Continental Divide

Why cycling is viewed so differently across the pond
July 12, 2009

I was thinking of truck drivers as the Tour de France got under way this week: the European truck driver, who sees bike racers out training and invites them to grab hold of his rig for a tow; and his American counterpart, who takes pleasure in running cyclists off the road. Those responses illustrate the differences between cycling on the two sides of the Atlantic—from the sport's place in local culture to its coverage in the media to popular attitudes toward doping.

Bike racing in Europe is what boxing is in the States: a poor kid's way out. Working-class Europeans celebrate the proletarian pedigrees of champions, who suffer in their name. Pills and potions get a rider through another day of work, and a positive test carries little stigma. The code of the clan permits other corruptions; at Dutch criteriums and Belgian kermis races, riders know all along who will win. As the '60s-era racer Rudi Altig of Germany put it, "We are professional cyclists, not athletes."

In the U.S., bike racing is usually 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 Dave the Cutter did in the 1979 movie of the same name. If pro cycling is known 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 such as Yank with Shotgun Pellets in Body Overtakes Frenchman on Champs-Élysées 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 [Armstrong, who wrote the second] brought the sport into the American mainstream, and once it was there, it was entertainment," says former U.S. pro Andy Hampsten, whose career overlapped those 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."

Hate to jam a frame pump in the spokes of anyone's happy delusions, as that Team Cinzano rider did to Dave the Cutter in Breaking Away, but cyclists are on drugs. Europeans know of the positive tests, the raids and the confessions that have implicated, at some point during their careers, half of the 18 men to win the Tour since 1974. Before he died in 100° heat on a Proven√ßal hillside during the 1967 Tour with amphetamines in his bloodstream, Britain's Tom Simpson had said, "If it takes 10 to kill you, I'll take nine." Anyone who believed a rider could survive without pharmaceuticals, five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil of France pronounced in 1967, was "an imbecile or a hypocrite."

Because so many U.S. pros are romantics who leave a puritanical culture to compete in Europe, they rarely traffic in such candor. Consider two caught doping during the past decade, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis. Both tried to exculpate themselves with pseudoscientific theories, cloying websites (ibelieveintyler.org, floydfairnessfund.com) and denials so convoluted that, by Continental lights, each man appeared to be an imbecile and a hypocrite. The case of Armstrong is more complicated: Having never been caught out by a sanctioned and contemporaneous positive test, his innocence has a trusty invokability. But weighing circumstantial evidence, assembled on the Continent and largely ignored or dismissed in the U.S., Europeans lump him in with the rest of the professional peloton. In keeping with the spirit of a 2005 j'accuse in the French sports daily L'Equipe titled THE ARMSTRONG LIE, they regard him as—well, not an imbecile, anyway.

Americans would say Armstrong is indomitable and results-oriented—one of us. "To ride in a beautiful, clever way is distinctly Italian," says Brian Gilley, an anthropologist at the University of Vermont who studies the sport. "The French notion is that there is courage in suffering. The Belgians are obsessed with toughness: It's O.K. not to win as long as you finish." Leave it to the unrepentant American to reserve for himself the just win, baby attitude, which has left him unloved on the Continent and despised in France. Armstrong never was a geeky romantic; he's what you'd get if you were to lock a Texas high school football coach in a lab with orders to create a pro racer. What makes Armstrong different—what has made him a seven-time winner of the Tour, when you get right down to it—is that, out training in Texas, he would flip those truck drivers the bird.

If doctors and drugs can help a fellow human being beat cancer, Europeans dare ask, why shouldn't doctors and drugs help one contest the world's most difficult bike race? Armstrong is as remorselessly professional a rider as ever there was, and I suspect that if he were administered that most meaningful drug of all, sodium pentothal, he would tap into his inner Euro and say much the same thing. Now that he's returned to the Tour de France after three years away, it's worth pondering whether we Americans will cling contentedly to our Hollywood story lines or, accepting a European sport on European terms, give Pollyanna the month off.

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For more from Alexander Wolff on cycling in the U.S. and Europe, go to SI.com/bonus

Working-class Europeans celebrate riders' PROLETARIAN PEDIGREES.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)