Cycling as soap opera

Why the Lance Armstrong scandal won’t turn fans off the sport.

Professional bike racing is not user friendly. Like joining a TV soap opera halfway through a season, it can be thoroughly impenetrable to the outsider.

What are all those colored jerseys for? How can it be racing if they’re riding around in a bunch? Why is that team sponsored by a manufacturer of laminated flooring?

In football, the team that kicks the ball into the net the most times wins the game. With cycling, the dream is in the detail, in the rivalries and alliances that bind the riders together. It’s in the relationship of a cyclist with a particular mountain climb. Gear ratios, frame types and time splits.

Bradley Wiggins, the reigning Tour de France champion, is famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. His manager, an ex-pro, says that “as a kid it seemed like [Wiggins] watched videos of races over and over where others would watch Thomas the Tank Engine. He even knew what shoes I’d been wearing.”

To the obsessive cycling fan, doping scandals have become part of the fabric of the sport, part of the soap opera that makes it so gripping.

When Alberto Contador won the Tour of Spain in September, he cemented his place as the world’s most talented cyclist. For some, the fact that he was returning from a 2 year drugs ban made his victory all the more compelling.

The most tragic doping scandal of all has gone down in the legend of the sport. In 1967, Tom Simpson collapsed and died on the Mont Ventoux, alcohol and amphetamines coursing through his veins. “Put me back on my bike” were his last words. Or so the story goes.

The sport has been rocked by so many doping scandals in the last 15 years, that it should be on the wane. Yet it’s more popular now than ever before.

Cycling is enduring yet another cathartic moment, another attempt to forge a cleaner future. It’s been there before. But even if it’s a false dawn, the fans will almost certainly stick around.

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