The 2008 road racing season is about to kick off in earnest, and I for one am brimming with indifference. Our only cycling network, Versus (which we share with the other freak sports like rodeo and hockey), is gearing up to cover the Tour of California, which begins this weekend. And so begins another year of what passes for the mainstream US cycling media putting all its growth hormone-bloated eggs in one flimsy, rotting basket.
I know I’m not the only cyclist who likes to watch TV. But as cyclists, we’re completely entertainment-starved. Most of us will watch any show that involves cycling, purely for the novelty of seeing it on TV. So it’s too bad that the people in a position to put bikes on the air only focus on professional road cycling. That’s like having a sex network and only producing shows about foot fetishism. And what’s worse is that pro road cycling is a complete wreck right now, so it’s actually more like having a sex network and only producing shows about foot fetishism during a worldwide athelete’s foot outbreak.
Here’s why Versus are wasting their time and ours, and why they should be after different cycling-relating programming now more than ever:
Until cycling stops obsessing about dopers, I’m not watching road racing. You can’t invest any interest in a race without the trainer sweat mat getting yanked out from under you by some boring doping scandal, and this year’s going to be no different. Following this sport is like watching a DVD that keeps skipping--eventually you give up and watch something else.
I know these guys cheat, and I don't care. Cycling is an entire sport based on cheating. If you race or you know anything about racing, you know that it is based on doing as little work as possible. Your equipment and your tactics are designed around saving every bit of energy you can. It’s freeloading on wheels. You can’t then expect a bunch of cheaters to not push the glassine envelope when it comes to substances and chemicals.
I mean, I’d rather these guys were clean, but frankly the only rules I care strongly about are the ones about bike design. If the UCI wasn’t so strict about that these guys would probably be riding around on foiled recumbents or something. Now that would be completely unwatchable.
There are millions of cyclists in this country, but few bike racers. And without a dramatic backstory, the only people who follow bike racing are other bike racers—who are little more than freeloaders, as I’ve already pointed out. Just ask any bike shop owner. He or she will tell you that bike racers are whiny, spoiled, disloyal people who think the mere fact that they race entitles them to all kinds of discounts and special treatment. If they can get something cheaper somewhere else, they will.
Targeting a tiny, fickle group like this is a tremendous mistake. Would you open a bike shop that only served racers? No way. You’d be out of business faster than a rib joint in Borough Park. So why devote an entire season of programming to them?
In this country, you need a backstory to get the non-racing public interested in the sport. Obviously we saw this with Lance Armstrong, the “Baby Got Backstory” of pro cycling. Millions followed his racing exploits in the post-cancer years, despite the fact that he failed to win either the Tour of Italy or the Tour of Spain year after year. But we don’t have that anymore.
Sure, Versus tried to give Floyd Landis a backstory. I don’t remember what it was exactly—something about being Amish and having to race on a wooden bicycle. That never really caught on though, and then the whole doping thing extinguished what little spark of public interest there may have been. And I’m sure Versus will try to do this yet again. But unless Mario Cipollini seriously injures himself in a tragic hair gel-related slip-and-fall and the entire world rallies behind him as he attempts to regain the use of his penis, the only people watching road racing are road racers.
Of course, if you don’t have an inspiring backstory, there’s always the opposite tactic—negative press. But pro cyclists don’t even have the decency to get into any juicy trouble. The only trouble they ever get into is (yawn) doping. While the rest of the sporting world is impregnating strippers and fighting dogs, the craziest thing a pro cyclist ever does is to sneak into the kitchen after dinner and have a bite of dessert. And it’s this culture of docility that simultaneously makes the sport boring to the public and allows some interloper with a bloated ego like Michael Ball to take advantage of it.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think cyclists should start misbehaving in an attempt to get press. But remember when Jan Ullrich took Ecstasy, crashed his car through a bakery window, and was found rolling around naked in a wedding cake? Come on, that was fun.
There's a lot going on in the world of cycling, and much of it is more interesting than pro road racing. So until Versus (or someone else) zooms out a little and starts covering other aspects of cycling, I guess I'll just stick to Youtube.