Our American Cycling

Maybe Greg LeMond had it right all along. He lived in Europe. He learned French. He immersed himself, but he retained his American-ness. He adapted, but never compromised.

This past weekend, I was at the Grand Prix of Gloucester, and Padraig was at Levi’s King Ridge Grand Fondo, two singular American cycling events, their origins in European riding/racing, but their executions fully-yankeefied. Neither of us was logged into an illicit web-feed of a pro race with commentary in Flemish, French or Italian. Neither of us was reading about a far off mountain or daydreaming about being someplace else. We were both on home soil, physically AND mentally.

There was the smell of wet grass and diesel exhaust in Stage Fort Park in Gloucester on Saturday (this was before the sanitary facilities were overwhelmed and another distinct odor took the air). A schooner sailed into the bay, and a light mist fell. The feel was decidedly New England, though I didn’t see anyone whaling.

First run in 1999, the GP of Gloucester is known locally as “New England Nationals,” but it has grown into a quality, international event with riders from the UK and Switzerland standing on this year’s podium. They’re coming to us now.

The King Ridge Grand Fondo is just three-years-old, but as Padraig’s report will tell you, it is already a massive, well-organized ride. In fact, our calendar is now dotted with races and rides like these, events that enjoy massive support from sponsors and riders alike. Some are even taking on a cultish mystique despite their youth. D2R2 anyone?

For too long, our cycling culture has been imported. How many of us have read hagiographic accounts of Belgian kermisses and swooned a quiet swoon of wanna-be-ness? I know I have. There are probably more riders in the Belgian colors in the United States than there are in all of Belgium, population 11 million. Is there such a thing as velo-envy? If so, we’ve had a bad case.

How many of us have lusted for a steel Merckx? How many of us have pulled on an orange Molteni top despite looking awful in that autumnal hue (everyone does) and not ever having laid eyes on one of Molteni’s stoves.

Is Coppi your man? Formulate the parallel questions in Italian. The answers are all the same. We have been more than Europhilic. We are perhaps lucky our brethren across the ocean haven’t filed a cultural restraining order.

But, there is no longer a need to hitch our bikes to that particular sag wagon.

We have a new American cycling made up of legions of top pros not named Lance Armstrong. That we’ve outgrown the controversial Texan says as much as anything about our growth.

American bicycles, for better and for worse, dominate the modern peloton. Our cycling events reach back into the past when they can, as with the Major Taylor Hill Climb in Worcester, but they also maintain a very contemporary outlook as with our unique take on Grand Fondos and Randonees.

We have magazines like peloton and Embrocation Cycling Journal and Bike, as well as the usual suspects like Bicycling, Velo(News) and Road Bike Action, who are telling our stories back to us in colors more crisp and vivid than we first imagined them in. They write about domestic makers of embro, American beers, events, and custom bike builders. They ride our epic (yes, epic) rides and document them for posterity. Mt. Baldy. The Texas hill country. The Maine seacoast.

I can’t help but feel excited by what is happening in our new American cycling. That doesn’t mean I eschew the spring classics or the grand tours, or that I no longer covet my neighbor’s Italian steel (even though I already own an Italian steel bike). It just means that we also have our own thing. I don’t have to rue the fact that I’ve never seen a kermiss, because I’m too busy yelling at my buddies as they hurdle the barriers in Gloucester, or checking in with Padraig to see how he did at King’s Ridge.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m sitting too close to the television, and what I perceive as a blossoming cycling culture, is really just a pixelated reflection of what’s going on in the old world. But it feels like more. Everytime peloton comes in the mail, or some one of my non-cycling friends asks me if I can help them find their first road bike, I think, “It’s happening. It’s really happening.”

And I smile.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

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  1. Jesse

    I moved to Scotland from Oregon, USA last winter expecting to find a huge racing scene. I was a little surprised at what I discovered. Back home, a cross race meant 1000-1500+ racers turning up for the local series each weekend. Here they’re thrilled if 200 turn up. On the road, races in Oregon usually would have five or six men’s fields and three or four women’s fields. My new home races generally have three or four total. As a racer, I have found, found memories of home.

    But that’s not the whole story. As a fan, I can turn on the TV at night and get an hour highlights show (or live coverage during the day) for all the grand tours every day of the race. Or I can catch a flight to France to watch a few stages in July without playing the price of an S-Works McLaren for the trip. And as a rider, I can make the 16 mile commute into work on a cycle path with low or no traffic for 13 of those miles.

