If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound if there are no Americans around to hear it?
Apparently not, at least if you go by the attention Americans are paying to the 2012 Tour de France, one of the premier sporting events in the world. There are lots of cycling enthusiasts in this country who wait impatiently all year for this super event, but they’re in the minority, and a small one at that. Those enthusiasts hate to hear it, but it’s just a fact that 99 percent of Americans don’t care about the Tour de France unless, of course, an American has a chance to win it.
Cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular were incredibly popular in the United States for about 15 years. It started when Greg LeMond became the first U.S. rider to win the sports’ most prestigious award in 1986 (and came back two years later to win two more titles) and it really picked up steam when Lance Armstrong dominated the sport in the 1990s, winning seven straight.
But how many of you know that Cadel Evans of Australia won last year’s Tour de France or that Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain is currently wearing the coveted yellow jersey as the overall leader in the 2012 race?
Without a dashing American star in the race, the Tour de France has been pushed to the back pages of U.S. newspapers and the tail end of Sportscenter – unless, of course, the story is about doping in professional cycling, which has become the bane of the sport and seriously eroded its credibility. It’s touched dozen of riders, including the All-American boy, Lance Armstrong.
Cycling’s best chance to make a real local impact in this country was lost when the Tour DuPont (nee’ the Tour de Trump) faded away after running for eight years (1989-1996). That race brought some of the sports’ best riders to Wilmington, including LeMond, who won it in 1993, and Armstrong, who first emerged as a potential superstar when he challenged Raul Alcala for the title in 1993, finishing a close second, and then won consecutive titles in 1995-1996.
That was a fun time around here because, more than any other local sporting event, the Tour DuPont brought an international and cosmopolitan feel to Wilmington and, of course, brought in some much-needed revenue for the city. But when the DuPont Co. pulled its sponsorship, the Tour was no more.
Even with the Tour DuPont, professional racing would never have made it as a spectator sport in this country for the simple reason that it’s boring to watch live. Sure, the cyclists are some of the best athletes in the world, or at least the athletes with the biggest thighs, but as a spectator sport it just doesn’t cut it.
Think about it: If you want to watch the Tour de France or any premier race live, you have to find a spot along the road, wait hours for the peloton (which, as we all know, is the main group of riders) to reach you and then – zip! – they’re gone. OK, time to go home…
The only parts of the race that are real exciting, at least in most Americans’ eyes, are the time trials, because the cyclists go past your viewing spot several times. And it’s not a coincidence that when the Tour DuPont’s time trial was run in Wilmington, the most popular viewing spot was at a sharp turn on cobblestoned Monkey Hill. And the reason for that is simple – that’s the spot where there was the best chance of an accident and there were plenty of them over the years.
That mentality isn’t just restricted to cycling, of course. That’s why hockey highlights focus more on fights than goals and why NASCAR highlights focus more on multi-car wrecks than the strategy used by the winning team.
So, cycling will remain a niche sports in this country, even though it’s wildly popular in other parts of the world. Maybe another Lance Armstrong will come along, but until he does Americans will only be interested in bikes for recreation, not competition.
Contact Kevin Noonan at email@example.com.