(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)
Yeah, I’m back. needed a little post-Giro, post-How-the-Race-Was-Won vacation, to cool the engines, ride my bike to Montauk, not get fired from my day job, and—oh yeah, sleep, which is, for the record, what I am not doing now.
Let’s start by going back, way back—back before NBC Universal was called Versus, when cycling was an incongruous block in a non-stop stream of redneck infotainment called the Outdoor Life Network. The sport appeared there because some point, OLN bought the US rights to the Tour—either 1999 or 2001, depending on if you believe NBC Sports’ Wikipedia page or the New York Times (yes, that is a serious question)—I can’t really say because I didn’t start watching until 2002.
And apparently I wasn’t alone. More and more people were watching. History was being made. Three tours? Lance was only the second American to do that. Four—eh, I mean, that’s pretty good. Five was a record and all, but it was really close—so six would be huge. And of course, the ever-escalating celebrity of the man himself—dating rock stars, rumors of a movie in the works, and of course, those yellow wristbands—about 80 million dollars worth—on the arm of basically every public figure on Earth.
In 2004 OLN went big for the Tour. Really big. I mean, we’re talking Inland Empire, subprime ARM, buy-now-or-be-priced-out-forever–big. They hired that guy who used to be cool from all those badass movies by that other guy who used to be cool and put together “The Cyclysm”. The marketing firm that executed the project actually has a pretty stellar set of documentation on the effort, and in hindsight it was kind of awesome to see cycling get so much exposure.
But we—and by “we” I mean, the cycling fans on the Internet, who were legion even than—hated it. I know everyone knows about trolls and the aimless destructive rage of comments sections these days, but back then, it was worse. Imagine an internet where baby sloth videos and LOLcats are replaced by crummy forum software and browsers that crash every 15 minutes. Plus Facebook hadn’t convinced all the normal people to go online yet, so basically, everyone there was pissed off and bitter 100% of the time.
And granted, there were some things to be pissed about. Like The Lance Chronicles—that detailed Lance’s busy, exciting life, from filming Subaru commercials to getting art for his house in Girona, to charity receptions to…wait a minute, what does this show to do with cycling again?
No no, that’s not fair. There was plenty about cycling in the show. Like Lance accidentally revealing that he uses Assos chamois cream, or that Trek reps make sad faces when Armstrong doesn’t ride their special bike, or that low carb-diets just wouldn’t work for a guy like Lance…oh Chris Carmichael, how I’ve missed your fitness wisdom.
And come Tour Time…whoof. People started appearing for no apparent reason—like Swiss trials pioneer Hans Rey, who by his own account didn’t seem to know what he was doing there, either. There was a show called The Roadside Tour featuring a bunch of American jackasses called “The Cutters” that was so bad, OLN cancelled mid-way through the race. Amazingly, there seems to be no trace of it online so if anyone out there has got footage kicking around I would love to see it.
But for me the worst sin of the Only Lance Network (get it? OLN? That was what we called it…) was the “expanded” coverage during the evenings that consisted of Al Trautwig asking painfully obvious questions to Bob roll for 90 minutes during primetime, heading off the network’s fears that a more general audience would put off by Lance not constantly kicking everyone else’s ass, or y’know, British people.
Anyway, the ‘04 race was a dog, the ‘05 race was worse, and as you might imagine, the whole house of cards came tumbling down in ‘06 because—duh, no Lance. Maybe if OLN had invested for the long term, and treated the sport seriously, instead of piping the monotonous drone of Armstrong’s greatness, they might have retained a few viewers. I personally know several fans converted by daily, non-expanded coverage of the ‘03 Vuelta and ‘04 Giro in those heady “let’s show the racing years”.
Writ large, the Tour’s overproduction was classic bubble behavior—the slow burn of Lance exploded into frenzy, more content was being produced and than could be sustained by the income of the ad revenue. Not that OLN cared—the Lance blitz gave them profile, and a tiff between the NHL and ESPN soon turned the channel into the home of hockey. This in turn gave it enough profile to be bought out by Comcast, who would later merge it with NBC sports, because Comcast would really, really like there to be a viable sports competitor to ESPN, who makes their money by reaming the cable provider on subscriber fees—you can learn all about this in Rantcast #2.
