Withdrawal Symptoms

The Tour is over.

Is life really worth living anymore?

Sure, there is this Ironman training thing going on, and that will be sort of epic, I guess.  And yeah, there is this thing called the Olympics starting up soon which is supposed to be some kind of sporting Big Deal.  But none of it measures up to the Tour de France.

Now I enjoy the sight of bulimic women in hormonally arrested pre-pubescence swinging around poles. . .er, I mean bars. . .as much as the next person.  The Olympics also has its own predicable but compelling dramas (which US soccer team will show up, for example?  The Major League one?  Or the Bush League version?).  It also has its own equally predictable non-compelling dramas (I can’t fathom why anyone watches the men’s basketball competition, for example).

But it is not the Tour.

There are a lot of reasons why I personally find the Tour de France fascinating, elements of it that may not be visible to a novice watcher.  There is, for example, the often bizarre skeins of etiquette, tradition, and integrity that define the behavior of the athletes and which riders violate at their peril.  Riders who are stage winners on one day are seen humbly shuttling water bottles up to their team leader the next day.  You don’t attack the Yellow Jersey if he suffers a mechanical incident (unless your name is Contador or, this year, Rolland) .  Teams cooperate to help one another chase down breakaways and then try to crush one another at the end: nature red in sprocket and crank.

To talk about integrity in a sport that is defined for many by its recurrent doping scandals probably strikes most people as odd.  But that is simply because their own sporting spectatorship exists in a world of denial facilitated by organizational laxity and malfeasance.  Take a look at the examples of improbable musculature that line up on the start-line of the 100m, or the even more improbable tubs of lard that can nevertheless sprint like gazelles that form the offensive line of your average NFL team.  Not doping?  Really?  OK, then I have a bridge whose sale might be to our mutual advantage. . .

There’s also a refreshing honesty about the multinational makeup of professional cycling.  Sure, there are nominally “American” teams and “French” teams and “Italian” teams but that refers only to where they are headquartered; the teams (with the partial exception of Euskatel) tend to be explicitly cross-national.  A team can include an Aussie team leader, and riders from Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, and the US.  The Olympics is all a little bit fake in that regard (as fake as international soccer).  All kind of official jiggery pokery is routinely practiced to ensure that people who have lived all their lives in a hamlet in Belorus are magically transformed into US citizens in time to compete for their new country.   There’s nothing wrong with this, of course: the business of modern sports is global just like any other kind of business.  The Tour doesn’t feel any need to pretend that this isn’t so, however, while the Olympics clings to a fiction of national identity and patriotism.

But the thing I’ve grown to appreciate about the tour (and it took me a while, I’ll be honest) is simply that it is a different kind of spectacle.  This was brought home for me in a recent  Bicycling magazine article by Hampton Sides, called “Life’s Rich Pageant.”  In 2011 he followed the Tour, not so much the drama of the ride itself, but in order to understand why people go to watch it in person.  The crowds following the Tour de France are one of its most obvious features when you are watching on television.  As he notes, there are a lot of sports spectacles that claim to be the “most watched” (Olympic, Football World Cup), but the Tour has a pretty good claim to be at the top of the heap.  In addition to television audiences that rival (I’ll leave it to others to debate the validity of the respective numbers) the other spectacles, there were an estimated 12 million people who lined the roadsides of the 2011 Tour.  The inhabitants of tiny villages in France will labor for weeks, tourists from all over the world will camp out on one of the fabled climbs for days, simply to see less than 200 (and this year, by the second week, that number was much less) riders whiz by in a matter of seconds.

If you’ve watched any TV coverage of the mountain stages, you know that these scenes look crazy.  Dense walls of humanity pressing in on the riders, leaving barely enough room to ride through (and sometimes not enough).  People are screaming polyglot encouragement, wearing crazy costumes, waving enormous flags like toreador capes that dangle in front of riders and then are deftly wafted across their backs at the last second.  As a veteran sports journalist, what struck Sides immediately was that compared with other sporting events he’d been to, these groups of people living together in improvised communities were extraordinarily well-behaved and respectful of one another.  Despite being sandwiched between, he notes, a group of “drunk Germans and some even drunker Brits,” the striking fact was that “For all the revelry, I saw no fights, no vomit and little in the way of gross overindulgence.”  Compare that with tailgate culture in the US.  Or better still, the post-game show (think of how Terps fans react when they lose a big game. . .or when they win one for that matter).

There’s a moment for Sides, on the slopes of the storied Tourmalet, amidst this crazy, heaving mass of humanity, when the Peloton blasts past:

As they whooshed through , I found myself standing on the road’s edge, cheering with unexpected abandon, alongside everyone else.  Cheering for what?  I couldn’t quite say. . . .Whatever it was, the emotion of it took me by surprise.  As a journalist and historian, trained to be disinterested, I’m not used to being swept up in such moments.  I sensed the racers drew as much from the crowd’s encouraging presence as we did from their supernatural feats.  The faith on display here–the faith that people will be respectful in the face of human striving, the faith that athletes can be presented to their fans with this sort of intimacy–touched me.  Somewhere in the back of all the screaming and crying and drinking there was a sense of piety.

Piety.  Respect.  Intimacy.  This, for me, gets at the core of the very different kind of spectating the Tour invites.  This seems to me very different from the kind of spectatorship which accompanies other events.  If I think about watching a basketball game live, or a soccer game live?  Arrogance.  Entitlement.  But above all, distance.  This is what Sides concludes (rightly, I think) is what draws millions to line the roadsides of the Tour.  For this particular sport, these are the top athletes in the world; they are megastars.  In virtually no other context are even a few spectators, much less millions, allowed to be literally within touching distance of what are, from the business end of things, pieces of extremely expensive and hard to replace sports machinery.  That is what Sides means by respect.

