15 June 2009

You want grits with your Dauphiné Libéré?

With the finish last Sunday of the Dauphiné Libéré, a last 8-day dress rehearsal for the Tour de France for many participants, it looks like there'll be no more TV coverage of the pro cycling season at our apartment until the Tour starts on July 4. Quel dommage.

The Dauphiné was fun to watch, with a preview of the form of some self-proclaimed Tour contenders (eg, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador) in the time trial, an exclusive view of the strengths of probable Tour persona non grata Alejandro Valverde (for suspected doping offenses), and yet another review of Evans' questionable judgement in matters tactical (allowing Alejandro Valverde to escape unchallenged on the Mont Ventoux, instead obsessively defending every attack by non-threat Jacob Fuglsang and looking to others to help reel in Valverde). As at the Giro, where Danilo Di Luca made every conceivable effort to attack eventual winner Denis Menchov after the time trial, Evans was anything but passive after yielding the leader's jersey to Valverde on the Ventoux. In fact, Evans was persistent and irksome enough to Valverde that Contador, whose mantra at the race was that he was only there as a spectator, pitched in a number of times to neutralize his attacks. And with just 16 seconds separating Valverde and Evans, the suspense ran right to the end. As Eurosport's French commentator Jackie Durand says frequently to commend a good finish, chapeau!

I don't expect the same close race among those protagonists at the Tour-- Contador never looked the least bit bothered on any of the climbs or by any of Evans' attacks, and he didn't cede nearly enough time in the time trial to Evans to make the July race between those 2 interesting. Hopefully something/somebody else will bring the spark.

As American amateur bike racers, I think we had a typical misconception about the place of bike racing, and more generally energetic cycling, in France. Aside from the peak of Armstrong Fever, it's probably fair to say that the core of bike race fans in the US is the extended bike racing community itself. Which is a pretty small group. On our limited TV coverage of bike racing in the US, though, we see the huge crowds that line the courses at races like the Tour and Paris-Roubaix. We see pictures of thousands of amateur riders doing the etape, a mountain stage of the Tour ridden on the 2nd rest day, and lots of ads for bike tour companies in the back of cycling magazines telling us how big a part of the culture cycling is in France. And so we assume that France is some kind of cycling utopia, a place where the beauty and nobility of the sport is still cherished by The People, even if not always honored by racers.

And the public is definitely more aware of cycling on several different levels here than in the States. Even the most nattily dressed commute on the city-owned and -maintained Vélib' bikes in Paris. The bike-circuit at Longchamp and the roads of the Chevreuse are lousy with gray-haired fellows on 1980s and 1990s race bikes who ride echelons more intuitively than most US racers ride pacelines. A friend of ours even watched a recumbent bike time trial, complete with standing start, at the velodrome in Bois de Vincennes (though he was the only spectator there). And obviously, with a number of French companies sponsoring pro teams, there must be enough people interested to merit considering the outlay of cash required.

But the notion that it's a national pastime, or even a dignified sport, here is misguided. Professional cycling in France is probably closest to the equivalent of NASCAR at home. Falling well behind football/soccer, and even considerably behind motor sports (which are huge here: superbike is ubiquitous on TV, and there's an array of car race classes too subtle in their differences for me to distinguish), it's more mainstream than in the States, but it's definitely a little red-necky. I think that would come as a surprise to most cyclists in America, where cycling probably has more socioeconomic overlap with golf than, say, pro wrestling.

But the red-neck association is especially true in Paris, where engaging in strenuous exercise of any kind is viewed with a whiff of aristocratic disdain. As a friend who has lived here nearly 20 years observed, sports are unifiers in the US and dividers in France (or at least Paris). In the States, Sunday's game is the subject of discussion at the water cooler for everybody from custodian to CEO. In France, with the exception perhaps of the French Open tennis tournament and the exploits of the National football team late in the World Cup tournament, those with aspirations to class (and in Paris, that's a lot of people) would avoid such banal conversation.

Suits me just fine. I'm breakin' out my "I'm with stupid" sleeveless T-shirt, gettin' a mullet haircut, and settin' a broken washer out on the balcony, jes nexta the still. We got 17 days 'til the prologue, an' I's fixin' to be ready fer it.


  1. I don't think NASCAR is quite right. Set your sights a bit lower. Maybe pro wrestling.

    There's also an age (or rather, cohort) gradient.