    The experience as a whole has led me to the same conclusion as Robot. It’s a great time to be riding, racing and cheering in the States these days. Let’s hope American progress means as many people will be racing bikes in the future as there are people cheering them on in Europe now.

  2. craig

    It was great racing last weekend at Gloucester. Were you there as a spectator, racer or both? Took a few photos on Sunday when I wasn’t in the beer garden. Hard to get away when one has the opportunity to chat it up with Tyler Hamilton (and newly minted fiance) while people are pressing free beers into my hands.

    Here is a smattering of photos from Sunday if you’re interested: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2416738787344.137975.1517592852&l=a75840aac8&type=1

  3. sophrosune

    I bought my first Italian racing bike in the summer of 1990 and promptly took it to Central Park and dutifully did my laps around the park and did my 9W rides on the weekends. There was a strong culture of cycling there in NY and in New England as well that I knew from my friends who lived there.

    I live now in Spain and I do my weekday training rides and weekend group rides and here too there is a strong cycling culture. But these two cultures are different.

    Here there are clubs and you join a club through your local bike shop. Now clubs associated with stores exist in the US too, but my experience was that they were far more elitist (at least in NYC) than it is here.

    There are other differences: You cannot find someone to give you a “professional fitting” here, the longing for a bygone era with old steel bikes is so rare as to be almost nonexistent here and I do not know of Cat 1, 2, 3, 4 racing, which is such an imporant heirarchy in the US.

    I wish there were more shops here that could give you a professional fitting, but I’m also glad that a lot of the elitist attitude is a little harder to encounter here. There’s always tradeoffs.

    America has its cycling culture and Europe (at least Spain) has its particular brand. No reasons I can see not to celebrate both.

  4. drew wilson

    Great post. Similar story line to American downhill skiing. I’ve thought a lot about the line between honoring the euro past and history vs. Cultural posing. Maybe this year I won’t pretend to be a euro at my cx races.

    Shameless plug- check out our distinctly Midwestern take on the classics at almanzo.com

  5. DavidA

    In regards to Lemond bringing his own American style to the Euros, I like the story from Gert-Jan Thuinesse about how Lemond had their cook for the Tour prepare Mexican food for them and invited PDM to join them at the dinner table. A break in the boring rice and fish/chicken every night.

  6. lqdedison

    That was a good read and it certainly hit on what I’ve felt the few times I’ve been back in America. I moved to Europe over three years ago and during that time have integrated myself into a whole different type of cycling culture. Some bits are better, way better, but some parts are not so great.

    The only grasp I get of what’s happening with American cycling culture is from websites like this one and a few others. If I had to sum it all up I’d say that it is indeed a great time to be a cyclist in America. The time has arrived and it’s only going to get better.

    It’s bittersweet for me as I can only watch everything unfold but there is no arguing that it is without a doubt a great thing to be happening for American cyclists.

  7. marco placero

    Accept to create that U.S. cycling reaches a different high level. Pity the doughboy blobs– let themselves get so out of shape– they’ll never be really competitive again, physically and spiritually. They chased a pop world version, now the big house, big boob blonde, big paper fortune are gone.
    Zen says be happy but humble– fortunate you, american cyclist.

  8. Jim

    I try to live in both worlds. I ride for an Italian themed velo club, promote a somewhat Belgian-themed CX race, and enjoy hootin’ & hollerin’ lowbrow mountain biking with friends and flasks. If many of the Europeans adored Lance (just as many hated him) there’s nothing wrong with appropriating a bit of our common culture and making it our own. And I believe Molteni made sausages when Eddy rode for them…

    The one thing that is interesting about CX is that some of the Belgians have started coming here to race and scoop up early season UCI points, and they have noted that we have awesome race fans, and an enormous grass roots racing scene that they simply don’t have in Yurp; and as far as I know they haven’t checked out Cross Crusade yet, which would really blow their minds. Euro pros also enjoy our growing week long tours, and the raucous NRC crit scene during the summers – and don’t exactly dominate the crits, our version of the Kermiss race.

    What we have here is not slavish devotion to Euro cycling culture, I think, but a cross-pollination that potentially makes cycling richer for both sides of the atlantic. It’s fitting that the U.S. should take what’s best about European cycling culture; it functions as a metaphor for how the country was built to begin with.

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