As a sport, cycling has come a long way towards acceptance in the United States over the last 30 years or so. The accomplishments of Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong on cycling's biggest stage have had a lot to do with that acceptance, as have marquis domestic events such as the USPRO race in Philadelphia, the Red Zinger and Coors Classic, the Tour du Pont, and the Tour of California. Yes, desperate-for-attention sportswriters at half-wit newspapers around the country can and will continue to write their yearly columns about how cycling isn’t a sport since them gol’ danged, spandex-wearing, French-speaking nancy boys couldn’t hit a Roger Clemens fastball or a three-point shot if their lives depended on it, and they’ll continue to use the resulting reams of cyclist hate mail to prove their far-reaching influence to an underpaid editor who really doesn’t give a damn. But they'll be preaching to a smaller and smaller choir of likeminded souls since, aforementioned unpleasantries aside, the United States has mostly managed to grudgingly accept that riding a bicycle fast to beat other people is a legitimate athletic pursuit.
That said, I’m betting that we haven’t reached the point of cultural acceptance where during, say, the Tour of Missouri, a flock of low-ranking domestiques could run into an Exxon Tiger Mart, clear out the Snapple fridge and the beef jerky display, and run out without paying, right under the nose of the owner’s giggling daughter. Being a Virginian, I’m no expert on Missouri mini-mart justice, but I’d venture that they’d get tasered or pepper-sprayed on the way out, and that’s if they hadn’t already pulled a groin due to the famously incompatible relationship between plastic clipless pedal cleats and linoleum gas station floors. At the very least, their larcenous hijinks would make the evening news, which would undoubtedly air a security video so grainy that not even the race numbers pinned to their backs would enable authorities to identify the suspects. (As with any petty crime committed by our kind, though, you can bet the news accounts would note that the perpetrators were cyclists, as well as whether or not they were wearing helmets at the time of the offense.)
But not so in Italy, at least not in the 1970s, when a standard antic in the Giro d’Italia was for riders to descend upon a roadside store or bar and pilfer all the orange soda, San Pellegrino, and light apertifs they could carry, often with the tacit or even explicit approval of the proprietor. This two-minute clip from filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a documentary about the 1974 Giro, shows one such raid and captures a not-so-distant past that still feels worlds away.
[Film note: That anyone would attempt to open a bottle by pounding the cap against any portion of his bicycle’s steering apparatus speaks to the bike handling confidence of the rider. I’m not sure what finishing the job off with your teeth says, but it’s something.]
“Ah, but that’s a bygone era,” you say. “People are more litigious now, and computerized inventory and ordering makes wide-scale, willy-nilly looting extremely inconvenient and less endearing for modern retailers. No store owner would tolerate that nonsense today.”
The thing is, in Italy at least, I bet they would. The love and knowledge of the sport is deeper there, the traditions more closely kept, and in the grand history of Italian cycling, the 1970s aren’t that long ago. If Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r) wanted to pilfer some Orangina during a long, hot sprint stage, I’m betting not too many storekeepers on the route would begrudge him the loot. But the modern Giro, and modern racing in general, doesn’t afford riders the same chances at levity that it used to – the media and public scrutiny are greater and the stakes and money are bigger, or at least that’s how it feels. And it’s that upping of the ante and maybe a related loss of some peloton camaraderie that put an end to the bar raid, not a suspicious eye behind the espresso machine, a Carcano under the counter, or some heightened sense of fiscal responsibility. It’s just that, damn it, nobody takes time out of a bike race to rob a European convenience store anymore, and that’s a shame.
As far as U.S. cycling goes, however, it’s probably a good thing that the practice has died out. Ivan Basso (Liquigas) getting shot for trying to pinch a Fresca at a Bakersfield, California 7-Eleven due to a tragic cultural misunderstanding isn’t the kind of press we need. We’ve come a long way stateside, but cyclists and bicycle racing haven’t quite reached that level of cultural acceptance here. But it is achievable, my friends, and other sports have done it. In fact, I’d venture that the starting defense of the Indianapolis Colts could likely leave the stadium during the upcoming Super Bowl, roll up to the local Miami Chevron, clear out the Twinkies, the Gatorade, and the cash register, and be met with nothing but applause for doing so. Someday, maybe the likes of Quick.Step, Lampre, and HTC-Columbia will have the same luxury of status. It would sure help things along if they bulked up to 250 pounds and could bench press 435, though.
- Speaking of the sport’s traditions, this article is sort of cycling’s equivalent of the swallows returning to San Juan Capastrano. When you see it each year, you know that spring is coming.
- Reports of Niels Albert’s (BKCP-Powerplus) non-contention for the upcoming cyclocross World Championship appear to have been greatly exaggerated, mostly by him. In all fairness, after getting yanked off his bike by a fan and cracking a rib at the Belgian national championship, Albert was right to be concerned about his ability to defend the rainbow stripes he’s worn this season. But after suffering through the World Cup round at Roubaix the following weekend, he roared back to win yesterday's final World Cup at Hoogerheide.
While it’s good to have Albert back, there’s no denying that World Cup overall winner Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) is the odds-on favorite to win the World Championship on his home turf in Tabor, Czech Republic. Between his performances this year, the hometown crowd, Albert’s prediction that the Belgian team will return to being an every-man-for-himself affair, and Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) defection for the road, this has to be Stybar’s year.
- In lamenting how cyclists are treated on roads here in the United States, we often refer enviously to the perceived better treatment of cyclists in countries like Italy. Unfortunately, bad things happen there, too. Condolences to the Wilier family on the loss of its chief, Lino Gastaldello.