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A Bicycle Built For None

Riders in the 2014 Tour de France.
Image of competitors in the 2014 Tour de France

America to the Tour de France: “Bicycles? Is that all you got?” (Source: http://www.letour.com/us/)

The 2015 Tour de France begins this weekend–but you already knew that, being the ardent velo-racing fan that you are.

I kid, of course. We’re Americans, and we don’t care one bit about the Tour de France. But I can’t help wondering: why don’t we like the Tour de France more than we actually do?

Let’s get something out of the way first: no, we really don’t care about the Tour. You can safely gauge what Americans care about by checking what we’re watching on TV, and for the world’s biggest bicycle race, the verdict is nearly unanimous. NBC Sports Network’s live coverage of last year’s Tour averaged 283,000 viewers, which was actually a 12% jump from 2013 coverage.

Impressive, no? Actually, no. To put that in perspective, a recent ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game between the Giants and Dodgers drew 1.4 million viewers–and that was almost a season low. Think about that: a mid-regular season baseball game drew five times as many viewers as coverage of another sport’s premier event. And baseball, remember, is the traditional major sport that constantly lives under dire warnings about how much TV audience it keeps losing. The numbers are clear: much as “nobody rides the bus” in L.A., nobody watches the Tour de France.

That’s curious, because in many ways, the Tour seems like it should do much better with the American viewing public.

Yes, the Tour is a foreign sporting event, and we’re not so wild about foreigners, but it takes place in France, which remains the world’s top tourist destination (per 2013 figures, latest available). You’d think that watching coverage of the Tour, with all those visuals of places like Normandy and the South of France, would do in a pinch for armchair tourists, if not actual cycling fans.

Picture of Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong, Tour de France winner, but… (Source: www.biography.com)

And while we may not like foreigners, we sure like winners, and the U.S. has seen its share of success in the Tour. True, a great deal of that success was achieved by Lance Armstrong, and he has become substantially less popular than once upon a time–but I’m not sure that should matter so much. After all, the current adventures of Alex Rodriguez in New York seem to finally close the door on whether or not Americans are really put off by PED users. (Spoiler alert: we’re not.) Besides, Greg LeMond won the thing three times, and stayed clean all the way.

Plus, lots of us non-professionals like cycling, too. As a regular rider myself, I can attest to bicycling’s popularity, as an activity if not a sport. In fact, so many people like cycling that the trails near my home get clogged with two-wheeled traffic every sunny weekend afternoon. And many of those cyclists hop onto the saddle all decked out with the full Touring ensemble–form-fitting shirts and shorts, wraparound shades, custom helmets, and various other accoutrements that would not look out of place during a Tour stage in the Pyrenees. (That’s how it is here in California; perhaps folks in other parts of the country aren’t quite as into it. Literally, your “mileage” may vary.) Much as local softball league members will go home and watch MLB, and those playing hoops on the playground courts like checking out the NBA, you’d think some of those dress-the-part cyclists would show a little more interest in the Tour de France.

But they don’t. Despite personal cycling participation, a history of winning (one way or another), and terrific television visuals (including those occasional, spectacular 15 bike wipeouts), Americans aren’t into the Tour de France. Why?

The deterrents–foreignness (including time zone issues), cheating scandals, and other viewing options–all block interest to a certain extent, but I think there’s a bigger issue at work here–something that tells us a lot about the psyche of the American sports fan.

For one thing, we’re not all that big on individual sports anymore. Tennis and golf have both gone into fairly steep declines in recent years; few Americans compete at the top levels of tennis anymore, and golf is dealing with the reckoning that comes from having been warped by fifteen years of the Tiger Woods marketing machine. Little wonder, then, that our attention has turned more towards team sports.

And what team sports do we like best? By far, football and basketball. The former could best be described as an industrial PED farm, the latter relies for its participants upon a top percentile of physical specimens, a characteristic that reaches its apotheosis in the form of the nearly superhuman LeBron James.

Indeed, I use the term “superhuman” purposely, because I think that gets to the heart of the matter. We as a nation have reached a point where it takes something above and beyond the mere human to entertain us.

Consider recent trends in movies. Almost every film that does huge business these days is a superhero movie, a story that features beings whose abilities go so far above and beyond what the normal people watching the movie can do that it takes legions of effects artist, powerful computers, and hundreds of millions of dollars to make it all come to life.

Picture of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) from Thor: The Dark World

Thor: winner, Tour of Asgard. (Source: www.comicvine.com)

That trend towards admiration–indeed, adulation–of beings akin to gods has bled over from movies into the world of sports. The monsters who stomp around the football field, the titans of the NBA (many of whom are foreigners, so strike that objection off the list), the former behemoths of baseball’s steroids era–all are products of our seemingly insatiable appetite for superhuman feats to keep ourselves entertained.

Compared with J.J. Watt murderously sacking a quarterback or LeBron throwing down a monster dunk, how can a mere bicycle race seem like anything worth our time and attention? I mean, any of us can ride a bike; few of us can play in the NFL or NBA, and what some do to achieve the physical wherewithal to play those leagues should give us all something to think about.

Does mean we should stop watching superhero movies? No, not necessarily, though we might want to be a little choosier about which ones we see. (Sorry, Ant-Man.)

But we might want to look in the mirror and consider what it means–what the consequences are–for always wanting bigger, faster, stronger, more. The costs to credibility, reputations, and historical context–not to mention physical manglings, including traumatic brain injuries–that grow out of our desire to watch Herculean athletics come directly from the demands we place on our sports heroes. Our favorite sports, in short, are what we make them–and lately, we’ve been making some messes.

Given all we’ve seen these last few years, perhaps taking in a good bike race while admiring the French countryside might not be such a bad option. The Tour might be more than just good exercise for the riders; watching it may be a good exorcising for our minds, and a healthier option all around.

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