But to cycling the industry, the absence of Lance, or perhaps the over-focus on racing generally that became the norm in his era, would leave a lasting wound. In the early aughts, you could sell a bike because it was ostensibly Lance’s bike. Or—as Competitive Cyclist’s “It’s not a Trek” tagline once proclaimed, because it’s not Lance’s bike. Marketing became a predictable, mostly idiotic and wholly unverifiable game of one upmanship about lightness, stiffness, yaw angles, and the like.
But more and more, I think, consumers became steadily less enthusiastic about marginal technical advantages. No matter how much they spent, they were still Cat 3s. They were still finishing mid-pack. While their bikes may have been getting faster and more advanced, their backs were getting sorer, their necks more kinked, and their daylight hours progressively less easy to occupy with things like training.
Combine this with a steady stream of drug positives, professional and amatuer, and general ineptitude from the sport’s international and US governing bodies, and you’ve got group o
f people distinctly less interested in bicycle racing, but who still loved riding, trying cool gear, and imagining they can set the roads on fire like the pros.
When you’re on a bike, there are basically two ways to feel like Fabian Cancellara. One is to train a whole bunch, get super fit, and find that extra gear in a race, closing some crazy gap, making the winning move, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, crossing the line first. The other, significantly easier way, is to find any unpaved road and ride somewhere in the neighborhood of uptempo. Slowly but surely over the past decade, more and more people have figured this second route out.
You could see the trend coming for a while—Grant Peterson, clairvoyant industry heretic, has been spouting some version of the doctrine since 1994. The words “sportive” and “fondo” began creeping into the sport’s cultural lexicon, and on a technical front, after decades of narrowing and straight up lying about widths to play the gram game, rims and tires were getting wider, pressures getting lower. Tinkerers and manufacturers alike were constructing weird workarounds to make disc brakes run on drop handlebars.
And there’s nothing wrong with this—people on practical, versatile bikes? Can’t complain. Wide availability of tough, durable parts that work well for a variety of cycling endeavours? Sounds awesome. Putting in six hour rides just to see what’s out there? More power to you.
This rediscovery of the humble awesomeness of just going out and riding has been accompanied by a host of new brands focused more on the ineffable qualities of riding than actually competing in a race. Rapha, much as I may tease, was a much needed injection of competent style in an arena where pro apparel can make 4% body fat look like a beer belly; not surprisingly, it inspired a slew of imitators. Publications like Rouleur spring up—again, with imitators—and even Bicycling rebranded, taking on a more upscale, refined image…for their monthly tips on weight loss.
In fact, there seem to be a bunch of blogs, websites, magazines, and other semi-professional publications that have gotten really into gazing at their own navels on spectacle, or majesty or whatever bike-related this-is-so-meaningful-ism happens to strike them at the time of writing. By and large, these pieces are of such gobsmacking banality that I can’t help but feel I’m experiencing some sort of Bizarro World Lance Chronicles.
Which brings me, at long last, to the point—I think we’ve reached peak fondo. Think your Gravel Grinder is underground? The Times, as they say, is On It. Outside just published a list of the 12 best US Grand Fondos. Google “tips for sportive ride” and you’ll find a healthy spattering of “evergreen content” full of useful information like “drink water” and “pace yourself”. One of the more important US UCI races even replaced itself with a Fondo this past winter.
It’s not that racing is of inherently greater value than a sportive, or a fondo, or a gravel grinder, or just going out and hacking around on your bicycle—it’s that at the moment there’s way too much product—gear, bikes, articles, events—being pushed under the auspices of fondo-dom, to be sustainably consumed. And as someone who both came into the sport during the Only Lance Era, and who was hired to blog about real estate in the earliest days of 2008—I think I would know.
The Cyclocosm Rantcast is written and produced by Cosmo Catalano who politely request that you do NOT forward any real estate questions his way, especially not about his current local market of Hartford, Connecticut. His website on cycling is called Cyclocosm.com, and it has all sorts of fun videos and other features, plus a placeholder image of a doping Twitter bird at appears just before the latest Tweet from his @Cyclocosm account. He’s also on Tumblr at cyclocosm.tumblr.com, and promises that this is the last outro he’ll record fully in the third person.