Do accidents happen?  Of course.  Veteran tour watchers will remember Marcus Burghardt hitting a dog and crumpling his front wheel like a crepe while leaving the dog uninjured (but looking decidedly embarrassed).  Or Lance Armstrong snagging the strap of a spectator’s purse and going down (of course, now that Armstrong’s reputation seems poised to undergo a reversal of the magnitude usually reserved for Latin American dictators in the wake of a coup this incident will probably be re-written as Armstrong trying to snatch the woman’s purse).  But what is truly remarkable, given the raw numbers, is how rarely these events happen.  Crashes and injuries abound in the tour, but very few of them are caused by spectators impinging upon the route.

It is also true that at times the riders themselves seem to find the craziness all a little much.  This year Thomas Voeckler in particular seemed to be making a career out of swatting and dope-slapping running spectators like a jumped-up hall monitor.  The venerable team of Liggett and Sherwin at times also felt the need to get seriously censorious with the activities of the crowd in the kind of schoolmarmish prissiness that only the Brits seem to be able to carry off without losing all credibility.  Why is it that so many fans seem to feel compelled to run alongside the riders, arguably putting both runner and rider at risk?

It is tempting to blame the obvious culprit here: the presence of television.  The people aren’t running for the riders or even themselves, but just to get themselves on TV.  Nothing defines our modern reality as much as the feeling that we aren’t fully real unless we’ve appeared on video: either performing some stupid stunt off the roof of your garage that a brain-damaged lemming would hesitate to undertake, or filming yourself having improbably acrobatic and soullessly mechanical sex.  There’s a terrible existential despair at the heart of this impulse: we can’t prove to ourselves that we exist, that we were even here in this world unless there is video evidence, a desperate hope that time’s winged chariot can be held at a safe distance by a camcorder.

But I’m not convinced that this kind of exuberant excess is any more prevalent now than it has been in former years.  There’s a good reason that Sides reaches for the language of faith in trying to describe what he witnessed:

I now realized that the huge crowds show up for the Tour not so much to see it as to partake: Almost as much as the racers themselves, they’re active participants, extras in a drama that moves beyond sport into other, higher realms–into questions of motivation and powers of will, into age-old mysteries of the spirit and flesh.

Speaking of mysteries, this also helps to explain why something that is as crazy popular oversees as professional cycling has only a tiny foothold in the popular imagination and marketplace here in the US.  Because there is something not very American about the entire spectacle, and about the athletes that are its objects of worship.  Americans are passionately in love with their team sports, but the irony is that they are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of teamwork.  Their greatest love is reserved for the individual stars–the stand-out wide receiver, the crazy talented point guard–and the brasher, the more assertively individualistic, the better.  In this kind of culture, most professional cyclists just suck.  They are lousy interview subjects, by and large.  Many of them are barely articulate (even though many of necessity speak at least a couple of languages) in public.  They come across as visibly uncomfortable with the public spotlight, and even the most polite among them give abundant evidence of barely tolerating interviews.  Even when they’ve just completed a killer mountain stage that has left them broken in body and spirit, they clearly would much rather be riding their bikes, and can’t wait to get back to doing that.  Even the best in the business seem to lack even the most rudimentary skills of self-promotion that every US athlete (regardless of talent level) seems to develop while still in middle-school.  Hence the mild flap this year about whether or not Peter Sagan was too brash and demonstrative in his finish line celebrations (which still came across as models of restraint compared with your average touch-down dance).

I’m left thinking about the final word in Sides’ trinity: piety.  “Pious” has unfortunate stuffy connotations, but those may themselves be the product of a society that adjudges it a cardinal sin not to keep pushing yourself forward at every opportunity.  Piety requires reticence.  Yet it is also, as Sides implies, the point at which the worlds of the pro peloton and the crazy fans coincide.  For rider and fan alike, there is glory in being, as Sides puts it, an “extra.”  Among the riders, Hincapie, Voigt, O’Grady, Popovich, among many others, are valued precisely as “domestiques,” team-players whose job is to sacrifice everything for their team leader and work tirelessly in the background.  For the crowds too, Sides tells us, there is magic and even surprising fulfillment in not being the main event, but rather the supporting cast that frames a spectacle of suffering, overcoming, and triumph.


4 responses to “Withdrawal Symptoms

  1. Brilliant wordsmithery. Well thought out. I love the part about Lance and the purse snatching event. I’m a subscriber. Keep up the good work.

  2. Absolutely agree 100%. And I was addicted to Tour watching well before I thought about buying a bike (did it contribute? Maybe need a shrink for that?)
    Few things to contribute….
    1. You may not have watched those gymnasts lately, but they actually have shoulders as broad as linebackers, and boobs that look more like pecs.
    2. You forgot to mention all the Olympic athletes representing other countries, that train in the US!
    3. My memorable Tour fall recovery was the journalist car that hit a rider (was it Hincapie) who ended in a barbed wire fence, got up and continued on. The Lance purse snatching was a great laugh, and makes me want to hear your position on all the scandals about blood transfusions.
    From down under the equator this week,

    • You know, when I was watching the Olympic trials (and for women’s gymnastics, with one notable standout, they were not encouraging), I thought the same thing as you. Then they went and stood next to normal women. And the US women look like big strapping lasses compared to the paper-thin waifs from other countries (I swear that China and the former soviet Bloc have perfected the art of Bonsai for humans).

      Yes, I know the crash you mean, from last year. That was Johnny Hoogerland who got up close and personal with the barbed wire.

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