As someone who spent many years in the sport, I detest Lance Armstrong but appreciate the increased racing coverage he created. The races can be seen now, though hampered by a Brit downside: heavily accented British chat in its coverage. The Brits on bikes are full of fire, the old ones natter on about obscure historical events of limited interest. Phil Liggett is the Grand Mufti of this All England media gang, but the appeal and quality of his coverage is open to question. (So is his involvement with and commitment to Armstrong.) But the real problem is that we all age out.
A sport moves on, and most of yesterday’s tales are blown away. Not with the Brits, and I suspect that the British should not be allowed to comment on anything French. They never get it. A Hundred Years of the Tour de France is a misleading oddity, a simplistic intern-level attempt to relate the racing to larger cultural/historical issues that are over their heads and waste time. Bottom line, there are genuine legends, and these are mostly slighted and flubbed.
The rivalry between Bianchi teammates Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi came in a great era of Italian racing, before and after WW2. It’s a great story because they were equally talented and total opposites. Bartali, known as “The Pious”, was much loved. Peasants were said to kiss his tire tracks. The well named Fausto Coppi was devil-may-care, out of a Fellini movie, and established himself by winning a race at the expense of the sacred Bartali. Attacked by his Director, he replied: You said you wanted to see Bianchi green first across the line, and you did. Coppi also took a doctor’s wife as his mistress and had her to dine with the team, crossing just about every line there was. Lost on these Brits.
But the death of Tommy Simpson, a great rider and doper, on the hellish Ventoux climb, is covered in great, quite accurate detail, but it leaves out a key point. Dryer is Faster was a saying among riders at the time. Simpson, who went the limit in every way, was loaded on speed, and not drinking much. A soigneur of the time remarked that his blood was “thick as syrup” when he keeled over and uttered his famous last words: Put me back on my bike. Riders knew what had happened; they went on doping, but began drinking.
Another for-real legend was the emergence of Greg LeMond from under the dominance of Hinault, one of the toughest peloton bosses ever. Challenging him in the Tour (with a French team) was unthinkable. But after winning his fifth Tour, Hinault promised to support LeMond the following year. He lied. On his way to a record-breaking sixth Tour, Hinault wasted himself with a spectacularly Gallic ride, and paid for it when LeMond dropped the hammer the next day. Richard Moore’s Slaying The Badger is great cycling history. Moore is a Scot with an Irish name (and real cycling experience), not an old Brit promoter living in the past.
As one US pro observed, these Brits covering the Tour on TV are selling themselves as authentic because European, and that is not the case. The Brit relation to cycling is like the UK relationship with the EU, and if the sport is going to be understood here, TV commentary is an issue.
What’s the alternative? Italian coverage is the best, but a lot of Americans don’t speak Italian. My pro friend laughed at American Todd Gogulski for calling everyone a “guy”, but conceded he was preferable to the Brits. He is younger, smoother and more in tune with today’s racing. He also has legitimate experience, having raced with both LeMond and Armstrong as a pro; Liggett doesn’t have that. Never a pro cyclist, he was a promoter, though a good one. Pro experience gives insight and authenticity. Whatever his limitations, Gogulsky and other young American aspirant don’t inflict a Brit POV on this uniquely European madness.
We’ll be hearing Ligget and company, probably with American Bob Roll for laughs. Watch anyway. There’s no way these guys can destroy what’s going to be an epic confrontation between mostly Brit Team Sky and a group of Hispanic guys that in a pinch will may cross team lines to support two-time winner Alberto Contador if it comes down to him and Froome. He’s one rider who doesn’t need a manager on his radio telling him what to do.
He’s also the only rider I know of who laughed off Armstrong’s bullying while cleaning his clock in the Tour.
I spent a lot of time in the sport during the golden US decade, which began with George Mount and Mike Neel, who made hisgory by breaking top-ten in the 1976 Olympic (Mount) and professional (Neel) road races. That decade culminated with Greg LeMond’s first Tour de France victory, an epic very well described in Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger.