The Tour de France is winding up this weekend and people all over America are talking about something else.
Well, there's more interest than usual because of Lance Armstrong's quest to tie a record by winning for the fifth straight time, but the Tour is hardly Topic A on the downtown bus. I've had several plaintive e-mails this week from readers wondering why anyone cares about Kobe Bryant when they could be paying attention to Armstrong. "Where is the buzz over this truly inspiring universal (who hasn't ridden a bicycle?) sport?" one reader asked.
It's gotten me thinking about why the Tour de France, such a massive sports story in Europe, doesn't connect with Americans. There are certainly pockets of interest, as I learned when I wrote in January that Armstrong was not a deserving 2002 Sportsman of the Year because all he accomplished was winning "one race in a sport so obscure that most Americans can't even name another of its events, and so limited that its skill set can be described thusly: pedaling fast and not falling over." I was exaggerating for a laugh, though I stand by the basic sentiment.
If my extensive, sometimes heated (on their end) conversations with the tight-black-shorts set are any indication, many of them seem to believe that people who don't like their sport are too dumb to understand it, or that our tiny little American attention spans prevent us from appreciating its beauty and wonder. Failing to get interested in the Tour de France is seen as a shortcoming, a sort of personality flaw. I find that a lot of soccer fans have a similar view of their sport. And to be fair, so do a lot of my fellow baseball fans. If you don't like it, it's because you're not sophisticated enough to comprehend it.
I don't think so. I think the Tour de France leaves Americans cold because it is almost perfectly antithetical to the American character.
Much is made of the gentlemanly, almost courtly sportsmanship in cycling. On Monday American Tyler Hamilton motioned for the peloton, the lead pack, to slow down and wait for Armstrong and Spaniard Iban Mayo after they'd both crashed. German Jan Ullrich, Armstrong's closest rival, was among those who waited. Armstrong later praised Ullrich as "an honorable guy" who remembered that Armstrong had done the same for him two years ago.
On Thursday, Armstrong and Ullrich entered into a sort of truce. The American led by 1:07 going into the two sprint stages Thursday and Friday. Armstrong is hoping to clinch the race in Saturday's time trial, though if Ullrich can stay close, it might come down to the last stage on Sunday. Both riders hung back Thursday, finishing in exactly the same time. They were expected to do the same Friday, then get back to battling each other Saturday.
It's all very sporting and civilized and everything, and while I find that sort of cooperation heartwarming and admirable, it's also as foreign to me as a Martian soil sample.
If I'm Ullrich, and I'm 67 seconds behind with four days to make up that time, I'm not giving up two of those days. I don't know anyone who would. Especially since Armstrong has never lost that final Saturday time trial since he started winning this thing.
It sounds nice, riding together, agreeing not to bust out of the pack to try to gain an advantage, but dude, if I can make up even 10 seconds today and 10 tomorrow, I'm only 47 seconds down going into that all-important time trial. I'll take my chances. Maybe without a truce Armstrong would blow me away -- in which case why is he agreeing to hang back? -- but at least I'd go down fighting.
And when my closest rival hits the deck and has to spend a minute getting untangled from that spectator who got in his way, well, sorry pal, but I'm turning on the jets.
I don't think I'm a bad guy. I think I'm in the absolute dead-center mainstream of American thought here. This is the national character speaking. I think that down in our bones, most of us can't fathom this business of gentlemanliness and sportsmanship. For better or worse, here's the American way to compete: Try to knock the other guy down, and if you succeed, put your boot on his neck and keep it there until he cries uncle.
And if you see his wallet while he's down there, take it.
Sportsmanship means helping him up after you've cleaned his clock. Before then, it can be summed up in these three words: Don't cheat blatantly.
There are other reasons why the Tour de France doesn't fly here. It's too long and too hard to follow, and there isn't enough exciting action -- this year is particularly dramatic because Armstrong and Ullrich might actually be racing to the finish on Sunday. What a concept! And though there are crashes, they pale in comparison to the firepower of NASCAR crashes.
There's also a caste system that I think Americans, when they even realize it exists, bridle at. You wouldn't know it without paying fairly close attention to the coverage, but Armstrong is part of a team, and not in the sense that auto racers front a car owner's "team." There are other riders in the race who are Armstrong's teammates, but they're not there to compete for the lead. Their job is to help him win through various strategic maneuvers.
But when he does, the headlines don't read, "U.S. Postal Service team wins again! Armstrong the star!" They read, "Lance Armstrong wins!" Those other guys are important, indispensable, but anonymous. They're called "domestiques," for heaven's sake. There's no corollary in American sports. John Elway or Tim Duncan might be the clear hero of the championship team, but those other guys celebrating at the final whistle are champions just the same. It's not Duncan alone on the podium. The cover of your favorite sports magazine doesn't say, "Tim Duncan wins again!"
Americans care about Lance Armstrong because he's a celebrity. He's a great story, a cancer survivor who's a magnificent champion. But we don't care about him as an athlete. When his run ends, the Tour de France will lose most of what little interest it holds in this country until or unless another American rises up to dominate it. I think that's neither a good or bad thing, but just the way things are.
It just doesn't speak to us.
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