Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
When Americans open their newspapers to stories about cycling, it's usually because someone's cheated or because Lance Armstrong's winning a medal
. This year's off-season and early races have been no exception
. Setting doping aside for a minute, however, the last several months have seen some interesting developments in the sport.
Two major American races
Already in 2007 (as in 2006), the United States has played host to two major stage races: the Tour of California and the Tour of Georgia. But unlike in 2006, huge stars actually showed up to compete in this year's American races.
The Tour of California
lasts eight days and covers about 600 miles, making it 1/3rd the size of the Tour de France. It's sponsored by (irony of ironies) Amgen, makers of the world's most popular blood doping substance, EPO. This year's incarnation featured top European teams (including CSC, Credit Agricole, Rabobank, Quick Step, T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner, and Discovery) and top European riders (including Olympic Champion Paulo Bettini and three time Tour de France podium finisher Ivan Basso). The race was won by an American on the Discover Team, Levi Leipheimer, who has threatened the top 5 in each of the last several Tours de France.
The Tour of Georgia
just wrapped up this weekend, and covered about the same ground as California's tour (7 days and 600 miles). It too attracted several European Pro Tour teams, including CSC and Quick Step. Another Discovery boy, Janez Brajkovic, won the overall title in Georgia.
Though neither one of these races is new, the attention and caliber of racing in both was unprecedented this year. The continued (post-Lance) growth of cycling in America is starting to make waves both here and in the major racing circuits on the Continent.
The Yankee-fication of cycling
The results in Georgia bring us to the second important trend for this year: the Yankee-fication of bicycle riding. When Lance Armstrong retired, the world wondered how cycling as a sport would survive in the minds of a widespread audience without him. That remains an open question, but the question of how his Discovery Team would be able to compete without him has been emphatically answered: really well. So well, in fact, that they look as if they may become the New York Yankees of the cycling world.
First, the off-season is always something of a scramble in cycling, with several major stars changing teams every year. But the Discovery team did particularly well this year, signing Ivan Basso (who, pending a lingering doping question, is the clear favorite to win this year's Tour) and Levi Leipheimer (a perennial top-ten Tour finisher). In addition, they added Alberto Contador, who is widely considered to be Spain's greatest hope for regaining some of the cycling glory Miguel Indurain brought his country in the early '90s. The acquisition binge is reminiscent of a George Steinbrenner-like effort to add established stars to an already strong team. Discovery now has four or five riders that could legitimately act as team leaders for almost any other team.
Second, they've already won races this year, a lot of them. In addition to the already-mentioned team wins in Georgia and California, Contador took the overall title at Paris-Nice (with his teammate Popovych taking two stage wins). Additionally, George Hincapie always places well in the upcoming spring classics, and Basso still has to be seen as the favorite for the Tour of Italy and the Tour de France. The Discovery team has the opportunity to show single season dominance reminiscent of the late 1990s New York Yankees, as well as Yankee-esque perennial contention.
Finally, there is something vaguely Yankee-like (almost imperialistic) in the way an American team seems to be taking over one of the most European of sports. Officially speaking, cycling teams are not directly associated with countries, but in practice it often ends up that way. For instance, T-Mobile (formerly called Duetsche Telecom) is almost all Germans and is usually considered the German team. CSC is the team from Denmark, Quick Step is Belgian, and Rabbobank is Dutch. People in these countries go crazy for their teams during "home" races, and most years when the Tour de France crosses into another country, the peloton generally accepts the fact that they have to let a guy from that country win that day. In any case, Discovery is the American team, and it is rapidly becoming the dominant force on the European circuit.
Reality teevee street cred
These days, you're no one unless you've got your own reality teevee series. Well, this spring cycling will become someone
. The delightfully titled NBC show "That's Chris!" will follow American cyclist Chris Horner as he rides for the Belgian Predictor-Lotto team.
OK, fine, doping
The Floyd Landis saga has continued. Floyd has been criss-crossing the country for the last several months, pressing the flesh to raise money for his own legal defense fund. He goes before the US Anti-Doping Agency in just over two weeks, with new allegations arising over old blood samples just today
. Irrespective of the hearing, he has already agreed to sit out this year's Tour and has admitted that for all intents and purposes, his career is done. Though his ultimate fate will be determined at the USADA hearing in May, Landis' insistence on his innocence has become increasingly shrill, angry and ... well ... difficult to believe. In a news conference earlier this week, Landis alleged
the "deliberate falsification of results and willful destruction of evidence." Not even Tyler Hamilton went that far
Last year's other big doping scandal (called Operation Puerto) has come, gone, and come back again
. A few times
. As mentioned, Basso has been caught up in it, and Armstrong's long-time rival Jan Ulrich has retired after DNA tests directly linked him to blood products discovered in the lab under suspicion. Though right now charges have been dropped against all riders except Ulrich, hardly a week goes by without a strange twist in the case.
Tying it all together for the year ahead
This will be an interesting year for cycling in America. Though the Discovery team and the growth of the US-based races have provided the American public with an unprecedented opportunity to get involved in the sport, its image remains fundamentally the same in many ways. American headlines focus on doping and Lance. I've put a certain amount of hope in Horner's teevee show to change that, but I might be mistaken. Horner's a great guy, and an interesting individual. But just as being a jerk never hurt Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, or a thousand other top athletes, being a great guy isn't going to get Horner (or his sport) too far.