I recently overheard a friend complaining about how frustrated he was that there wasn’t better coverage of the Giro D’Italia on television in the US. I agreed, but added the perspective of someone who is simply glad to be able to get any news about bicycle racing at all. The grumpy old man inside me began to wax poetic about the days before modern communications. Back in MY day, we had to walk 10 miles uphill through driving snowstorms just to read Western Union telegrams about cycling races that took place 6 months ago! OK, that’s an exaggeration. But it made me realize that right about now is the 30 year anniversary of my entry into this sport / hobby / lifestyle, and it struck me how much things have changed since I first got involved in road cycling, back in 1982. My poor friend walked right into a full on flashback eruption; I got full blown 80’s cycling retro on him.
For 30 years now, I’ve been a fan (and intermittently successful participant) in the sport of bicycle road racing. I sometimes wish this wasn’t the case. It wasn’t exactly the easiest sport in the world to get interested in, especially as a middle class kid growing up in America in the days before the internet. But somehow, long before the days of Lance Armstrong bringing cycling to the attention of average Americans via light beer commercials and cancer awareness campaigns, I got hooked and followed the European professional racing calendar from afar as best as I could.
In America, bicycle racing (or even just plain “cycling”) is still a niche sport. But in 1982 when I first caught the bicycle road racing bug, it wasn’t even really big enough to call niche. It was non-existent, something ridiculous that those backwards-ass folks in Europe still clung to, like soccer and socialism and the metric system. Being into bikes didn’t help my popularity much – while most of my friends in school rooted for professional football, baseball, and basketball stars, I rooted for obscure European guys in funny little hats wearing tight shorts and riding bikes. While most kids my age had posters on their walls of Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, I had strange foreign language posters of Roger De Vlaeminck, Claude Criquielion, and Bernard Hinault. Most of my friends got their sports fix from TV on an almost daily basis, I had to scrape up whatever knowledge I could from foreign newspapers and the few monthly magazines in the US that covered cycling.
1983 was a breakthrough year for English-speaking cycling fans thanks to Winning Magazine. Color photos! Detailed race coverage! Interviews! Available at your nearest newstand! Just kidding, you had to hunt high and low for it until you found the right bike shop that carried it.
Suffice it to say my hobby wasn’t a popular one! But it wasn’t totally solitary for me… I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Lake Tahoe / Northern Nevada area, a region that had a pretty vibrant local cycling scene along with a few local racing heroes like Greg LeMond and Inga Thompson. Over the years, I found others who shared my interests. Through my job at a bike shop and via our local racing organization I sought out and found a small and very cool community of friends, craftsmen, and bike industry folks that also shared my love of the sport and we’d spend our training rides and races doing our best to emulate the big pros we’d all read about. But we were assuredly still members of a freakishly niche minority of misfits. Someday I’ll write up a longer flashback post, something about those old clubracing days… 🙂
Fast forward 30 years later to 2012 and I’m no longer working in a bike shop, and racing is a part-time hobby that comes in low in the finishing order of my “race of life”, still on the podium but behind career and family. But thanks to greater media coverage of cycling and the global rise of the internet among consumers and media companies, I can follow my favorite sport in Europe with crazy precision (and minimal effort) regardless of my presence anywhere on earth. I no longer have to wait a month to learn about who won an obscure race in Belgium, I can find out from the Twitter feed of the winning team manager as he rides in the team car during the actual race. TV coverage? Bah, watch it streaming live over the internet. Not enough coverage? Nonsense. There’s TONS of it!!!
And now, I have more folks to talk racing with than ever before, even more than when I was racing myself! In 2012, nearly everyone in the United States has at least *heard* of professional road cycling. That’s mostly a good thing… For most Americans, the Tour de France is now synonymous with cycling thanks to Lance Armstrong, a media-savvy American who dominated the event during this same period of exploding media coverage and global internet access. As a result, these days when the menfolk gather to talk about sports, rather than being somewhat ostracized I’m more likely than ever before to be included in the conversation. This is especially true during the month of July when lots of my non-cycling friends and co-workers are at least a little curious about the daily TV coverage they see of Le Tour. I’m often the token bike geek in the group that can answer the questions. And (sadly) when they also see TV news coverage about a certain Texan bike racer who gets wrapped up in grand jury testimony and scandals about his performance enhancing drug usage, I’m asked questions about that also – and if I believe he doped. Sigh, I guess there’s a downside to cycling being more popular…
But I’ll take the good with the bad, because after 30 years of involvement in the sport I still love the world of bicycle road racing. 30 years after the first time I found out about big time racing in Europe, there’s more opportunities than ever to get immersed in what I believe is one of the most amazing sports ever invented. I’m looking forward to the next 30 years, someday I’ll be able to tell people how back in the day we got our professional cycling news from portable cellular telephones in 140 character bursts we called “Tweets”.
Special thanks for this trip down memory lane go to: