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.


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.


The one thing consistently cited when it comes to tracking success in global soccer is "a strong domestic league". In road riding, not only does the US have deep grass roots, it also has the advantage of an elite level entry stretching back to the freewheeling days of 7-11 and extending right into today with Discovery. In Europe, cycling is often transportation, in America to cycle - even among the poor - is often to want to cycle.


The US sport is drawn and supported from a different strata than the Eurpean sport.
Bicycling magazine's readerships meadian income is about 125k.

the typical european rider is a farmboy willing to sacrifice his health to be a star.
It's all about class.


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


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.


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.


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.


I'd say that the medical angle has more than a little truth to it. The entire sport has been infused (sic) with performance-enhancing drugs - legal and not - for so long, at all levels of the sport, that no matter what your talent, you won't be able to get to the top layer without it. And when farmaceutics and medicine are key, money and connections tends to win.

The weightlifting and powerlifting sports managed to clean up their act in the 80:s, and track and field have at least made some pretty good strides towards it, but with cycling nothing seems to happen.


I think there is a misapprehension as to how popular high level cycling is in the US. I saw that the UCI announced recently that there were over 35,000 active road racing licenses owned in the US currently - up 15% over last year, plus another 11,000 Mountain bike licenses, which could be overlapping. These were people that actually paid money so they could enter sanctioned races. Think about all the people that just go on rides and I think you will find that there is a fair population. Now, that may be smaller than some European countries, but remember this "small" group gets to be picked (self selected) out of a 300 Million person base for those that have aptitude.

Road Cycling isn't a popular TV sport and it doesn't lend itself to arenas or stadiums that defines things in the US, but it is a popular activity sport, and sport that people watch personally.
There will be 10,000 people or more Saturday night in Milwaukee to watch a bike race, and maybe 5000 more Sunday, and you will find similar races somewhere almost every week in summer. I do think it is a niche, but a larger one than most realize because it doesn't fit the media frame.

I do think that training does help also. I think if you have a minimum size base, training will take the cream at the top and refine it. Look at Australia, with a much smaller population also produces a lot of great cyclists - Sprinters who win the Sprinters (Green) Jersey at the Major Tours, and contenders (2 in top 10 this year).

By the way cyclists are generally tough guys, from poorer backgrounds, not from the elite of society. I always wondered about that. I guess you have to have incentive to get broken bones and a lot of skin removed regularly.

Since I think essentially all the top cyclists use drugs or equivalent (legal or illegal) I don't think that affects things much. I do think people should stop being luddites and allow safe chemical and biological enhancements, but that is another story.


Dr. Funk

I'd be interested to see more data before speculating as to what's going on here. Specifically, I think the claims "Americans excel at cycling" and "Cycling is not popular in the United States" are both measurable. My intuition is that while cycling is not a spectator sport in the States, participation levels both in casual and competitive cycling may well be on par with other countries. Also, though the United States has produced a small number of extremely good cyclists, that's not really a good indicator of the overall strength of American cycling.


I think that it is a misconception that cycling is not popular in the US. Sure, it will never make TV and has zero appeal as a spectator sport, but tons of people love it.

I live in Arizona and at 5-6am I see hundreds of cyclists out there. Boulder, CO is insane. You can't drive anywhere without seeing tons of cyclists.

I am not an expert in this, but in my amateur opinion, the fact that this country has much more wide open space, the ability to train at high altitudes, and generally friendly bike laws gives this country an advantage over crowded European countries.


I think it might be off-target to try correlating sports popularity and international success (Pele predicted soccer's popularity in Africa would propel them to the forefront of soccer, and the entire still underperforms).

One key to zone on might to be looking at the overall athleticism of a nation. US soccer players, for instance, are as or more purely athletic (speed, strength, and endurance-wise) than many of their international counterparts.

What's lacking in US soccer is two things. One, experience--many of the US players choked because they weren't used to playing at such a competitive level with that kind of pressure. Second, creativity--which comes from playing a lot of soccer with other very good players. Cycling takes a lot of strategy, but not the same kind of thinking as soccer or other such sports.


Living in Colorado, my perspective is that cycling is a very popular sport. There are local bike races on almost every summer weekend. An expotential number of adults are more interested in cycling than soccer around here.


Well, it's not that America has better doctors. One article above that you link to mentions Armstrong's association with an Italian doctor.


It's interesting that while the States have had more than their share of TDF winners recently, they seem to have significantly fewer domestiques---the workhorses of the teams. My suspicion is that this is tied to sponsorship---since media coverage in the States is low, relative to Europe, US sponsors aren't as motivated---thus, European sponsors, European teams, and while the cream of the US crop gets picked, the not-quite-super-elite get left to the pro cycling tour in the US, which gets *very* little press.

So, all things considered, maybe the better question is: why has France sucked so badly in the Tour in the last twenty years?

