It is commonly called the Super Bowl of cycling.
Not even close.
"The Super Bowl lasts three hours," says Tony Prioli of Clearwater, a professional cyclist. "The Tour de France lasts three, four, five hours a day for three weeks. You are talking about athleticism on an entirely different scale."
There is not much incentive for Americans to consider cycling as a pro career, says English-born Andy Clarke, deputy director for the Bicycle Federation of America. "It's only since Greg LeMond (became a star) that there's been any money in cycling over here," Clarke said, "and when you compare it to baseball and basketball and the salaries you can get for other professional sports, it's a hell of a lot of work for not much reward."
So, like soccer, cycling is foreign to all but a tiny percentage of Americans past their middle teens. Kids have always had bikes, either those fat-tired, shiny-fendered Schwinns of earlier generations or today's skinny 10-speeds or BMXs _ mostly to get to the baseball diamond, the basketball court or around the neighborhood.
But just as most kids forsake soccer for basketball, football or other sports about the same time they hit high school, most eventually put away their bicycles. "Over in Europe," Prioli said, "people ride their bikes longer, usually until 17, 18, maybe later, and if they discover they're good at it, they stick with it.
"Here, at 15, 16, the last thing kids want to be seen doing is riding a bike. They get their driver's license. It's new and exciting, opens up a whole new world to them. Heck, they've been riding a bike for a dozen years."
Prioli is a mechanic at Chainwheel Drive, a Clearwater bike shop, when he isn't cycling around the country for Guiltless Gourmet, the sponsor of his pro team. He has raced in virtually every major U.S. cycling event.
He also has a driver's license _ and three bikes worth $3,000 apiece, far more than the book value of his 1959 Volkswagen pickup truck.
A city's dream
The Tour de France begins July
1. It will careen through mountains, valleys, rain, snow _ "just about anything," Prioli said. "Lightning might slow it down. There'd have to be trees falling down to stop it, and then just for that day. They'd just forget that stage, revert to the previous times and pick up the race at the start of the next one."
A stage doesn't always start where the previous one ended. In some cases the teams and their equipment are driven to the next town. Midway in the race the competitors fly from Seraing, Belgium, to Le Grand Bornand, France. And there's a train ride from Lac de Vassiviere to the start of the final stage in Ste. Genevieve-des-Bois.
The finish line is always in Paris. A year ago the 2,474-mile race began in Lille in northern France and wound counterclockwise around the country. This year's 2,192-mile, 21-stage race (including a "prologue," an opening 4.6-mile sprint, one of four time trials) starts in St. Brieuc, an English Channel community in western France. It follows a clockwise route, passing through Belgium, and ends July 23. The longest stage covers 264 miles from Fecamp to Dunkirk; the shortest (besides the prologue) is the 15-mile final sprint to Paris.
"Just to be on the route of the race is a major event," BFA's Clarke said. "Towns and cities bid to be a part of it, the way cities here want to host a Super Bowl, especially to be the start/finish of one of the twentysomething stages. To be the site of the opening stage of the race is something that cities dream of."
His goal: to finish
There likely will be few Americans of note _ Lance Armstrong, Frankie Andreu, George Hincapie and Andy Hampsten _ in this year's Tour de France, said Charles Pelkey, technical editor of VeloNews in Boulder, Colo.
Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, is the lead rider for the Motorola team. Andreu (Dearborn, Mich.) and Hincapie (New York) are Motorola teammates. Hampsten (Grand Forks, N.D.) is expected to ride for Banesto of Spain, hoping to help Miguel Indurain to a record-tying fifth victory (and a record-setting fifth in a row).
This is Armstrong's third Tour de France. He has yet to finish it. "As a rookie," Prioli said, "Motorola put him in for one week, just to see how he'd do, then pulled him (out) to keep his body from breaking down to the point it can't recover. (Armstrong) may have been able to finish last year but they let him go only two weeks. Now he's had two years to feel it out; this year his goal is to finish _ and finish well."
LeMond, 34, a three-time Tour de France winner, retired after dropping out of last year's race. His body just gave out, he said. He dabbles in mountain biking, has opened a trendy restaurant in Minneapolis and designs golf courses with his father.
LeMond's three victories didn't make him an American icon. He is far more famous overseas and still well below the European hero-worship level of Eddie Merckx and other international stars. But he did raise the American cycling consciousness a bit.
If nothing else, Americans who long ago stopped thinking about bicycles as anything but a menace to pedestrians and motorists will tune into the Tour de France to see how the red-white-and-blue is doing among the bleu-blanc-et-rouge.
A good mechanic
Prioli, 26, is one of only about 160 professional racing cyclists in the United States. Few of them can match the European talent, one reason you won't find many Americans in the Tour de France. It is open to teams only, not individuals. And it is an invitational, based first on qualifying standards established in European races earlier in the year, then on what amounts to French whim.
