I’m a fan of professional cycling. Every July I join the ranks of Those Obsessed With Sports when I tune in for the Tour de France (TdF from here on in). While I enjoy it, I bring some guilt to the table about that enjoyment.
Let me start by admitting a few things. First, yes, I do watch the live streaming coverage and that coverage is broadcast while I am at work. Back in about 2004 just the audio section of the broadcast was available and it was free. Streaming audio (the equivalent of listening to music, right?) isn’t a big deal. That set up has since ballooned into live video coverage that lasts for about two and a half hours and costs $30 for the month. I’ve got no qualm paying for the service since I’m not able to sit down at home during the prime time hours and absorb the coverage, both because I have a 4 year old son to mind and because the commercials in prime time coverage are lame, repetitious, and copious. I still mainly listen rather than watch the coverage. Like all sports coverage, if the pitch of the announcement changes, you better start paying attention. It’s really just the last 5-10km that require attention. As luck would have it I have the kind of job that allows me to pay attention to TV for thirty minutes of my mornings during July all while not interrupting or interfering with the work that needs doing. This luxury is not lost on me but it does make me feel a little guilty. Yes, my boss knows. Yes, my employees know. No one seems upset but me.
Second, yes, the sport has a really nasty and undeniably tarnished record over the last twenty years. There is no other world class sporting event to have so many winners disqualified for drug use in such a short time and remained viable if there has ever been an event to have so many top honors revoked at all. From 1993 to 2013, half of the winners of TdF have been disqualified for doping (Lance Armstrong lost his 7 wins, Alberto Contador lost his 2010 win, Floyd Landis lost his 2006 win, and Bjarne Riis admitted to doping in his 1996 win). It makes perfect sense that fans would be skeptical (and that is putting it kindly) of any rider winning these days. Is the peloton clean now? I don’t know but I think the emergence of clean teams like Highroad and Slipsteam, as well as the much improved biological passport, are finally making inroads to a cleaner sport. That being said, drugs are part of the TdF legacy. British rider Tom Simpson died on the slopes of Mount Ventoux during 1967s TdF due to drugs. Riders in the 1920’s routinely used a wicked cocktail of then legal drugs (like cocaine) to endure the event. These are not justifications but a matter of putting the culture and how hard it is to change in perspective. It’s hard to enjoy the spectacle when there are such fresh scars and such skeletons in the collective closet.
Third, cycling is the NASCAR of Europe. Those guys are wearing ads all over their clothes and are on millions of TVs for many hours at a stretch. Winning a stage of the ride comes with a hefty purse, about 8,000 euros. Winning a jersey classification (such as best young rider or King of the Mountains) comes with a 25,000 euro prize. The best overall rider, the winner of the General Classification’s (the GC, or yellow jersey wearer) take is 1 million euros. With those numbers on the table it is not so hard to see why riders are willing to dope and why team directors may encourage it.*
How is it then with the three points above so well-known and so undeniable that I can find such joy in the event? Well, sometimes I don’t. The political tumult that goes with any decision from the UCI (the world governing body of cycling) is rough. Sorting out what press coverage is reliable from what isn’t is a chore (the TdF was founded by a newspaper and to this day remains about flashy headlines). And, fundamentally, watching heroes be slain isn’t so great.
But almost all of that fades out to white noise when I think of those guys+ sprinting like rockets for the line or digging into some deep well of calm while suffering up slopes in the Pyrenees because I also like to ride my bike. I’ve never suited up in football pads, dunked a basketball, played anything beyond pond hockey, nothing that registers as a pro activity. But I have ridden my bike a lot. Ridden fast, ridden far, raced against no one but the clock and my own time. Been wrung up on climbs and felt justified in the suffering when I get home. Those are sensations that I intimately understand.
I rode my first metric century (100km/62 miles) in 1988 while in junior high. I rode it on my sister’s red Bridgestone 400. I then got my own Trek 420 (black, white, green and blue), and then in high school a Cannondale R600. Now I ride a Bianchi Via Nirone with more than a couple custom features. I’ve ridden more metric centuries than I can remember and did a standard century (100 miles) this year.
One summer I set up my own time trial course of about 16 miles and could clear it in just under 50 minutes. I did that same route just about every day for two months. I’ve barfed in the ditch twice from over exertion. I’ve hit the deck on sketchy corners and by forgetting to clip out of my pedals. I’ve had uncountable chain ring tattoos and currently have the quintessential biker tan. I love the TdF because I love riding my bike and when those guys are out there suffering, I can understand their pain, and when they are full of joy, I can taste that too. I just don’t think there is any other sport that is so accessible and so personal. That keeps me coming back.
*Those prize amount numbers are from the 2012 TdF.
+ I’m a fan of women’s cycling too, as evidenced by my being the team photographer for the last few years for the http://www.flickr.com/photos/collegiateallstars/ Collegiate Allstar team at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Sadly there is no women’s equivalent of the TdF.