The Tour de France ended yesterday, and that's a good thing.
The problem with the Tour is that, for too many Americans, very fit guys wearing Lycra and fancy helmets who get blood transfusions and take drug tests is their image of what bicycling is all about.
Bike racing is enjoyed by lots of people and that's fine, though it's not my sport. Just how much it's not my sport was made very clear to me a couple of years ago at a dinner party. There was a guy there who was, apparently, sort of the guest of honor, but I had never heard of him. He was an older but fit British man, and based on who the hosts and the other guests were, I figured he had something to do with professional bike racing.
I struck up a conversation with him and ran through the possibilities as we chatted. Was he a long retired racer? A team manager? No, wait, I bet he's the guy who actually runs the Tour de France! But why would the French have a British guy running their tour? It was like a game of What's My Line?
Finally, through insightful questioning and the process of elimination I figured out that he was the announcer for the Tour de France. A fellow named Phil Liggett. If you're really into bike racing, you would have been thrilled to meet him. I enjoyed meeting him too. Nice guy.
But the truth is that Tour de France bikes have as much in common with my battered old commuting bike as a Formula One race car has with a Camry. For me, the bike is a form of transportation. I almost never ride my bike more than about three or four miles at a time. I take it to campus, to Monroe Street for meetings over coffee or beer, and to pick up some light groceries now and then. It's just the most convenient and enjoyable way to get to a lot of places. By contrast, I regard riding long distances without a useful destination as a torture akin to watching endless episodes of Downton Abbey -- boring almost to the extent of physical discomfort. (But I like golf.)
What's interesting to me about bikes is not how fast one person can ride one, but how thousands of people riding them every day for everyday purposes can transform a city. For cities and their citizens, bikes are the purest form of good there is. They're clean and quiet. They don't take up too much space. They're easy on the municipal budget. They foster a kind of urban neighborhood development that is pleasant, safe and close-knit. They provide their users with freedom and everyone else with the freedom of one less car competing for space on the road and a parking space. Cars are a problem for cities to solve. Bikes are a solution.
But as long as millions of dollars are spent promoting the Tour de France as the primary image of cycling, it will take us longer to get to a place where what we visualize isn’t a man in Lycra riding a featherlight bike as fast he can to nowhere, but rather a woman in street clothes riding a sturdy bike at a sensible pace to work, a store or a restaurant.
Millions of my fellow bikies can't wait for the Tour to start. I can't wait for it to end. But I do think Phil Liggett is a heck of a nice guy.