Cross-country skiing’s not a sport, it’s how a f—ing Swede goes to the 7–Eleven. — Dan Jenkins, “You Gotta Play Hurt”
But nobody is defining exactly what “success” means.
Does it mean that cycling becomes a spectator sport, like the various ball games? Stadiums packed with hammered fatties painting themselves in Health Net-Maxxis colors; nattily attired retired pros bellowing jovially over one other on ESPN; irate racers charging into the stands to kick the snot out of hecklers?
Okay, so the Euros have beaten us to that last bit, thanks to Bart Wellens. But still, you make Gord Fraser earn his living by going round and round on a 1-mile oval in front of 40,000 shrieking drunks — and make me earn my living by trying to write something interesting about it — and at least one of us is going to pound you.
And besides, to make domestic bike racing even marginally attractive to motorsports maniacs like Bobby Joe Beernut and his lovely wife, Bobbi Jo, you’d probably have to get Cannondale back into the motorcycle business and Assos into leather.
Now, it’s just us folks here; we can admit what we know, in our heart of hearts, to be true. No matter how we structure it, bicycle racing will never capture the American imagination the way motorsports, ball games and reality TV have. Ours is a niche activity, a glorified form of human-powered transportation, like Nordic skiing, speed-skating and cross-country running. Criteriums, track and ’cross are niches within a niche. Frankly, if our sport were not played largely on the nation’s roads, where we are generally considered to be in the way of real traffic, we’d draw less notice than a Republican on the take in Washington, D.C.
To be sure, individual cyclists occasionally slot briefly into the national attention deficit disorder for a nanosecond as it flits erratically hither and thither. Greg LeMond. Lance Armstrong. Somebody gimme a third name. Somebody? Anybody? Hell, Dale Earnhardt has more name recognition than both of those dudes, times ten, and old No. 3 been dead for five years. We’re talking Elvis Presley versus Elvis Costello here.
And I’m okay with that. You like “Blue Suede Shoes,” I like “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” It’s all music. Except that rap crap, of course.
But I don’t want to see cycling all gussied up in sequins and sunglasses, playing Vegas and acting the fool until it dies an ugly death on the crapper. Cycling is street, not stage. Give me strong local and regional races, where a guy can enjoy both racing and watching, like the Cross Crusade series, Superweek, or the Tour of Somerville. And if you just have to have a motorsports angle, well, if every sizable town in every state in the Union had something like Sea Otter going on, well, those of us who crave the attention of our sports-mad compatriots might start getting a little (beyond the usual honking, death threats and shouts of “Get off the road/trail!”, that is).
Of course, creating and maintaining a serious event is a job of work. You can’t just sit around like the People’s Front of Judea, talking about it. You have to get up off your arses and do something. Start a new race or lend a hand to an existing one. Deliver more than you promise to land managers, local officials and your sponsors. Badger the local press. Provide them with rosters, bios, photos, results and freshly laundered money. Make it easy for the simple sonsabitches; remember, you’ll be dealing with hairy-eared, pot-bellied stick-and-ball types who think they’re a double Frank Deford with a side of Dan Jenkins. Invite your favorite talking heads to take part in a “media race,” if they’ll promise not to puke used gin all over your course. Be prepared to have small crowds and big losses at first, but keep after it.
Do it right for long enough and some day you might just get Bobby and Bobbi to queue up alongside your local version of the Manayunk Wall, hitting the cooler from time to time and thinking, damn, these here bicycle racers are some real tough nuts, almost like Jake Plummer, Alex Rodriguez and The Intimidator, God rest ‘im.
And even if you don’t exactly wind up laying the groundwork for “Monday Night Cycling” on ABC, at least you and your friends will have something to do come weekends besides watch sports on TV. That’s how I define success.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines: Did O’Grady take the checkered flag or limp into the pits, trailing an oilslick? Race on over to firstname.lastname@example.org and lean on the horn. — Editor