Lance is Back

Stage 10 of the Tour de France is Tuesday. I usually casually observe (mainly via sports news-tickers), but then Sports Illustrated's Twitter Santa left this gift under my tree. After reading I became much more intrigued.

International sporting events are like test tubes. Competitors could then be like unique elements or compounds that mix and/or react. For example, professional cyclists from Europe are of a wholly different chemical makeup than American pros.
Bike racing in Europe is what boxing is in the States -- a poor kid's way out. A chimney sweep won the first Tour de France, and since then honors have gone to carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, welders, baker's apprentices and metalworking trainees. (One of the greatest, Italy's Fausto Coppi, wasn't even a butcher, but an errand boy for a butcher, which is how he learned his way with a bike.) The European peloton is a clan with a code, a sweatshop on wheels that doubles as a testing lab for designer doping products. Fans make the biggest heroes of those who suffer most; the founder of the Tour, Henri Desgranges, believed that the ideal race would be one survived by a single rider. If these hero-sufferers take drugs, goes the continental line of thinking, it's because no one can be expected to survive such an ordeal without palliatives, and besides, cheating has been woven into the Tour since its second staging in 1904, when the winner of the first, that chimney sweep, hopped a train for part of the route.

In the U.S., bike racing is a way out too -- a way out of high school hell for geeky middle-class boys blown off by the jocks and cheerleaders. They take up cycling for the romance, for "breaking away," as that Indiana italophile, Dave the Cutter, did in the 1979 movie of the same name. Otherwise a bicycle is either a child's toy or an affluent middle-aged adult's means to health and fitness. In 1981 the first American to ride the Tour, Jonathan Boyer, traveled with a Bible, a blender, and a cache of nuts and dates. California's Bob Roll, who was living in a tent in Switzerland when the U.S. 7-Eleven team picked him up to ride the 1985 Tour of Italy, would inscribe his sidewheels with poetry.

Lance Armstrong, meanwhile, has successfully and consistently maintained his yellow-bracelet reputation in America while also holding his own with the European peloton.
Armstrong has long broadcast on two frequencies -- one to the European peloton, another to cycling-innocent followers in the States. A perfect example took place several months ago, after an out-of-competition tester from France's state-run anti-doping lab doorstepped him on the Riviera, and Armstrong, just back from a training ride, disappeared for 20 minutes to take a shower. Europeans know that the one thing a cyclist may not do under any circumstances is leave a tester's sight before providing a sample. They can recount the sport's colorful history of doping-control subterfuge, from hastily swallowed diuretics and blood-thinners, to stand-in urine delivered through concealed rubber tubing. When this departure from protocol briefly looked like it might lead to his suspension, Armstrong tweeted indignantly, Was winning the Tour seven times that offensive?!? That in turn cued up reactions Stateside of the "Of course they wouldn't let him take a shower -- they don't believe in showers!" variety. Not that Armstrong necessarily had something to hide; given his relationship with the French, he may have simply been up for a game of chicken, to dare them to expel from their great race its biggest name. The point is, he took them on and won, again.

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