Another item of note: in the TDF's "best young rider" (under 25) competition, this year, there aren't any Americans, at all.


what is the cost of a cyclist versus a soccer team? It seems like the lack of a domestic soccer league that can support staduim worthy events would mean our soccer teams would be consistently underfunded and better players would naturally be bought up by foreign teams (which seems to be the case). With Cycling on the other hand the athelete is a little more freelance, aquiring sponsorship from some vendors, but isn't dependent on a supporting league of teams and events for training and cash. Hence, cyclists could train anywhere, and while I disagree on the health care angle cyclists are dependent on low-weight experimental frames. Many of the materials used for the lastest racing bikes are American made hence an American riders could have a lead by trying and testing new light-weight bikes especially if they're the only ones in a race with a new type of bike. In the 40s Ford cars demolished their European competitors in races by using new technologies, similarly American bicycles are utilizing the latest in nano-structures to push the potential of 2 wheels and a human being. I also might add that while races aren't covered in the U.S. as much as abroad the U.S. actually hosts more running events and marathons than most countries, and I'd imagine probably more bike races too. Basically, both sports are expensive, but Americans have a slight technology lead (no rationale bike maker is not going to sell their new bikes in Europe) and the market for soccer is still underdeveloped.




Lemond (and particularly Armstrong) concentrated on the biggest race (the Tour de France) and on the biggest prize at that race (the General Classification). This was appropriate given this was the most likely thing to be paid attention to in the US, but it means that Americans don't win the green jerseys, the polka dot jerseys, or do as well in other races generally.

In the TdF, there is NO American competing for the white jersey (best young rider).

By concentrating on one particular thing, Americans have done well and gotten publicity in their own country (and made TdF fans out of many of us). But it's like Kenyan dominance of distance racing -- they don't dominate the Olympics, just a few events they focus on.

Cycling also has its drug problems. French teams, in particular, were devastated in 1998. This year's scandal has hit Spanish teams particularly hard. Armstrong never tested positive, so it would be a mistake to imply something there's no proof of, but many of the major competititors he consistently beat (Pantani, Ullrich, Hamilton, Basso) have had suspensions related to illegal drugs. Therefore, rumors that he was just better at concealing it won't go away.



Isn't this a somewhat weird question to ask? Because (1) IMO when it comes to the Tour de France "sucking" or "not sucking" completely misses the point; but (2) If we insist on talking in such terms, there's been what...33 U.S. cyclists that have competed in the Tour? And what...4 have worn the maillot jaune? Of course 2 of those have won the thing 10 times. But still. Do we expect that the Freakonomification of the Tour would reveal much other than two of the legends of the Tour happen to be from the U.S.?

Here are some historical numbers (not including the 2006 tour):
**Total number of times a U.S. rider has competed in the Tour: 131
**Of those 131 rides, total number of individual U.S. cyclists : 33
**Of those 131 rides, total number of times a U.S. cyclist has completed the Tour: 98 (meaning 33 times a U.S. cyclist started but did not finish the tour -- incl. twice to a U.S. cyclist named Greg Lemond and three times to a U.S. cyclist named Lance Armstrong)
**Of those 98 completed Tours by U.S. riders, the average finishing position: 50.59
**Current time gap between the 51st place rider and the leader in this year's Tour: 1 hour, 40 minutes, 26 seconds

Now, I don't know how these numbers stack up to other courties, and I don't know if these numbers suggest that U.S. cyclists do or do not "suck". But again, my position is that such an inquiry completely misses the point.

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time that the WSJ misses the forest for the trees



I'm afraid you've got this one wrong, Mr Dubner. The logic of a sport that attracts minor attention from Americans should not lead to American dominance in it is flawed. It's actually the other way around: American dominance in a particular sports leads to its popularity. On top of my head, I can think of 3 sports.

Tour de France: While the interest level is only mild, it has grow exponentially from the pre-Lance Armstrong days. I bet only a handful of Americans know whom Lance Armstrong PASSED in getting his record (insert number) TdF championship. This should be plenty of evidence that the sport picked up only the slgihtest of attention after an American started to dominate.

World Cup: the failure of the US team this year was highlighted by the fact that people actually cared! The amound of ESPN coverage before the WC was actually pretty good and it followed the team around as it practiced. People care because the last US team did so well in Asia. The attention level will be back at the bottom for the next world cup.

Tennis: since the retirement of Sampras, the inability of Andy Roddick to win constantly has hurt the sports' popularity. The interest level is down despite a great rivalry being born in Federer and Nadal. If Roddick can add to the duo, tennis as a sport will probably pick up the attraction it lost after Sampras' retirement.



Perhaps it's this:

US Soccer is not world-class because kids don't do it obsessively when they're young, and therefore never accumulate hours and hours of practice. (A friend from Haiti who's pretty good says he played 8 hours a day when he was young.)

Bicycling, on the other hand ... every kid has a bike. Every kid rides a bike a lot. Unlike soccer, every kid can ride a bike without necessarily finding and organizing a bunch of friends to do it with him.

If this theory is correct:

(a) a country's success at individual sports should be less correlated to culture than a country's success at team sports;

(b) a country's success at sports that require no special childhood training outside normal human behavior (bicycling, running, etc.) should be less correlated to culture than other sports.

An top-of-my-head check is that this is generally true. Americans are successful at sports like tennis and track and field, and less so at sports like rugby and cricket.



"The weightlifting and powerlifting sports managed to clean up their act in the 80:s"

There are a number of different federations which sanction powerlifting matches. Some test for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, but others do not.
As a way of comparison, the record for bench press set in a drug-tested competition is less than 800 pounds, as compared to 1,000 pounds in a non-tested competition.