Despite—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.
In 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.