Don't Say "American" Like It's A Bad Thing

Apr 2 2011

USA USA USA by Mingo HagenDespite—and in many ways, because of—my immersion in American culture, I am well aware of its many dislikable aspects. Conspicuous consumption. An increasingly embarrassing income gap. The wholesale embrace of opinion without the discomfort of thought on both ends of the political spectrum. But what I simply do not understand is profound toxicity of the American brand in the upper echelons of European cycling.

I get the fatigue aspect—seven Tour wins, the cynics, the comeback, chair you’re sitting on, etc. Anyone who denies a touch of eye glaze around 2004 or so clearly isn’t a cycling fan. But time after time, when one European cycling group seeks to discredit another, the American card is one of the first played.

When laying out his arguments against the ProTour back in 2005, ASO President Patrice Clerc told Cyclingnews that “The second issue on which we disagree [with the UCI – ed.] is on a sporting level. We cannot conceive that a European sports system should be founded on an American, closed model.”

As far as I can tell, Clerc’s criticism was simply about a lack of any promotion/relegation system within the nascent league. And while it’s true that no major American sports use such a system, it’s not a particularly specific description. One could just as easily interpret “American, closed model” as a profit-shared, salary-capped, free-agent system that gives even the most historically woeful squads a decent shot at a title each season.

More recently, UCI President Pat McQuaid attempted to paint a potential breakaway league with the American brush. “It is only in the American-style sports where you have professional leagues…where the money just revolves around the group of people who are involved in it,” said McQuaid, elaborating that “a certain amount of greed” was driving the split.

While more descriptive than his counterpart at the ASO, McQuaid’s additional specificity is a bit of an Achilles’ Heel. Yes, major sports leagues in the US make an obscene amount of money, and yes, most of that goes to a very small group of people. But the riches of Croesus allow a certain independence; the NFL doesn’t circle the wagons around a superstar when allegations arise. And while US sport are way, way behind on drug testing, standards, and enforcement, athlete donations still won’t suppress a positive result anytime soon.

McQuaid cites the donation of six used bicycles from each ProTour team to “developing countries” as an example of the UCI’s commitment to helping the entire sport; I find myself wondering if this is before or after they were sold for drugs.

Johan Bruyneel by Dave StromIn all seriousness, though, American sports leagues and their extremely well-compensated athletes drop massive amounts of coin on first-world and third-world problems alike. I don’t generally subscribe to the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, but arguing that the ostensible lack of profit motive somehow makes the “European” system more altruistic than the “American” one is patently ridiculous.

The fact is that what cycling needs right now is more Americanness. Take Johan Bruyneel—Belgian, steeped in cycling, widely regarded as one of the more effective directors in recent memory. But for all his past successes, he’s a creature of embarrassing habit—he knows one way and one way alone to win a bike race, and his record at the classics—and at the 2010 Tour de France—illustrate this plainly.

When asked about his role in a possible breakaway league by the Belgian press, the Bruyneel said “Cycling is a very difficult sport for television. In the first ten stages of the Tour de France…there is just nothing to see. This is how it is.”

The chaos of the Ardennes stage at last year’s Tour? The drama over the cobbles at mini-Roubaix? “Nothing to see”. In Bruyneel’s mind, the TdF model was set in 2002: the first week will always be dull, the best rest day refill will always determine the winner.

Contrast this with Jonathan Vaughers—an American who, by his own admission, came up through the ranks getting slaughtered on teams that discouraged doping, before taking a stellar Dauphine win on Mt. Ventoux that “answered a lot of questions”.

For some reason, the obvious lesson of this experience—that doping wins bike races—was lost on the American, and he went on to build one of the better squads in the world on the lunatic notion that cyclists don’t need to do drugs. He’s currently agitating for cycling to take full advantage of its commercial potential.

It’s this willingness to reinvent that cycling needs. American sports, for all their closed, oligarchical aspects, have continually refined themselves, tweaking rules, regulations, and culture as new developments arise. Consensus attitude in Europe seems to be that things are the way they are and cannot be changed, even if it’s a matter of survival.

Decades of the status-quo “European” style oversight has given cycling a fantastic historical appeal. But the difference between classic and antique is rooted in utility—a system that no longer meets the needs of its users will invariably find itself shelved in favor of one that can. And unless the sport realizes this, and allows itself to acquire some of the aspects that have made American sports so successful, cycling will increasing find itself on the sidelines, gathering dust.

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15 Responses to “Don't Say "American" Like It's A Bad Thing”

  1. Doug Page 2 April 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    I certain Euro circles the American bogeyman is trotted out regularly, just as, here in America, certain segments of our society never tire of using the Euro model as their bogeyman. On both sides of the Atlantic, throw-away reflections on “the other” are usually a smokescreen for an agenda.

  2. Doug Page 2 April 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    That’s supposed to say “In certain Euro circles….”

