sometimes you have to stop and smell the chamois butter

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

what's wrong with US?

Bob Roll has written, "Any 7-year-old Flemish schoolchild knows 100 times more about cycling than all Americans combined."   Let's face it, Europe in general is crazy about cycling.  Countries, cities, and families have all been divided because of a favored rider.  Italy has Bartali versus Coppi, a debate that is still going on today.  The French have Anquetil and Poulidor.  The Swiss have Kubler and Koblet.  The Belgians have Roger de Vlaeminck and of course, Eddy Merckx.  European fans pack the roadside of every grand tour and spring classic, hoping to get a glimpse of their favorite rider. 
And this may beg the question - who is Bob Roll?  Well, Bob used to be a pro-cyclist who went to Europe in the 80's, lived in a tent and wrote poetry on the sidewalls of his tires.  He eventually got picked up by Seven Eleven, the first American team to win stages in the Giro and the Tour.  Roll was racing beside the likes of Ron Kiefel, Davis Phinney, Eric Heiden, Jeff Bradley, Tom Schuler, Greg Demgen, Bradley Davies, Roger Young and Danny Van Haute all hailing from the U.S..  And you probably don't recognize any of these names either. 
But I'm guessing that Greg Lemond might ring a bell.  Rolling alongside the Seven Eleven squad, Lemond gained notoriety by taking a first American victory in the 1986 Tour de France, after battling it out with his own teammate Bernard Hinault.  Then in 1989 after recovering from a near-fatal hunting accident, he repeated, beating Frenchman Laurent Fignon by a mere 8 seconds in the final time trial.  I remember watching the final stage unfold, glued to the edge of my seat.  And for once, it seemed like at least some of the country was watching as well.  Sports Illustrated featured Lemond as the Sportsman of the Year cover boy and ABC Sports voted him Athlete of the year.  In 1990 he won a third Tour de France, keeping U.S. cycling on the map.  He continued to race until 1994, then quietly retired from the pro ranks.
And then came Lance.
So much has been said about him that I don't even know where to begin.
My first look at Lance was in the 1992 Summer Olympics.  I screamed at him through the television as he watched the break go.  They were too far in, I thought, there's no way he's going to bridge back up.  And like that his fate was sealed.  No medal and a permanent black mark on his record for not listening to me.  My opinion of our "new rising star"  had been wavered.  I am aware that basing my opinion on one race lacks rationality, but the damage was done.
My interest in road racing was waning while Lance was launching his attack.  He was winning Tours, beating cancer and becoming a media darling.  His persona quickly eclipsed that of Lemond and he was becoming a household name.  His Livestrong campaign started a wristband craze.   He was on the road to winning seven Tours.  And sides were being taken.
Whether you are for or against Lance, chances are you have an opinion and that is a beautiful thing.  A cyclist becoming a household name in the United States is a rarity.  Somewhere along the way, we have pushed aside the notion of cycling as a sport.  Maybe Americans lack the grit and the passion to inspire the country.  After all, the guy who has the record for Tour de France wins is from the U.S., but what other races has he won.   Focusing on one race is drive.  Turning yourself inside out in every single race you do is called passion. 
Lance recently announced he was retiring - again.  Clouded by accusations of doping and a federal investigation underway, he continues to stand in the media spotlight.  I just wonder how many teenagers have been inspired to follow in his cleats.

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