It has been quite a few years now that I have been telling myself that I am over it. Disenchanted. Disappointed. Cynical. That the spectacle of professional cycling has lost its lure for me after all that – the never ending succession of doping revelations, the discovery of the fundamental vulgarity of the sport and it's crass commercialism from it's inception, as well as the unmasking of formerly revered heroes as tricksters and cheaters.
Yet come July I can't help myself but to tune into the Tour again, no matter how much the Versus coverage with its unbearable overuse of clichés and complete lack of journalistic ethos or distance to it*s subject annoys me. It's the images that are irresistible, that have lost none of their fascination since I first started following cycling with any degree of awareness in the Mid 70s.
There are the wildly romantic landscapes that the riders zip through of course, circumventing one of the most varied, culturally rich and beautiful countries of the world with just the power of their quads. There's a sense of freedom and of dignity about that, which somehow seems to touch upon deeply seated desires. There are the elements the riders endure and ultimately prevail over – adding to their glory and heroism. And of course there is the battle with their adversaries, which creates powerful, suspenseful story-lines that unfold over the duration of three weeks. No matter how much one may dislike the real characters on their bicycles or at least distrust them – it remains delicious to get absorbed into this recurring summer's tale and live with it throughout the month of July.
Of course what I am talking about here are the epic qualities of that race, that I am sure even the most mindless users of that term in connection with cycling refer to on some more or less conscious level. Probably even the Versus spots that advertise the Tour de France "the most epic race" mean roughly what Roland Barthes laid out in his now seminal essay on the "Tour as Epos" in 19??. For Barthes the fascination of the Tour was rooted in the fact that it was structured like a classic Epos, like the Odysee or the Iliad.
The inventors of the Tour, maybe the most savvy sports-marketers in history, used the same ingredients as Homer did. There must be a journey – that's crucial – which passes through mythical places. Those mythical places become characters in the story themselves. The Ventoux, L'Alpe d'Huez, Tourmalet, they're beasts to be conquered, just like the Sirens or Polyphem or Cerberus. Thus the journey turns into a series of superhuman feats, which transform the protagonists into true heroes. Adding to the thickness of the plot is their battle of these "semi-gods" as Barthes calls them with others of their kind. The ultimate hero is he who overcomes all through a series of crises: the elements, nature itself, the other superheroes, one's own mortal shortcomings. What a show.
I first got turned onto this when I was thirteen. The Tour de France had been on people's radar in Germany, you had heard of Merckx and Ocana and Thevenet but it was not by any stretch a mainstream sport with the popularity of soccer. Then on July x 1977 a very young, very blond German rider from my hometown of Frankfurt took the Yellow Jersey: Didi Thurau. The whole country and especially Frankfurt became obsessed with the Tour for the next 15 days in which Thurau defended the jersey and even at age 13 you sensed the excitement. Thurau was my first cycling hero.
For the first time I started using my bicycle for more than just to get around the neighborhood. I would ride the whole ten miles to the swimming pool imagining I was Thurau battling Thevenet and Van Impe down the poplar lined country roads of France. I too wanted to be a hero on two wheels.
The whole thing turned into a full blown obsession after I stopped swimming competitively in my early twenties. I went out and bought my first real road bike and a pair of hideously colored 80s cycling shorts and began to ride around the country side around Frankfurt. Rapidly expanding the radius of travel made me feel ecstatic – it provided a sense of freedom unlike any other and a feeling of empowerment. It felt like you could go anywhere you wanted with just your bike.
But what drove me most of course were the fantasies of being a Tour hero, not only of conquering the snow capped Alpine peaks and overcoming the sweltering heat of Provence in July, but also of prevailing against others undergoing the same trials. In my mind while climbing the highest peak in the region, the 2000 foot Feldberg, I would silently play the TV commentary to Thuraus heroic rides in my head. The best thing about this – sometimes you would actually see him, now retired, going for a leisurely spin.
Another roughly 15 years later, I had made cycling not just my life but my livelihood. I had become a cycling reporter, spending my every July as part of that animal that weaves it's way around France – that beast with the 10000 heads and 10000 engines following a tiny group of a mere 200 bicyclists. All of this was still motivated by the romance of the epic and in the first years, being so close to it was exhilarating. To top it off, covering the Tour had it*s own epic moments. There were daily near-super human feats to be accomplished in overcoming logistic impossibilities under constant deadline and upon arrival in Paris you felt almost as glorious as having done the entire thing on a bike.
