Cycling fans aren’t naive. Not after seeing the mysterious deaths of several cyclists at the height of the EPO craze. Not after seeing hero after hero tarnished.
Tyler Hamilton, who broke away to win a stage of the 2003 Tour with a broken collarbone? Confessed to a career riddled with doping violations. Floyd Landis, who stormed back to leave everyone in his dust in a 2006 Tour breakaway ranked among the top feats in the sport’s history? Nailed in the drug test, mounted a massive defense with fans’ help but finally gave it up.
Worst of all, the man whose legs built a cycling and cancer advocacy empire, Lance Armstrong, is squaring off against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in the biggest heavyweight clash since Brock Lesnar avenged his loss to Frank Mir.
As Armstrong has given way to Tejay van Garderen and Outdoor Life Network has given way to NBC Sports Network (with a few years as “Versus”), a few things continue to capture the hearts of U.S. viewers:
1. The soap operas. Cycling is considerably easier when you’re riding behind someone, and so cyclists build alliances from the formal (teams, sharing giant sponsorships and resources) to the informal (“Hey, if we take turns for a while, we just might break away!”).
All of these relationships are fragile. A cyclist who breaches Tour etiquette, as Pierre Rolland did in speeding away while other riders waited for then-contending Cadel Evans to get a bike without tacks in the tires, faces ostracism that might wreck his chances of finding cooperative folks down the road.
Even within a team, riders can argue over which guy is the “leader” for whom everyone else works. This year, Chris Froome is saying all the right things in public as he repeatedly slows down to drag teammate Bradley Wiggins over the mountains. Today, Froome gave up a good chance of winning the stage, looking back over his shoulder several times at the fading Wiggins and returning to pace the Tour leader.
And they were part of the drama as the Wiggins-Froome situation spilled out into a minor WAGfight.
2. Scenery/telemetry. The HD era has only improved the Tour telecasts. France looks lovelier every year as helicopter- and motorcycle-based cameras sweep across the landscape.
Superimposed on the scenery are tons of graphics telling you where the important people happen to be at the moment. The cameras catch just about everything.
3. Liggett-isms. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have the sort of soothing English accents that lend a bit of dignity to proceedings. And Liggett combines the relaxed tones, deep research and dry wit of an English commentator (think of the poor guy dealing with Fred Willard in Best in Show) with the quote-making zeal of Yogi Berra. Little wonder “Liggett-isms” are collected online.
That includes one of the greatest moments in sports broadcasting, and I’m not one to exaggerate. Lance Armstrong, seemingly vulnerable against rival Jan Ullrich, launches the cycling equivalent of an emphatic slam dunk, and Liggett puts it proper perspective:
Maybe one day we’ll look back and think the whole episode was tainted. But that broadcast never will be.
Cycling keeps up its efforts to clean up, with the ultrastrict testers snaring Frank Schleck this year in the “guilty until proven innocent” court of anti-doping opinion.
And so we suspend our disbelief, marvel at the landscape, laugh at the drama and picture Phil Liggett encouraging us in our day-to-day struggles: “He’s wearing the mask of pain but dancing on the keyboard as he finishes writing his book! The mountains have again produced the truth!”