Organizers will invite three or four big teams apiece from France, Italy and Spain, but only one team from the United States. That's Motorola, a global communications company with a multimillion-dollar cycling budget, by far the largest of any U.S. cycling team.
The Motorola bikes run about $5,000 apiece, and riders use different types in different stages. Steel-frame road bikes are designed by Merckx and made in Belgium. Titanium-frame bikes for the mountains are made to Merckx's specifications by Litespeed in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"When you put 2,100 miles in a bike in two weeks, you need good stuff," Prioli said. "And you need a good mechanic who puts on new chains, new tires, who straightens the wheels after every stage. It's not so much the equipment as the person maintaining it. If you have a good mechanic or two, that's more important than just having a lightweight bike. We (riders) get used a lot as test dummies. A lot of the companies will make real lightweight bikes and let us use them. We're the ones who find out if they work."
A pro racer's legs are shaved. It is not for aerodynamics. "Actually, there are two main reasons," Prioli said. "One is massage. You get one after every stage and having hair pulled along makes it an unpleasant experience. Also, if you crash, road rash (the abrasions that result) heals a lot better. When you're sliding across concrete, patches of hair rip out patches of skin."
Human stock cars
Pro cyclists look like human stock cars, every free space on their outfits plastered with advertising. "It's a fact of life," Prioli said. "There's very little salary and not enough (prize) money in most races to permit us to go from race to race on our own. We need the sponsors. They pay for our travel, clothing, equipment and so on."
The only item of clothing that might cover some of that advertising is the coveted yellow jersey. It identifies the overall leader of the Tour de France. A racer can finish behind the leaders in each stage and still be ahead in total time if, say, the top sprinters finish far back in the hilly stages and the top mountain riders falter badly in the time trials.
There also is a green jersey for the top sprinter, a red-and-white polka-dot jersey for the leading climber and a white jersey for the leading rookie racer. These jerseys are more likely to change hands day to day. Some racers may not be serious contenders for the overall championship, but they are taking part in what amounts to daily races within the race.
"Sometimes a sprinter will try to steal a stage of the race," Prioli said. "He'll take off and try to leave everybody too far behind to catch up. Of course, he can always burn out and everyone will catch and pass him and he'll be buried. Or the climbers will try to lose everyone else in the mountains. There's a lot of strategy in this race."
There is one premier sprinter and one top climber on each team, Prioli said. "The other six riders do everything in their power to make sure these two guys can do the best at what they're good at doing," he said.
"Say another team gets the lead. The guys on our team will pull ahead of our No. 1 guy and cut the wind for him. He just sits on our rear wheels while we use all our energy to get him caught up." A racer riding in another's draft can pick up as much as an extra 10 mph without expending any more energy, not unlike a stock-car driver who saves fuel by drafting _ riding in the vacuum created by the car in front of him.
And the climber who may be the racer everyone else works for on a day in the mountains may become a member of the support system the next, when the sprinter takes center stage for a time trial.
And if a rider gets a flat tire?
It takes 30 seconds to change a tire and two to five minutes to make up the lost ground, Prioli said. "One teammate will stay back to help him catch up (by cutting the wind), and the others will try and get to the front of the field to slow the race down," he said.
But what if a racer tries to take advantage of another's flat-tire misfortune by picking up the pace, trying to pull away? "Bad form," Prioli said. "He would be ostracized. If everyone's going 20 (mph) and someone gets a flat and someone else decides to make it 30, as soon as he got caught he'd get yelled at. If an American did it he'd be blackballed for life."
The top contenders
Rider Country Team Age
Miguel Indurain Spain Banesto 30
Tony Rominger Switzerland Mapei-GB 34
Eugeni Berzin Russia Gewiss-Ballan 25
Marco Pantini Italy Carrera-Tassoni 25
Alex Zulle Switzerland ONCE 26
Piotr Ugromov Latvia Gewiss-Ballan 34
Richard Virenque France Festina 25
Laurent Jalabert France ONCE 26
Claudio Chiappucci Italy Carrera-Tassoni 32
De Las Curvas France Castorama 26
Others to watch
Andy Hampsten U.S. Banesto 33
Alvaro Mejia Colombia Motorola 28
Gianni Bugno Italy Polti 32
Lance Armstrong U.S. Motorola 23
Chris Boardman Britain GAN 26
Source: VeloNews Tour de France Guide.
1991-94 Miguel Indurain, Spain
1989-90 Greg LeMond, U.S.
1988 Pedro Delgado, Spain
1987 Stephen Roche, Ireland
1986 Greg LeMond, U.S.
1985 Bernard Hinault, France
1983-84 Laurent Fignon, France
1981-82 Bernard Hinault, France