My boys start hockey on Saturday. Last night, when I got home, they were cavorting about in the living room with all their pads on, their helmets. My wife had, presciently, forbidden them from bringing the sticks into the house. They were, nonetheless, alight with the prospect of becoming hockey players.
I don’t really know how this happened. I grew up in Alabama, where football is religion, and hockey is something on a channel you don’t pay for. My own father, who is Welsh, only ever played soccer, and I had that from him. The magic of the ball dancing on his foot caught my imagination and lead me to a lifetime love affair with what some call “the beautiful game.”
The bike, an awkward confluence of triangles and circles, performs this trick all on its own. In one moment you are rolling down a paved strip, a parent’s steadying hand gripping the back of your seat, and then you are flying. It’s an epiphany of movement beyond the fragile processing capacity of your young mind, and if you’re here, on RKP, reading these words, you were probably hooked in that moment.
We write about that epiphany a lot, and we glorify it, and it’s a moment and experience worthy of glorification. We ride and ride and chase that feeling of first flight, and even close approximations are worth the chase.
Of course, it’s everything that comes after that’s important. It’s how we fill our lives with the love of motion, either on a bike or on a pair of hockey skates, that leads to fitness and community and experience, the things you learn from and the things that inspire you, the way the movement informs your thinking and shapes your world view.
My boys can hardly skate. They are only just at the wobbly beginning, but as I sat there watching them dismantle the living room, I thought about the lives in front of them and wondered what things would succeed in capturing their burgeoning imaginations. I smiled because I know how good whatever it is will be when it flowers inside them, how much magic can be in that moment, and in everything that comes after.
As some of you might be aware, there are sports other than cycling. One of those sports is soccer/football/futbol/futebol/voetbal/fußbal/calcio, and in this other sport with its many names, there is a big tournament coming. They call it the World Cup. This international tournament, which takes place every four years, is, by all accounts, the biggest sporting event in the world.
I know. I know. With the Tour de France on the horizon, who can be bothered?
Well, as I think I’ve mentioned here before, my other area of quasi-expertise is in the aforementioned sport, and here on the verge of the quadrennial explosion of the “beautiful game” it has me thinking about what the future of cycling could be, both here in the United States and in the rest of the world.
I cast my mind back 20 years. I didn’t own my own computer then, and following soccer (excuse, temporarily the American terminology) meant tuning into a one hour highlights show late on a Friday night. Of course, for a man of passion, that was never going to be enough, so I bought a computer and a short wave radio (seriously) and began following matches by live text update and by tuning into local stations in Manchester, London, Derby and Ipswich. It was like trying to quench your thirst by catching rain drops on your tongue.
Over time, the situation improved. Games were available by satellite TV at the pub. ESPN began to show matches. Soccer specific channels came on line. And today, I can say, with some relief, that there is now more soccer available to me than I can possibly choke down in a month of Sundays.
Now, who cares?
Well, you should, and here’s why. Where I was with soccer 20 years ago is, roughly, where I am with cycling now. I follow races large and small by live text feed online. I catch highlights shows. I squint at live Internet video with Belgian commentary. I read and read and read and read. For a man of passion, it’s not quite enough.
And yet, like soccer, cycling is an international sport. It has a governing body which is actively trying to globalize its brand, to raise cycling’s profile in heretofore unexploited commercial markets. It’s hard to say whether the timeline will be the same, but it’s fair to guess that those of us in currently “non-cycling oriented” nations will gain increasing access to coverage of our sport over the next two decades as investment in Asia, Australia and even in the US begin to bear fruit.
It would be easy, and cynical I think, to say that soccer has a distinct advantage over bike racing in that the ready-made market for its matches is much larger and the advertising revenues are so much greater. The point is not that cycling stands to make the same money as soccer, but rather that the potential reach of the sport is similar, and the success of that initiative can probably be attributed to the philosophy of the UCI, which is to globalize as much as possible.
To be sure, globalization has brought soccer to the United States despite the entrenched interests of our peculiar sports, baseball, American football, basketball, et. al. My generation and those older had no access to the more international forms of sport, and so became calcified in our interests. The younger generation lives in a much larger world, and they are curious.
For those outside the US, the “soccerification,” if you will, of cycling will also have the benefit of broadening the sponsorship pool and stabilizing the economics of the pro peloton. While European sponsors may shy away from being associated with cycling’s doping culture, bigger international sponsors will feel comfortable investing in new, clean teams, such as Garmin and Sky.
Traditional soccer nations have wrestled with their sport’s growth in worldwide appeal. What were once clubs have become brands. Tribal lines and heritage have become harder to defend. If cycling does make it down that path, there will be cultural losses in Western Europe. Already, French and Italian races that were once major dates on the calendar have made way for races in other parts of the world. Some will lament. Some will rejoice.
If it means I can watch the next Giro d’Italia live on television with English language commentary, then you can count me among the latter.