I spent my twenties as a professional cyclist, and last year I was on Cannondale-Drapac—one of the best teams in the world—where thirty riders would compete for the nine spots at one of the sacred Grand Tours (like the Tour de France going on now). I was near the bottom of the totem pole though, and cycling isn’t quite as glamorous as some sports, so after I missed the selections, instead of taking another $65,000/year contract to bounce around Europe, I decided to move on, “retired” at 30 years old.
I’m not complaining, though. I knew what I was getting into. I joined the pros just as the widespread doping era was fizzling out and sponsors were running scared, but it’s a beautiful sport, I had a blast, and to be perfectly honest, I was begging the major teams for a contract worth taking and heartbroken when it didn’t work out. I still wish I could have experienced the glory of cycling’s biggest event, so it’s confusing when I watch the Tour de France this year, how different it looks only a few months removed. Everyone keeps asking how it feels and whether I miss it, so here’s my best answer: a summary of what I see when I watch the Tour now.
The stages are 4-6 hours long, so it’s mostly boring. Short days get better ratings, but Grand Tour organizers are locked in a decades-long battle to see whose race can be toughest—a form of bike race cocksizing—to see who can squeeze in the most mountaintop finishes and greatest distances.
Then when it’s not boring, it’s dangerous. Aside from the obvious part about almost-naked dudes riding shoulder-to-shoulder at speeds up to 70 mph, the courses are either lined with half-drunk spectators struggling to keep their dogs from running into the road, or metal barricades like you might see on a construction site, which lean on the pavement at a 45-degree angle, just waiting to pull you down. Even the promos for the Tour are full of crashes. Is that what you tune in for? Is that what people like? To watch my friends get hurt?
In the first stage, lots of riders ended up on the ground, trying to gain time on a tight course in the rain. I’ve been that guy many times. You get up. You get back on your bike. You’re going 30 mph again within twenty seconds, because that’s your job and you’re lucky to have it. A friend was watching the Tour for the first time, and she was horrified: “So he crashes and hits the fence at full speed, one guy jumps out of the follow car to pick up his old bike, another guy jumps out to hand him a new one off the roof and give him a push, and nobody asks if he’s okay?”
That never would have occurred to me. But yeah. That’s weird. Two big names didn’t get up that day—out of the race with broken bones before it even started.
Of course, doping has always been the story around cycling. Fans say they hate dopers, but they love talking about it like basketball fans debate LeBron vs. Jordan. Who’s clean, who’s dirty, who’s clean now but used to be dirty, and if you remove the bad guys from the results, who’s the best? I always think the doping era is over, but sure enough, a former teammate and friend of mine was scratched off the start list for Trek-Segafredo for an EPO positive just days before the start, replaced by a guy who’s 40 years old and was teammates with Lance Armstrong in his prime (I’ll let you do the math).
And there it is. The L-word. Our Voldemort. Lance is ever-present in professional cycling—a dark cloud over the sport, yet still the easiest way for me to explain what I did for a living on a first date. He’s serving a lifetime ban and getting sued for fraud, but “Outside” Magazine is using him to cover the Tour, and he makes a cute cameo in HBO’s cycling/doping mockumentary that just came out.
Here’s the thing about Lance. He wants to convince you that it was no big deal because everyone was doping—and maybe most of them were—but he was the best at it. He made the shadiest deals and organized the best cover-ups. There were people who lost their jobs or lost sleep over his threats, afraid for the safety of their families, and the room gets ten degrees colder when he walks in. There’s cheating at sport, and then there’s being a dangerous sociopath, looking into the camera and lying to our faces. If the public knew Lance like cycling does, they wouldn’t want to be around that guy, but he was so good, now he gets to make fun of it all. It’s like if James Earl Ray made jokes about sharpshooting, or Bill Cosby gave lectures on how to avoid rape accu—forget it.
If it’s not doping, cycling will find another scandal to debate: someone crashes and the leaders should have waited, or Team Sky is cheating because their race suits are too aerodynamic. Defending champ Chris Froome looks nothing like Tom Brady, but Sky is undoubtedly the big-budget, limit-pushing, love-to-hate, New England Patriots on two wheels.
Even if you remove the scandal, the sport can look primitive and sexist at times. There’s no equivalent stage race for women, so the most visible female presence at the Tour de France are the podium girls, who wear short dresses and kiss the winner because it’s still 1903. The organizers and governing bodies are so full of tradition, they seem to forget that they’re in charge of a fringe sport with a reputation to overcome.
There are lots of silver linings, positive stories, and great characters, but if anyone could save cycling in 2017, it’s Slovakian Peter Sagan. His dominant sprint earned him two world championships, and when he’s not winning, he’s wowing the fans with wheelies, hilarious interviews and sponsor-pleasing personality. He’s the rare type of athlete who’s great at everything else, too, and if he was American, you’d be enjoying him on late-night talk shows in his offseason. With long hair and a beard (both no-no’s in cycling), he stands out, almost bigger than the sport, which is probably the real reason they kicked him out after stage 4, accusing Peter of dangerous behavior in a sprint. Sprints are always full of elbows and road rash, we’ve all watched it in slo-mo a hundred times, and I’ve yet to come across an expert who agreed with that decision. Now fans have one less reason to sit through four hours of the announcers pretending the hopeless breakaway might win this time.
And this is just the first week. There’ll be lots more scandal and drama and danger and eye-rolling, but yet, I can’t stop watching, I still ride every day, I still pay my bills from sponsors in the bike industry, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It really is a beautiful sport when you get to know it, and maybe I look for negatives to feel better about what I don’t have, but it’s almost like they’re trying to screw it up sometimes, or they can’t help but shoot themselves in the foot. Six months after my contract ended, there’s a lot that I miss and I’m grateful for what I got to do, but I’m glad to be out of the pros. When I watch races now, I can’t believe I ever did that, I can’t believe how bad I wanted to be doing that right now, and I know I’m lucky to have gotten out alive. I’m jealous of guys who got to do what I didn’t, but I also feel afraid for the friends I made over the years—husbands, fathers, and sons who are still in there. Fortunately, they’re much better at it than I was, but the older you get as an athlete, the more you realize there’s a whole other world out there, and you wonder what took you so long.