Tour de France, cycling a clash of cultures for Americans, Europeans
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
Contrast that over-the-top reaction with the off-the-radar response in the U.S.: [
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
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
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
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,
Watching her adolescent son get bewitched by the
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
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
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
In the early years many American riders, especially those on American teams, felt exempt from the guild's encouragement to dope. "We were willing to talk to journalists about doping," Hampsten says. "While Europeans within the sport were telling us to shut up, our attitude was, 'F--- you, it's our sport too.'"
But by the end of Hampsten's career, crude fixes like
For the longest time the peloton sang a chorus of but of course. It staged work stoppages to protest doping controls, and you can still hear the bien sur dripping from the lips of five-time Tour winner
Cycling's tacit acceptance of doping persisted even after European legislatures began to pass anti-doping laws during the mid-Sixties, and the Gallic shrug remained the default setting of riders, officials and fans. After Americans
But it's difficult to imagine Americans reacting like
American teams -- first 7-Eleven, then Motorola, eventually U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel -- weren't likely to set up shadowy doping programs; American sponsors would never take the chance. But by the Nineties individual U.S. riders, with no more stomach for losing than any European, had begun to weigh that calculated risk. They too knew the open secrets of the peloton, the dodgy doctors, flim-flam testing procedures and dubious soigneurs, a.k.a.
"Any 7-year-old Flemish schoolchild,"
Are you, gentle American reader, prepared to be baptized into the reality of European pro cycling? Are you ready to go from Cutter to continental, to travel the path that Dave Stohler did in
Surely that wasn't the end of it, I thought. A rider had been caught doping in the Tour de Friggin' France ... and he would start the next morning? Over time my astonishment would gradually yield to something else: a sense of being unsophisticatedly and irredeemably American.
A week or so later a British journalist decided to introduce me to the Tour's most storied stage finish, L'Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 switchback turns to the top. "After I covered this for the first time," he told me, "I never again used the word 'heroic' to describe an athlete in any other sport." Sure enough, Ireland's
I returned the next summer, when with the Tour only days from Paris word leaked that the yellow jersey, Spain's
Time would solve another mystery from that 1988 Tour: the puzzling equanimity of the runner-up,
I had begun to appreciate the suffering, however, and grasp the sport's place in the culture. In 1987 I would miss LeMond's comeback from his near-fatal hunting accident, the Tour in which he made up nearly a minute on the final day to beat France's
I swung off the beat just as Armstrong emerged, but not before covering his domestic coming out, an impressive second in the Tour du Pont in the spring of 1993. It was easy to see how he would rock the guild as soon as he hit the continent. In Europe a truck driver who sees cyclists out training invites them to grab hold of his rig for a tow; Armstrong could recount many times that pick-ups and semis in Texas literally ran him off the road. What made Armstrong different -- what would make him a seven-time winner of the Tour, when you get right down to it -- is that he would flip those truck drivers the bird.
Armstrong touched off a couple of low-grade diplomatic incidents soon after his arrival in Europe that summer. By prearrangement with his American Motorola team he dropped out of his first Tour de France with a week to go, only to hear Tour director
Armstrong went on to subvert the guild even more than LeMond had. "It wasn't just that he had one goal, the Tour," Gilley says. "He built a team around himself. He used the latest in science and technology. He commanded a superstar salary. And he talked about conquest and battle and manifest destiny, all American concepts."
But in one critical respect Armstrong did go native. Arriving in Europe just after EPO had presented American riders with that Hobson's choice, Armstrong in 1995 hooked up with a guild-approved personal doctor,
Armstrong has never wavered in his denial of having used performance-enhancing drugs. But Armstrong teammates Landis and
Armstrong has long broadcast on two frequencies -- one to the European peloton, another to cycling-innocent followers in the States. A perfect example took place several months ago, after an out-of-competition tester from France's state-run anti-doping lab doorstepped him on the Riviera, and Armstrong, just back from a training ride, disappeared for 20 minutes to take a shower. Europeans know that the one thing a cyclist may not do under any circumstances is leave a tester's sight before providing a sample. They can recount the sport's colorful history of doping-control subterfuge, from hastily swallowed diuretics and blood-thinners, to stand-in urine delivered through concealed rubber tubing. When this departure from protocol briefly looked like it might lead to his suspension, Armstrong tweeted indignantly,
Within the guild Armstrong has been a
After Armstrong, the U.S. will likely continue to send innocents abroad. Gilley is studying attitudes toward doping among 18- to 23-year-old American amateurs, and of 116 confidential responses fielded last summer, only 13 percent of riders with professional aspirations said they would or might dope to win the Tour de France. But Gilley's research also indicates that young cyclists become more willing to consider doping as the potential prize escalates. "Americans who sign with European teams know within two days what's going on," says Smeets, the Dutch broadcaster. "It's not just taking dope. It's deeper than that. Cheat, lie, deny, survive -- it's a way of life. The truth is always different from what seems to be the reality. I always tell my viewers, lying is permitted in cycling. It's a constitutional part of the sport. The U.S. audience has no clue.
"Last year, when CERA hit" -- CERA is third-generation EPO -- "we were expecting fans to turn against the Tour. Instead it was more popular than ever. It doesn't seem to matter."
In the States we're not much for shades of gray in our heroes. But in Europe people take their riders as they are: Wan and haggard, "for us." If doctors and drugs can help a fellow human being survive cancer, Europeans dare ask, why shouldn't doctors and drugs help one contest the world's most difficult bike race? As its most dominant rider contests the Tour de France once more, it's worth pondering not just whether we Americans want the truth, but whether we can handle the truth.