Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why should Americans Care about the Tour de France?

The obvious answer: America’s cycling pride, Lance, rides again! If he wins this will be the comeback of the century. Since he’s no spring chicken, this appeals to those who chase youth up the ever-steeper road of life. Yet, this smacks of tabloid sensationalism: it isn’t about the Tour but a Texan cyclist with an attitude. I would like to presume a deeper value for cycling’s flagship event. Under scrutiny, the idea of men with shaved legs racing in loud tight spandex being a tough sell for Americans is a caricature that fizzles like a punctured tube. Nonetheless, I want to ride away from it, providing reasons to care about the Tour for the next two weeks, and beyond. Focusing on the Tour and the sport of cycling avoids following unwise wheels that misuse our inquiry as mere means for gossipy publications, balm for existential apprehensions, or outlet for jingoist vindications.

Let’s start into the wind, facing reasons why Americans might not care. For many cycling belongs elsewhere, places where getting an apple pie slice requires the word tarte. Americans have forgotten that around 1900 cycling was the apple pie of sports in the US. They filled velodromes and bet so passionately that comparatively Vegas had the attraction of escargots for breakfast. How about the sartorially convoluted Tour classifications, with all those different jerseys and races within the race? Compared to the American “Holy Triad,” La Grande Boucle is simpler than a pacifier’s mechanism. Football’s rules are positively Byzantine, baseball’s statistics challenge mathematics Ph. D.’s, and basketball’s play-off system surpasses the Plantagenet genealogical chart’s intricacy. At the Tour all you need to know is who’s wearing yellow, determined by cumulative time. The rest are details. Well, as many sports pundits charge, in a move sure to win sophisticated readers, bikes are toys that don’t require athletic ability. To boot they question Lance’s athleticism. Like poorly laced wheels that bust a spoke on the first pothole, this shows a narrow taste in matters athletic, reveals superficial cycling knowledge, and may be evidence of the childhood resentment of slow pokes.

Time to turn around and, with the tailwind, elicit reasons to care. This year’s Tour is awash in Greek tragedy worthy drama: with only a few stages underway, crashes have maimed the peloton, including top contenders Frank Schleck and American Christian Vande Velde; the feud between Armstrong and Spaniard Alberto Contador has intensified, the plot thickening as Lance trails his nemesis by a minute after a third stage where the cobblestones played their brutal role to perfection. (Americans love an underdog, particularly one that can bark and bite, and Armstrong fits the bill now); formidable challengers Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck (Frank’s younger, more talented brother), Bradley Wiggins, and other dark horses ready to bolt ahead, vie for the throne; the “weather gods” bring plenty of fickleness; the terrain poses challenges that would make Achilles’ knees wobble; hidden hazards act as Deus ex machina, whimsically enthroning and dethroning. Truly, the winner’s hold on the yellow fleece is as tenuous as the tires’ flimsy square-inch grip. This means great sporting suspense.

To take a bicycle-eulogizing detour that connects with the Tour momentarily. Bicycles aren’t just the most efficient means of transportation but—should we follow novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch’s lead—also the most civilized. Catching Hemingway’s draft we read that we best learn the contours of a country on a bicycle as we sweat and feel every rise and drop. Besides, riding makes you sexier and smarter, as empirical research shows. While these extrinsic reasons are very nice, what makes the wheels spin is the sheer fun of pedaling a bike, one of life’s greatest yet simplest pleasures. Riding helps us connect more deeply with the Tour, and the race motivates us to pedal higher, longer, swifter. In these “lowest common denominator” days when doctors recommend minimum amounts of exercise and dietary discipline, as if low expectations ever cajoled anyone into trying harder, Tour cyclists show us the possibilities and dare us to surpass ourselves with their inspiring exertions. Americans who tune in will find themselves loving the Tour, and maybe even spinning their wheels!

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