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Commentary: The Americans on Tour are each one of us

If there were a bright side to American Ted King’s (Cannondale) heartbreaking elimination from the Tour de France on Tuesday, it was that it fanned the embers of a fire that has been missing from U.S. cycling for at least a year. Probably longer.

For 20 hours or so — from the time the race jury announced its decision until the Tour rolled away towards Marseille without him — U.S. fans seemed unified. Yes, it was unity driven by outrage and disappointment, emotions we’ve become all too familiar with. But this time it was the better side of those emotions, the side that comes from believing in, not being betrayed by, one of our own.

When King dropped off the back of his team in the first kilometer of the stage 4 team time trial, Americans leaned closer, lowering their eyes to the clock and kilometers at the bottom of the screen. We waited for his finishing time, and for the winners’ time that would determine how far down the results sheet the time cut’s axe would fall. We did, or attempted to do, the wonky cycling math that applies percentages of the decimally imperfect world of minutes and seconds. Did he make it? If he didn’t, will the jury grant him mercy in the face of bravery?

We waited more. We gasped when Cannondale announced that King had been eliminated. We tried to convince ourselves it was a premature announcement, worked to dismiss it as unofficial, clung to hope as the stack of official paper that follows a grand tour stage began to accumulate. And when we finally saw the verdict on the official letterhead — 14. King….HD — we howled in disbelief at the injustice of it all.

Because it was ridiculous that a separated shoulder and seven seconds had separated King from the rest of his first Tour de France. Because the timing of his ride seemed questionable, and it took the officials an awfully long time to commit King’s time to paper. Because so many other riders with less compelling stories have been granted clemency in the past. But also, if we are honest, because he is one of us.

Yes, the outcry sparked by the race jury’s dismissal of King had its international voices, but its center of gravity was inarguably American. (And if you created a heat map of that outcry, King’s native New England would be glowing red.) For the first time in years, we threw our hope earnestly and unflinchingly behind one of our boys, steadfast in the feeling that our guy was right, that he was being treated unjustly, that he deserved special consideration under the rules. It was not, by and large, a carefully considered reaction, a thorough, objective, and balanced review of rules and precedents and data. It was, at its root, a deafening cry of “bullshit!” And it was awesome.

Patriotism is not terribly fashionable in the U.S. cycling community. It took hits with Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis, and by the time news broke during the 2012 Tour that five American former U.S. Postal Service riders in the race had given testimony to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, it felt prohibitively foolish and childish and naïve. It has burned us so recently that many of us still have blisters. Over 15 or so years, the country’s cycling fans embraced what appeared to be its greatest generation. And when leaks and confessions and reports gradually revealed, with increasing levels of certainty, that many of those riders had cheated, it became harder to loudly support the home team simply because it was the home team. You could no longer just root. You had to “trust but verify.” And even if you subtracted out the scandal, the transcendent appeal of peak Lance Armstrong chafed many of American cycling’s longtime, iconoclastic fans. Too mainstream. Nationalist chest-thumping, stuff for neophytes, kids, and the charity set.

But this week, King brought people together again, though certainly not in the way he’d have preferred. Maybe because in a sport that boasts enough disciplines and specialties to produce an array of stars, King is not one, and so lacks the polarizing sort of attention that follows stardom. In his six years as a professional, he has not won a race, nor does he lose them in dramatic fashion. He owes his Tour ride to steady, dependable work in service of Peter Sagan, often before the TV cameras switch on. To many watching the Tour around the world, King is just one name on a long start list, a foot soldier in Sagan’s army. King, E., or Edward King (USA).

On this side of the Atlantic, though, he’s Ted. Ted of “I Am Not Ted King” t-shirt fame. Ted who sings the praises of maple syrup. Ted who, with fellow pro Timmy Duggan (now Saxo-Tinkoff), cobbled together all of his own support for last year’s U.S. professional national championships, which Duggan won. Ted who shows up to group rides and ‘cross races when he’s home over the winter.

Most of the world doesn’t know that about Ted. That’s ok. We don’t know all those same sorts of things about most of the guys at Europcar, or even about the other guys on King’s team. But all of those guys are someone’s Ted. Every Tour rider has people somewhere leaning forward in their chair every time they see his team’s jersey on the ground or on the front, and it has nothing to do with how well he climbs or time trials or sprints or how many races he’s won or might win later on. It’s because he’s one of them.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson opined as he watched the American colonies rumble towards independence, but this is sports, not politics or statecraft or war, and a little patriotism can make sports hum. We don’t need to look any farther than the Olympics or the World Cup to know that. No, simply backing the Americans isn’t the most nuanced way to follow cycling, and admitting to picking your allegiances by flag won’t make you look knowledgeable about the sport or its participants. As we’ve learned, it can deepen the feelings of betrayal and anger when things go sideways. But it can also be engaging, unifying, and a hell of a lot of fun if you let it be.

On July 14, Bastille Day, we know French riders will rocket off the front like so many fireworks, looking to be the one to deliver the big win on the host country’s national day, but mostly just exploding and falling to earth in a dazzling display of national fervor. And the fans love them for it. It is as much a part of the Tour de France as the Champs Élysées, if not more.

Today, the American Independence Day, probably won’t see a barrage of breakaway attempts by American riders. There are only six in the race, compared to over 40 Frenchman, and trying to score a win on July 4 has never really been a thing for us. Since U.S. cycling moved past the 7-Eleven and Motorola days, most American riders have been either supporting bids for yellow, or riding for the win themselves. With the possible exception of early Slipstream formations, there have been few teams stocked with American opportunists and a free hand. Today’s finish in Montpellier is tailor-made for the fast men, and a British, German, or Slovak win is far more likely than an American one. But that doesn’t matter. At some point in this Tour, an American will go up the road again. And the response to Ted’s departure showed that — maybe — it’s finally ok to root for one of us again simply because he’s out there, and he’s one of us. Just like we rooted for Ted.

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