  3. Matt Rose 2 April 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    It’s funny that Bruyneel and McQuaid think so poorly of “American” sports leagues when, if they’re looking for sports leagues with obscenely paid athletes, and obscenely rich owners, they only have to look at national soccer leagues like the English Premier League, and the Italian Serie A to see some of the richest people in the world owning teams, and players like Wayne Rooney, and Ronaldo getting paid obscene amounts of money.

    Or does “American” just stand for everything that they don’t like in sports?

  4. Jan 2 April 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    @ Matt: you’re right, the English, Italian and Spanish football (or soccer) leagues do have some obsecenely rich owners. However, I doubt that even Rooney or Ronaldo have been paid anything close to the $87 million which Kobe Bryant earned for three years… so I guess the amounts of money being paid are even more obscene in US sports, at least in some cases.

  5. Evan Skow 2 April 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Patently false, as even the laziest googling would prove. Cristiano Ronaldo went to Real Madrid for $131M, e.g, and Torres just went to Chelsea for $80M with a contract that expires in 2013. Beckham, Ronaldo, and Messi all made more in 2010 than Kobe. Roberto Baggio was the highest paid athlete in the world in the mid-90s. The only athletes that make more money than soccer players and ballers are golfers and F1 drivers (and, like, Roger Federer).

  6. drfrot 2 April 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Cosmo. Thanks for writing such consistently good shit.

  7. Jan 3 April 2011 at 2:27 am #

    Sorry Evan, but you are the one who is wrong here. Cristiano Ronaldo went to Madrid for $131M, that is true – but those were not paid to him, but to his former club Manchester United as a transfer fee, not as salary. According to several internet sources, he earns roughly $25M a year INCLUDING personal sponsorship, which is still well short of Bryant, who earns $29M PLUS personal sponsorship. Messi might be the only one getting close to Bryant, but I doubt that.

    However, this is not the point of the discussion and I’m sorry for going off-topic again.

  8. CG 3 April 2011 at 8:18 am #

    I think American sports are organized as a professional entertainment business whereas the UCI would rather keep cycling organized as an amateur cultural enterprise. It’s not, of course, but that seems to be McQuaid’s favorite model.

  9. Will 3 April 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    I seem to recall that UCI’s letter declining Landis’ request for the bank guarantee after his team folded also played the your-american-style-lawyer-tactics-won’t-get-anywhere-with-us attitude. Definitely not a professional approach—childish actually… So yes, there is a pattern here. Good on you Cyclocosm for pointing this out.

  10. Larry T. 7 April 2011 at 9:57 am #

    Can someone name an American big-time pro sports league that a) tests the players for doping to WADA standards AND meaningfully sanctions those caught cheating b) fairly distributes the revenue among the players, owners and sponsors c) lets fans enjoy the show at no charge, simply by showing up? This is the kind of fantasy those who advocate turning pro cycling over to solely-for-profit organizations harbor, but it’s just a fantasy. The UCI needs to be blown up and rebuilt in order to root out the corruption, but handing the whole pro cycling scene to an NFL, NBA, MLB, F1, WWE, etc. type organization would be a huge step backwards.

  11. SLC 15 April 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Larry T., you are right when talking about major league sports in the United States. They will never ever submit to WADA type of testing. That goes for both labor (players) and management (owners). This is never more evident than in the NFL. The owners want to protect their investments in high paid players, especially since the league is going to an 18 game season.The physical punishment that players take on a weekly bases means that they will have to use PED’s such as HGH in order to recover and be ready to play on Sunday. In fact it is widely held that this in encouraged by the owners. In fact this very topic has been talked about on ESPN in conection with the on-going player lockout. I also agree with you on your opinion of blowing up the UCI but I also think that moving towards a more “American” model of organization wouldn’t be all that bad. One thing it would do is establish a strong rider union who would have more of a say in how things are done. It would give the riders barginning leverage which could also raise the minimum salary for entry level riders and domestics. Another benefit is an establishment of guranteed contracts for the riders that go beyond the standard two years. I believe this would do more to fight the use of doping than anything else because a rider would be secure and not have to worry about getting results right away. They would have peace of mind and the temptation to dope in order to secure a new contract would be taken away. Just my 2 cents. Sorry for such a lengthy post. Carry on.

  12. Farmer Dave 15 April 2011 at 10:20 am #

    I am with SLC on this one. Very thought provoking. I do like the contract extension idea as well.

  13. Daniel 20 April 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Let me just touch on one topic here that Cosmo brings up so well.

    There are 18 protour teams, or whatever the hell they’re called now.
    Each team donates six bicycles. I’m no good at math, so I plugged it into my calculator. And that makes 108 bikes.

    Sounds nice, but how many people are there in these “developing countries?” And is a used carbon frame really a practical choice?

    Come now, McQuaid. Really.

  14. Mambru 24 May 2011 at 3:55 am #

    Lol, american faggots cant ride, get back to cows rednecks

  15. cycling clothing 18 September 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    It’s this willingness to reinvent that cycling needs.

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