In 2013, I took a break from writing about military veterans and the war in Afghanistan to spend two weeks as a sports correspondent, covering the Tour de France. There was much to love about the food, the wine, and the snow-fringed mountains, to be sure, but I found myself particularly drawn to one of the race’s sideshows: the charmingly, often ridiculously boisterous fans.
Every day on every stage, on mountain passes and along cobbled village streets, they lined the 2,100-mile race course, tens of thousands of them, to cheer on, sometimes touch, and occasionally knock down the riders zooming past. They awoke at 4 a.m. to claim small plots of grass hours before the race. Many made the Tour the centerpiece of their annual summer vacations. I even met a few Americans who clearly knew nothing about bike racing but were fascinated by the European fascination with the sport.
I adored these people. I imagined that few of them were “serious” cyclists who owned expensive carbon bikes and closets full of spandex. I suspected that most of them rode beater bikes to work and the grocery or on leisurely rambles through the park. They weren’t racers themselves; they just loved bicycles. They loved the idea of cycling.
And I wondered to myself: Why can’t Americans love cycling just a bit more?
Of course, part of the answer lies in that most American of passions, the car. Many of us view bikes suspiciously, as lightweight rivals on roads that are already becoming too narrow for our increasingly large vehicles, and too crowded with pedestrians and double-parked trucks. I am a driver, too, and I will admit to feeling irritated on busy streets by cyclists who don’t seem as far onto the shoulder as they could be. (Though let’s be real: Many shoulders, where they exist at all, are as narrow as the tires on our bikes.)
And I, too, get the allure of the car itself: the climate-controlled machine where we can talk on the phone, listen to the music of our choice, consume meals, or just daydream as the open road rushes past, often too fast for us to absorb it in any meaningful way.
Biking is none of that. It is, indeed, the opposite of all of that. And therein lies its charm.
Like many people, my first experience with a bike as a 7-year-old entailed falling off, having the wind knocked out of me, and wondering why would I try that again? But I did, finding that the bike was the best way to get anywhere independently in my exurban community. Soon enough I was riding to and from sports practice, taking myself to the store, and learning the joys of riding fast downhill, or at night, the kinds of adrenaline-rush things teenagers crave.
But it was a cross-country bike trip with a college friend that cemented the true meaning of biking for me. Over six weeks of cycling, we endured days of driving rain in Pennsylvania, moist 100-degree heat in Kansas, unimaginably long mountain passes in Colorado, and unrelenting headwinds in Wyoming. There was nothing climate-controlled about the experience.
What I discovered was that when you move at 15 miles an hour instead of 65, you come to appreciate — and sometimes hate — everything around you: the daunting wind, the pancake-flat land that seems to go on forever, every hill that tests your tired muscles, the vast sky.
We suffered, yes — suffering is a part of cycling — but I still have unexpected flashbacks to marvelous moments on the road. The view from the top of a switchbacking mountain pass. The thrill of coasting into a valley at dusk, the twinkling lights of a town against the growing darkness all around it. The panoramic view of a verdant Idaho river valley tucked between towering mountain ranges. The salty breeze off the California coast when we finally reached the Pacific.
And perhaps best of all, the people. They stopped to ask us about the heavy panniers slung over our rear tires, offering us cold drinks and sometimes dinner. One night, on what had to have been the third straight day of riding through drenching rain in Pennsylvania, we desperately knocked on the door of a random house to ask if we could pitch our tent in their backyard, because the town park seemed unwelcoming. I can’t imagine what we must have looked like to the woman who answered the door: two mangy strays, soaked to the bone. Yet she didn’t hesitate before replying, “You sure can.” And when we awoke in the morning, she ushered us into her kitchen for a breakfast of bacon and eggs. I don’t recall her name, and I’m not really sure she even asked after ours. But I’ll never forget her kindness.
These are things that don’t typically happen when you drive cross country in a car.
Throughout history, freedom has been a word often associated with cycling. When the first two-wheeled, pedal-powered bikes became a craze in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s, suffragists immediately were drawn to the ways the bicycle could liberate women by simply granting them freedom of movement. “The New Woman became synonymous with cycling, not least in the press, since both were about empowerment, freedom and change,” writes Hannah Ross in “Revolutions.” Pathbreaking women from Marie Curie to Susan B. Anthony to Simone de Beauvoir became enthusiasts.
What was true then is true today. When the Taliban was overthrown in Afghanistan in 2001, women found their way back to bikes, relearning the independence — and the simple joy — that riding on two wheels could proffer. A group of women formed an international racing team, training in long pants and head scarves under the broiling Afghan sun, because, even without the Taliban, Afghan mores demanded it. When the Taliban returned to power last year, scores of female cyclists were evacuated with the help of the international cycling community.
Freedom. Independence. Rushes of adrenaline. Come on, America: What’s not to love?
Bike racing did have a moment of glory in the United States, thanks to Lance Armstrong, whose unprecedented string of seven Tour de France victories from 1999 through 2005 made him a folk hero even to those many Americans who knew little about bike racing. And just as swiftly, it all dissipated when Armstrong’s doping schemes were revealed.
When I mention my willingness to stare at videos of scrawny men pedaling ultralight bikes at 90 rpms for hours at a time, people look at me like I’m insane. But there is drama, if you know where to look, as riders struggle against the terrain and the weather, against each other and the limits of their own bodies. Will anyone stay away from the charging pack across 50, 80, or 100 miles of racing? Whose legs will crack on the final stretches of that 10-mile climb?
And there is teamwork. In the men’s tour, which ended last Sunday (the women’s tour finishes this Sunday), a gaggle of talented young Americans proved among the most valuable teammates in the race, pacing top contenders up the toughest mountain stages and chasing down opponents attempting to break away. They may never be household names — Sepp Kuss, Brandon McNulty, Neilson Powless among them — but they were spectacular to watch.
All of which brings me back to that 2013 Tour, where I met a Belgian couple who were wearing Red Sox caps. They had gone to a game at Fenway on a lark and had been baffled by how the fans around them, after having paid good money for their seats, spent much of the game talking, reading, and walking around.
Now they were standing on a grassy knoll near the Swiss border, waiting expectantly for a mass of riders to zip past at 30 miles per hour, a spectacle that would last for perhaps 45 seconds. “I guess we just don’t understand baseball,” the husband said.
James Dao can be reached at email@example.com.