(2015) I think it’s safe to say that September’s Richmond World Championship was a success. It had the makings of gripping plotlines. It had a course that was agreeable to the Europeans. It had American flair to it. And the people saw a performance that only Peter Sagan could pull off after not having his name mentioned the entire day. But it got me thinking. What is American cycling? I was reading the other day about Cross Vegas and its braggart fact of flying in Belgian sand for their sand pit. The World Championships were focusing on the ‘Euro’ cobbles on Libby Hill and 23rd Street. It seems regularly that American cycling is the kindergartner trying to impress the parents before sitting down to dinner. (“See? I drew something! Do you like it?”)
Belgium is hard to compete with. It has the bergs that carefully cradle the historic climbs of the Paterberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Muur van Geraardsbergen, and the iconic church atop the Muur-Kapelmuur. I don’t think we need to dwell on the residents of Belgium such as Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen, Johan Museeuw, and Philippe Gilbert. The people of Belgium embrace the sport. It’s in their culture. They make a day of going to the bike races. Hell, they even make bike races weeklong affairs like the old Ghent Six-Day. And don’t forget those raucous parties of cyclocross.
The next-door neighbor has even more iconic names in the Paris-Roubaix, Tour de France, and Paris-Brest-Paris. Both the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour recently celebrated the centenary of their events. Paris-Brest-Paris had to offset its race to every four years due to high demand. These events have been around a long time, something American events have not. The people of France use their cycling events as motion picture travel brochures. Cycling is their revenue. They have the Trench of Arenberg, Alpe d’Huez, and the Col du Tourmalet. They also cheer on Michael Bourgain in the velodrome against the likes of Max Levy and Kazunari Watanabi of Japan. These names are etched into each rider’s mind be they a professional or club cyclist.
In the same area is the Netherlands, which isn’t a very large country, but per capita has a remarkable cycling culture. The Eneco Tour attracts a large amount of professional names. Theo Bos was a Chris Hoy thorn-in-the-side. Crowds line the Superprestige Zonhoven’s famously steep sand ascents and descents. Their residents are famous for biking in all kinds of weather for work or errands. The Netherlands has a pretty remarkable line-up of pro cyclists every year in the pro peloton. They can boast about their beautifully-run 2015 Tour de France prologue and first stage.
Spain and Italy have their iconic races with the Vuelta and the Giro, respectively. The Vuelta is the younger of the two yet still referred mentioned in the same breath as the Giro and the Tour. Throw in the Tour of the Basque Country and the Giro di Lombardia and the aggregate years among the four are astounding. Even young races such as Strade Bianche, started in 2007, feels as if it has been around for decades.
England, a country not typically known for its heavy cycling presence until recently can even claim remarkable status with their velodrome racing. Chris Hoy dominated the Keirin (and several track disciplines) for several years before Hoy retired. Tom Simpson won the world championship in 1965 with a drag race in San Sebastian, Spain. Let’s not forget Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins, the current time trial world champion, is also the current owner of the Hour Record, stolen from another Brit, Alex Dowsett. And like Richmond, England is coming off a successful road display at the Olympics as well as a Tour prologue stage.
After mentioning a quick six European countries, we return to the United States. It is certainly a great time for United States cycling to develop its own identity. Perhaps the US can pull back on the odes to European racing. Perhaps an American institution of brewing can replace the flowing Belgian beer at American events. Instead of recreating French cobbles, Americans can push quintessential parcours that is unique to the States. While many races in Europe are century-old in their existence, America can take note that the Strade Bianche, a race now part of the Spring Classic season, is only celebrating its eighth year. It’s time to develop the American character of pro cycling and slake the new generation of the pro peloton.