The Tour de France, so far, has been just a heartbreak for those of us who wanted Discovery to prove that they were really a team of genius and that George Hincapie could go from being a strong presence in the classics to being the great man of the tour, at least for a year. I ride around town in a Phonak jersey (dating back to when Tyler Hamilton was still innocent), but I really liked Discovery and was rooting for them. But after yesterday’s second mountain stage, which blew George out the back, it’s clear that Discovery isn’t going to be the team this year.
Phonak, however, may be another story. Floyd Landis has had an incredible spring – particularly for someone who has just revealed that his hip will be traded in after this race. Floyd’s the prototypical bike racer – teen rebel (against Mennonite parents; note to Al Trautwig: Mennonites and Amish ain’t the same thing. Duh.), crazy obsessed with riding, strong supporter of a legendary leader (Lance) who has now fallen out with him, went off to play support on Phonak only to find himself suddenly team leader when Hamilton was suspended for doping. (In cycling, suspensions last for at least two years, and under new rules, four – unlike the several games that baseball players are obliged to sit out.) I like Floyd’s story, and I think he truly is going to prove himself one of the great riders of our time – but there’s a certain sourness to his disposition that can be off-putting to a fan, whereas George is right out of central casting, cut right from the Lou Gehrig mold. And while Floyd’s American, Phonak isn’t an American team (they’re Swiss), and we really need Discovery to be successful to prove to other sponsors that there is room for another major American-based team on the UCI circuit.
Aside: sponsors in pro bike racing are an motley collection. Here in the States, we expect our sports sponsors to be the big national and multinational companies with all kinds of dollars to spare and spread across the sport. They’re cigarettes and beer and maybe some food – stuff that they could be trying to sell to anyone watching the event. In bike racing, teams are sponsored by a hearing aid company (Phonak), the Basque telephone system (Euskaltel), HVAC makers (Lampre and Saunier Duval), flooring (QuickStep) and, in the past, a concrete maker (Fassa Bortolo). T-Mobile is about the only sponsor other than Discovery Channel that would be recognizable to Americans. For a while, the Balearic Islands government sponsored their own team (they’re now a sub-sponsor). Given that, it doesn’t seem like it would be that much of a stretch for another American outfit to sponsor a UCI team. I mean, don’t we have any vain metal foundries that want their names plastered across Europe for nothing more than the glory of the sport, the hope that some young crazy rider will break away from the pack for 100 km and the sponsor’s name will be beamed across the globe for as long as that rider can stay away from the peloton? Apparently not.
End of aside. I wait all year for this event, surely the greatest sporting event on the planet, three weeks of grueling competition – crazy stages where riders go for five or six hours and then battle it out at the finish line for gaps of less than inches, mountain stages where you can watch the strongest man suddenly crack, where you can see the lights go out and the engine die as what looked like the best man in the pack suddenly slide off the back and find himself half an hour behind in a race that will likely be decided by minutes or even seconds. Points competitions, wild breakaways, bad crashes, and that silly Credit Lyonnais stuffed lion being thrust out from behind the scrim into the waiting hands of a podium girl. There’s nothing like it on earth.