2014: Cycling’s popularity linked to culture, lack of a top American rider
August 17, 2015
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series about the culture of cycling and how it's gained popularity in Summit County with the advent of the USA Pro Challenge.
Cruising around Breckenridge on Monday, Aug. 18, the enthusiasm for the USA Pro Challenge cycling race wasn't exactly palpable. A handful of bars had one or two TVs tuned in to the first stage of the race in Aspen, but for every patron who was half-watching the screen, another dozen were paying no attention whatsoever.
Angelica Gomez and Bobby Clopton, of Austin, Texas, were in town visiting a friend at Empire Burger. The Pro Challenge carried on across the TV above their heads, but their eyes weren't trained on the action.
"I've watched the Tour de France because Lance Armstrong is from Austin," Clopton said. "It's interesting. If a guy wrecks in the middle of the field, they're all going down."
no top american
Ironically, Armstrong, the man whose seven Tour de France titles drew an entire generation to cycling, may also be one of the reasons the sport has lost steam in the United States in the past few years.
"I think what drives participation and interest is having an American rider do well in the biggest event in the sport, whether it's the Olympics or the Tour de France," said Sam Parker, owner of Podium Sports in Frisco. "When an American does well, the bike companies all talk about it. When Lance Armstrong was wining, love him or hate him, Trek sales were way up, road bicycle sales in general were through the roof."
Parker said, far and away, the Tour de France is the only bike race people who aren't cyclists recognize, and as long as there was an American winning that race, there was renewed and heightened interest in the sport.
"If an American isn't doing well and it's not spoken about, I think Americans ease off on their interest level," he said. "And maybe the reputation that came out of the fallout from Lance Armstrong and his admissions, the mainstream sport enthusiasts might have a bit more tainted opinion of bike racing in this country."
Not a favorite sport
John Shand, owner of Avalanche Sports in Breckenridge, said his reservations have been up as people have rented bikes for the entire week to take up to Aspen and Monarch Pass for the Pro Challenge, but despite the surge in interest during race week in Colorado, cycling just isn't as popular as other sports in the U.S.
"Why isn't it on in the bars? It's Americans; they'd rather watch a baseball game than a bike race, but once the race comes through, I think the whole county loves it," he said. "I think they're way more excited about the Pro Challenge than the Tour de France.
"I don't think it's a county thing or a town thing, I think Americans aren't really into road racing. When it's coming through, it's hot, but to watch it every day, I think it's just cycling in America. It's kind of like soccer in America."
European culture embraces cycling and soccer much like Americans hold dear football and tailgating. Shand said he doesn't have a good answer for why cycling hasn't gained a better foothold in the United States.
"It's just so fleeting," he said. "It's here and it's gone. You're building up that anticipation, and what you were waiting to watch was a couple of minutes and then your moment is over. It's exciting for that moment, but I don't think it's a huge spectator sport.
"But the party scene is as big as any tailgate or football party I've been to. The party scene is there when the race is actually coming through. I don't know why it has never caught on in America. In Europe and a lot of the world, it's just the biggest thing."
Missing piece of culture
Indeed, many Breckenridge TVs, like those at the Blue Stage Saloon, were tuned to baseball games or Sports Center coverage of preseason football on Monday night. Napper Tandy's Irish Pub couldn't tune in to the Pro Challenge due to a Direct TV signal glitch, and the Tennis Channel took precedence on the one TV at the Briar Rose Chophouse & Saloon.
At Downstairs at Eric's, brothers Gabe Leap, of Boulder, and Wes Leap, of Kansas City, were more enthusiastic about the restaurant's chicken wings than the cycling race streaming on the TV above the bar.
"I don't know any of the riders, and I don't like road biking all that much," Wes said, adding that he's more into mountain biking and bike trials.
Parker said that sports like football and baseball and even mountain biking, to an extent, have mass-marketing efforts behind them, while cycling is still a fringe sport in this country, kind of like ski racing.
"Honestly, I think that culturally this country needs to quit its love affair with automobiles and cycling needs to be a part of everyday life like it is in a lot of European countries," he said. "In places like the Netherlands, people commute every day on their bicycles, 15, 18, 20 miles on their bike to go to work. It's not a part of the American psyche right now."
Culturally, we're not attuned to cycling as part of everyday life, Parker said. We don't have the bike lanes, it's not as comfortable at times because of automobile traffic and the interactions between cars and bicycles are pretty tough on cyclists.
"It's getting better, but I still think there's a long way to go to have cycling become a part of our cultural activity, our daily transportation," Parker said. "So until you get to that point where bicycles are more a part of your life, I don't think the interest will be there on a cultural level like there is in Europe."
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