As happens all too often though, coming too close to a seemingly beautiful thing killed the magic. Getting to know the riders and the former riders suddenly made them seem somewhat less than semi-divine. Getting to know the mechanics of the grand spectacle made it seem less then glorious.
The Tours of 2006 and 2007 finally tipped the scales for me. The Fuentes affair, Landis, then the disaster of 07 with Rasmussen, Vinokourov and Astana and half a dozen other affairs was numbing. It became impossible to believe that there is a "pure core" to the sport that is just threatened by a few aberrations.
But what was even much worse about all this, was that it challenged my infatuation with the epic. I began adopting a more sober, rather Marxist view of the Tour. Tour director Christian Prudhommes waxing on about the need to restore the romance of the Tour sounded more and more cynical to me. Packaging the Tour as "epic" began to look more and more like a mere form of branding a product that in stark daylight is really something completely different.
The truth was that the spectacle of Herculean trials the supposed super heroes were overcoming came at a huge price. Their heroism was an illusion that had worked well for a good part of a century. There was a silent covenant between the producer/directors in Paris and the actors on their wheels to keep the production secrets to themselves. The Tour was a highly exploitative capitalist enterprise built on the destruction of the health of the laborers on two wheels. Perversely those very laborers were complicit in the whole thing and kept the illusion going.
But after 2007 there just finally was no way to keep things under cover anymore.
Of course in this day and age I am not the only disaffected cycling fan in the world. But in my brooding German way it really came to affect my enjoyment of the sport itself. Because for thirty years I had tried, in a naïve boyish way to emulate the heroes, I was losing my reasons to ride. I had certainly lost my appetite for heroism.
Suddenly it all began to feel silly. When my friends would get all fired up to duke it out on the last climb of a long day's ride, to see who could withstand the certain pain the longest I would find myself rolling my eyes and thinking "why?". And many times after a hard day in the saddle I would no longer feel the contentment and satisfaction that used come with the knowledge of having once again persevered against the wind and the sun and the others and most of all of course against myself. I would just feel empty.
Yet of course I haven't stopped riding. There is still nothing that quite provides the same kind of pleasure in quite the same way as being out on a bike for a few hours with friends. And a lot of that remains related to the epic quality of cycling – no matter how much that term is misused for marketing all kinds of stuff that is more or rather less wholesome.
Of course, as anyone who rides will confirm, there is nothing like a ride to lift you out of the worries, anxieties and necessities of your "normal life". In New York City the geography amplifies that transition like nowhere else. Across the George Washington Bridge, across the Hudson River, out of Manhattan and you are away.
You enter an entirely different order of things and this is where the epic comes in. The three or four or six hours on your bike are a story you write, a series of episodes in which you are fully immersed. You have very limited control over the flow of the narrative, yet you are the one who writes it, with your legs, your lungs, your guts, your heart. And only when you look back it, will you understand it and appreciate it.
The story can have passages of pure beauty, like flowing effortlessly down a stretch of road that's bathed in the soft morning sun. It will most certainly have moments of trial of some kind, of overcoming pain, laziness, boredom or maybe just a mechanical. And it*s plot will be driven by the interaction between the characters – moving back and forth between moments of rivalry and cooperation and most certainly to the comeraderie of a shared experience, the guaranteed happy ending.
The places. In Barthes' characterization of the Tour as Epos the personalization of places plays a crucial role. I've ridden the big "mythical" climbs of the Tour over the years, the Galibier the Madelaine, the Ventoux. That was satisfying but it always felt like following someone else's storyline. There is no more intimate relationship the kind to a place than the one you have with the places on your regular rides. The swamp you ride past every week, that's covered in algae in the summer and carries dark black water in the winter. The house that they've been working in for years but that never seems to get done. And of course that last climb before you get to the train station that greets you differently every time: as a foe, as a grim tormentor, sometimes, as a good friend at other times, that welcomes you and lifts you to it's summit like a gentle giant and provides pure bliss descending down through the familiar curves, all of which you know exactly how to lean into.
And, yes there still is the seduction of heroism. There still is the satisfaction of feeling like you have overcome, persevered, conquered, that cycling reliably provides - even on a quick two hour spin on a summer evening when despite the fatigue of the day you got yourself out there and pushed yourself past your comfort threshold once or twice. I suppose I am in the process of learning to just enjoy that feeling as a guilty little pleasure. And to stop taking all that seriously at the same time.