Why Don’t Americans Suck at the Tour de France?

The U.S. national soccer team recently embarassed itself in the World Cup. During the Olympics, U.S. athletes regularly get beat in certain sports that, like soccer, are taken much more seriously in other countries than in ours.

So why have Americans done so well in the Tour de France?

American cyclists have won 10 of the past 20 TdF’s — well, two American cyclists: Greg Lemond (1986, 1989, 1990) and Lance Armstrong (1999-2005). And Floyd Landis, after a mind-blowing ride yesterday, may win this year’s. (Landis, btw, is a fascinating guy, who’s been riding with a degenerative hip; see Daniel Coyle’s recent profile and, even better, read Coyle’s book Lance Armstrong’s War.) And other American riders have been finishing very well in the TdF in recent years.

Why?

A cynic may well answer that we have better doctors. There has been so much doping among elite cyclists that it’s hard for some people to imagine that American cyclists aren’t also doping. That is a really interesting can of worms that I won’t open here.

But how is it that cycling, which is about as popular in the U.S. as the biathlon or the luge, is different? Why are American cyclists so much better than American soccer players, e.g.?

There’s an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (no link, sorry) that tries to answer this question. American cyclists claim that they train harder, more experimentally, and more scientifically than their European peers. It’s true that Armstrong was a techno-junkie, in love with innovative equipment, procedure, and strategy.

But it’s also true that Armstrong pretty much spent his whole year working toward the TdF, riding the course repeatedly in training, whereas the European cyclists take other races just as seriously (if not more so: for an Italian cyclist, the Giro D’Italia is pretty big stuff). And it’s probably a lot easier to produce a few stellar athletes like LeMond and Armstong (who, by the way, hate each other) than an entire cohesive team like you need to win some World Cup soccer games.

Still, it is amazing to me that Americans do so well in a sport whose profile here is very, very minor. At least the TdF manages to help sell some bicycles in the U.S.

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  1. I’d suggest that Cycling is a very individualistic sport, and it’s no suprise that Americans excel at it.

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  2. I’d suggest that Cycling is a very individualistic sport, and it’s no suprise that Americans excel at it.

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  3. buddahbelly says:

    The TDF is very much a TEAM sport. Domestiques will blow themselves up for their leader in doing all they can to minimize the work he has to do throughout the stages. How many times did I watch Armstrong ride behind his teammates for 80% of a stage and only then ride out on his own near the end. That is not individualistic.

    I agree with Dubner in regards to Armstrong, he only raced the TDF and no other race. He was criticized for this. Most of the other top competitors ride many of the major tours in Europe. Obviously this will impact on their performance in the TDF.

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  4. buddahbelly says:

    The TDF is very much a TEAM sport. Domestiques will blow themselves up for their leader in doing all they can to minimize the work he has to do throughout the stages. How many times did I watch Armstrong ride behind his teammates for 80% of a stage and only then ride out on his own near the end. That is not individualistic.

    I agree with Dubner in regards to Armstrong, he only raced the TDF and no other race. He was criticized for this. Most of the other top competitors ride many of the major tours in Europe. Obviously this will impact on their performance in the TDF.

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  5. kkwan says:

    That and it brings out American competitiveness. Americans are often criticized for the “winning is everything” and “winning at all costs”. I’m not sure about this but it seems European cycling is more communal and team oriented?

    In a competitive sport I never really understood why they stopped when cyclists fell off their bikes to wait for them to get back in the race again.

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  6. kkwan says:

    That and it brings out American competitiveness. Americans are often criticized for the “winning is everything” and “winning at all costs”. I’m not sure about this but it seems European cycling is more communal and team oriented?

    In a competitive sport I never really understood why they stopped when cyclists fell off their bikes to wait for them to get back in the race again.

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  7. girard31 says:

    I would argue that the incentives for cycling are better. It’s the reason why Americans excel at track and field as well. European prize pools (and lucrative sponsorships) for cycling and track can be equal to or better than that have an average position player in the NFL or Major League baseball.

    Soccer players in the US have yet to achieve that level in Europe, with a few exceptions.

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  8. girard31 says:

    I would argue that the incentives for cycling are better. It’s the reason why Americans excel at track and field as well. European prize pools (and lucrative sponsorships) for cycling and track can be equal to or better than that have an average position player in the NFL or Major League baseball.

    Soccer players in the US have yet to achieve that level in Europe, with a few exceptions.

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