The copy of the Guinness Book of World Records that my father owned when I was a kid got more use than any other book in our house. The paperback copy of the tome was dog-eared from the many times that my brother and I referenced it throughout the years. The book was full of pictures and facts that gave us hours of entertainment, with our favorites being the man with the longest fingernails, the shortest woman in the world, and the large twins riding tiny motorcycles. We studied this book as though it were the Torah, since no other source of information in our home was so focused on the outlandish. Unless you count the book my mom bought from a street vendor once about the healing powers of crystals.
One particular record which always interested me was that of the Washington Generals, the losingest team in all of sports, having only won one game in their entire history. In case you don't know, the Washington Generals are the basketball team that plays the Harlem Globetrotters, and they serve as a foil for the Globetrotters comedic antics. I didn't fully understand this when I first started leafing through the Guinness Book of Records, so the Generals and their record seemed mystifying to me at the time. I was a kid, and I was unaware of the fact that competitive sports and sports spectacles often looked very similar, when in reality they served slightly different purposes. Consider the All Terrain Vehicle race that I saw not long ago at a monster truck rally. Before I tell you about the race, let me clarify why I attended a monster truck rally, so that you won't judge me because of it. There's a perfectly good explanation. It was Valentine's Day, and I took my wife on a date. Yes, that's the truth. No I'm not kidding. Anyway, during the ATV race, one team was billed as being from the city we were in, while the other was supposed to be from a nearby town with which there's a great football rivalry. Neither was true, of course, since they were part of a touring spectacle, and the next night they would claim to be from another city. Before the race, the captain from the other city's team was crass on the microphone, mocking children in attendance, and cursing. The audience gasped. During the race, which was filled with impressive jumps and flips, the visiting team cheated often...but the scrappy home team won. Everyone was happy, the young kids in the audience in particular. It was sport spectacle at its (almost) best, something that wrestling in the United States has mastered.
In wrestling, strong athletes with great talent and coordination perform for audiences who understand that the end result is not the point. The show and the back story are the point. It's a soap opera that is playing out live in front of you. Is it real? Well, which part are you asking about? They may be pulling punches, but their bodies are abused in many horrible ways. They are real people whose bodies are taking a real beating, while they act out a written script in the midst of wearing more lycra than a cycling team during a winter training camp. It's a show, one to please audiences who came looking for entertainment. Which leads us to one of the more unusual aspects of cycling: post-Tour criteriums.
In terms of sport, post-Tour criteriums are somewhere between a parade, and an appearance at a local car wash. The outcomes are predetermined, the events are not sanctioned, and riders who won competitions at the Tour will sport those jerseys in order to please the crowds. Professionals cash in nicely through appearance fees, thus being able to afford the new kitchen that their wife has been asking for, or (in the case of Jens Voigt) allowing them to have another litter of children. In a sense, it's another example of something I've written about before, hyperreality. Without going too deeply into the subject again, the term refers to a phenomenon that is common in industrialized, postmodern cultures where individuals are either unable to, or choose not to be able to discern the real from that which is fantasy. As such, in post-Tour criteriums, climbers outsprint sprinters, or manage to miraculously breakaway in flat courses in order to win, while fake rivalries are built up, and fake streaks are broken. It's pageantry, it's show business, and those in attendance don't seem to mind...largely because these stars of the sport are in their town, riding along with locals, and the race looks just like the real thing. Well, not exactly like the real thing, but neither does the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Disney World. But if you squint, it looks real. It's an unusual aspect of professional cycling, one that (like many others) doesn't really exist in other sports. Having said that, the time I saw the Toledo Mudhens beat the Detroit Tigers looked mighty fishy to me.
That unusual Mudhens victory aside, post-Tour criteriums are just one more example of how tradition seems to permeate the sport. These "races" have been happening for a long time, and they are simply part of how things are done, strange as it may seem. They make crowds happy, and riders happy. But they are still a bit strange, aren't they? It's with this in mind that I honestly think you could fool cycling fans to not only believe, but also emulate anything, if you just tell them that it's part of cycling's sacred history. You can even make stuff up, and people will believe it eventually. Start a rumor that Belgian cyclists used to eat a whole head of lettuce before spring classics, while also rubbing two of the leaves on their crotch, and soon enough you'll see someone doing it at a local race. It's just a matter of time, particularly if you get someone with some pull to corroborate your story. Why? Because we all want to believe, even when we know it's not real. In Disney World, as kids, we knew it wasn't Abraham Lincoln talking to us, but we enjoyed it. Similarly, past experience tells us that certain aspects of "legitimate" bike races turn out to be less than real. But our love for the spectacle wins out. It's not wrestling, but it's funny how some results are actually agreed upon too. But believing is part of the fun. After all, the magician didn't really just create a bunny out of thin air you know, the animal was in the hat the whole time.
So if we all want to believe, and these criteriums already exist, why not combine all the things I've just discussed (including the fake cheating I saw the monster truck rally), and make post-Tour criteriums even better? There could be old rivals returning to race against their enemies, aging pros miraculously managing to outride youngsters, teams working for and against one another, thick plots with deception and hatred, as well as rumors of backroom deals. Perhaps obvious cheating could be part of the spectacle too, just like the race I watched during the monster truck rally. Maybe the outcomes of some races could be worked out by team directors, or those racing as well. It would be amazing. But as you know, that's basically what cycling is already. And yet we love it, perhaps because of it, not in spite of it. So I'll scratch my idea of spicing up post-Tour crits, as I say goodbye to the dozens of dollars I could have made as a post-Tour criterium promoter. In the end, I guess that sometimes truth—unusual as it may be—is stranger than any fiction you could ever dream up.
Having said that, if I find out that the picture of the guy with the longest fingernails in the world is fake, I'll be crushed...because I guess we all need something to believe in.
Cycling Inquisition wares
Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post regarding Cycling Inquisition attire. It looks like there's enough interest to get some stuff made, so I'm moving ahead and will keep you posted on any developments. It looks like the black jersey design won by a landslide, but perhaps the white one is also possible. I'll be finding out more details about the cap soon also, and will let you know when you can pre-order. Thanks to everyone for commenting.