies and marketed tires and bike accessories with swastika emblazonment.)

And then there's this description of the Tour from the late Geoffrey Nicholson, related by Fotheringham: “It is the only form of international conflict that takes place on the doorstep other than war itself.”

What better way to remain the best fighting force on Earth than to stage a mock war with foreign invaders racing down Main Street each year? (And the roving horde of 4,000 people and 1,500 vehicles following the Tourmen from stage to stage also causes massive gridlock, our national right-of-passage, the true melting pot of America.)

But bicycles (and road races) also seem to be vehicles for freedom and democracy. It turns out that bicycling is the sport of the common man. The first winner of the Tour de France, Maurice Garin (1871-1957), was a chimney sweep. Tour de France winners have been the sons of grocers (see Dutchman Eddy Merckyx), coalminers (see Englishman Tom Simpson), and farmers (see Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Jean Henri Pelissier, Italian Fausto Coppi,, Irishman Sean Kelly, and Spaniard Miguel Indurain). Our two Tour de France winners, LeMond and Armstrong, were the sons of a real estate agent and a salesman, respectively.

Bicycles have been employed by suffragettes, including Susan B. Anthony, and labor unions. During World War II, Bartali worked with an underground Catholic network to smuggle Jews out of Italy. Under the guise of training, Bartali stashed letters and doctored documents in his bike that were used to forge passports for Jews.

And it could be claimed that the color barrier in U.S. professional sports was broken by cyclist Marshall Walter Taylor (1878-1932), one of America's first black professional athletes and international sports stars. Taylor, who earned the title of the “fastest man in the world” and held seven world records, battled segregation and threats both on and off his bike. He was once grabbed off his bicycle and strangled and was denied the chance to become America's champion cyclist. In 1899, Taylor won the world one-mile championship and became the second black world champion.

Bicycle road races and especially the Tour de France, Fotheringham observes, are unique sporting events. The competition takes place among its fans, in their hometowns and down their streets, rather than holding court in fortress-like arenas. And it has a universal appeal. “[T]he public could relate to the effort involved in bicycle racing, as pretty much everyone could ride a bike,” Fotheringham writes.

“[C]yling enthusiasts can ride the race's great mountains in any number of leisure events, and many ride up and down before the race comes. It is rare in any sport for spectators to be able to emulate their heroes in this way,” Fotheringham writes. That sounds like a sport “of the people, for the people, and [right] by the people” to me.

Did I mention the Tour de France is free to watch? Free is our most cherished American value; we will pay any price to keep something free (or costing next to nothing). And French writer Louis Aragon described the Tour de France as a display of “industry mixed with heroism.” These guys are stepping on our lines, America!

The romantic mythology of cycling champions – as rugged individualists, common men forged into heroes by hard work and sweat who seize improbable wins and comebacks with second chances and tenacity – doesn't seem that different from our cowboy myth to me.

The cowboy was the “core image of America, a land whose inhabitants were tough when they needed to be, and always heroic. Always on the side of right,” Julia Keller wrote in her book, Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel, describing our national self-image at the turn of the 20th century. “The show got under way with a lone rider on horseback galloping dramatically across the arena, brandishing an American flag.” I would argue we haven't updated our self-image much.

According to Fotheringham, early Tour de France organizer Henri Desrange (1885-1940) believed exercise and suffering led to moral improvement and that the ideal race was one that no man could finish. He sought to create “the most courageous champions since antiquity” with “slogs calling for superhuman levels of willpower and endurance.” Desrange was also a brilliant showman, sending Tourmen on breathtaking and treacherous mountain stages in the Pyrenees in 1910 and the Alps the following year and creating the iconic yellow jersey (Golden Fleece?) worn by the race leader in 1919.

He is, after-all, the architect of the Heroic Era (c. 1904-1939) of professional cycling, which Fotheringham describes as “mud-spattered cyclists carrying spare tires on their shoulders, gravelly roads, ill-fitting shorts, clunky-tubed bikes, stoic faces in goggles, rickety cars, and spectators who always seem to be in their Sunday best.” That's not terribly different from bicycling during rush hour in the U.S. these days.

Fotheringham's retelling of Louison Bobet's last ride reminds me of the final scene of George Stevens' 1953 Oscar-winning Western Shane. Bobet (1925-1983), celebrated for his tenacity and determination, was the first man to win the Tour de France three times in a row (1953-1955), but they may have been Pyrrhic victories. He suffered a severe saddle sore during the 1955 Tour that required surgery. He returned to racing but had lost something. He ended his career during the 1959 Tour de France. “[H]e was ill and suffering but forced himself to complete much of the race, finally riding to the top of the highest pass in the event, the Col de Iseran [in the Alps, the second highest mountain stage in the Tour at 9,000 feet above sea level with a 3,150-foot climb]. There he climbed off his bike, never to race again.”

Let's not forget the courageous comeback of LeMond, who is from California despite his francophone name. He appeared to be on his way to a dominating career when he became the first American to win the world championship in 1983 and then the first U.S. winner of the Tour in 1986 by age 25. Along the way, he not only broke the Old World dominance of the race as the first Tour winner born outside Europe but also freed riders from their seemingly indentured servitude to race organizers, promoters, and team managers. In 1985, LeMond was part of the first million-dollar contract in professional cycling, ushering in professional payment for top riders, much like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale's dismantling of Major League Baseball's reserve clause in the 1960s and 1970s.

But he was blasted with a shotgun during a hunting accident in 1987, suffering a partially collapsed lung and riddling his intestine, live,r and diaphragm with pellets. He was 20 minutes from death when he was spotted by a passing highway patrol helicopter. Thirty of the pellets remain in his body. LeMond returned to the Tour in 1989 and won in heroic fashion, securing the yellow jersey on the last leg of the 2,145-mile race by the narrowest margin in Tour history.

LeMond battled with two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon of France, trading the lead five times heading into the 15.5-mile finale in Paris. LeMond was seemingly mired in second place by an insurmountable 50 seconds but he rode hard and won by 8 seconds. Fotheringham writes that LeMond's win is antithetical to the Tour's evolution into a chess game between teams of specialist riders supporting scientifically calibrated superstar athletes on highly engineered high-performance equipment. (Yet more reasons it should be an American sport.)

We could probably get the Tour de France cheap. It's a damaged brand, dogged by allegations of doping for the past 15 years. Every Tour winner but two since 1996 has been accused, rightly or wrongly, of using performance-enhancing drugs. The Tour de France could really use the kind of image makeover only capable in the U.S. because we have Congress. Just look at how well we cleaned up drug-sullied Major League Baseball.

We would be doing France a favor, too. The French worry that the Tour suffers from le gigantisme, or that it has grown out of control and its success will be its undoing (doping is one symptom). With five times the space and people as France, we could absorb the Tour de France and create four more races to boot. We Texans could swallow France up whole and have a little room for dessert. And we have more room for tourists, Texas is less densely populated than France.

The Tour de France is a now a worldwide television event with a billion people in 186 countries watching 112 hours of coverage (up from about 50 million people and 38 hours of coverage in the 1980s). Nobody does television like we do. And when was the last time you told your friends about this great French TV show they needed to watch? (The Tour de France gets 45% of its income from television rights, a little shy of the 65% that NFL teams get.)

We could argue the French really don't own it anymore. Sure, Frenchmen have won their country's bicycle road race 36 of the 94 times it's been held, but they haven't crossed the finish line first since Bernard “The Badger” Hinault won in 1985. And that was because U.S. teammate LeMond apparently agreed to help him win his fifth Tour in exchange for the Badger's help to wear the yellow jersey the following year.

A U.S. rider has won the Tour 10 of the last 26 times it's been held since then (Spain has also won 10). LeMond won in 1986, 1989, and 1990; and Armstrong went on his record-setting seven consecutive wins from 1999 to 2005. We are fourth in overall Tour wins behind the traditional bicycling powerhouses of France, Belgium (18 wins), and Spain (13). We have one more win than Italy, home of bike component wizard Tullio Campagnolo (1901-1983) and his namesake company. And we did that with just two guys. (Armstrong could have won more, but we asked him, as an American, to play nice and let the other countries win for a bit. We're not bullies.)

We shouldn't let tradition defy good business sense and get in the way of progress in professional sports. Just look at relocated and rebranded success stories like the NFL's Browns, Cardinals, Colts, Ravens, Texans, and Titans; MLB's Athletics, Brewers, Rangers, and Senators; and the NBA's Clippers, Grizzlies, Jazz, and Kings.

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