The Racing is No Better in Europe than the US

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I was watching the Giro on the internet yesterday and couldn’t believe that 3 or 4 teams put all their riders on the front with 20 km to go, riding in the wind in “team formation”. I suppose this was supposed to make it easier for their team GC leaders ride safely to the 3 km point, but in reality, the whole process just makes it more dangerous for the whole peloton. But, that isn’t the point here. I was mildly perplexed, to say the least, when David Harmon, I believe, the commentator along with Sean Kelly, said something like, “The way these guys recover nowadays, this is a walk in the park for them and they won’t even feel it tomorrow.” That wasn’t exactly it, but close.

I know these guys have to say something to keep the audience entertained, but this was a statement that might be accurate or not, I don’t know, but there is no reason that the current generation of cyclists should be able to recover any quicker than riders 10 or 20 years ago. If anything, they should be recovering worse since the implementation of the no needles policy, making IV’s illegal. It seemed weird having experienced bike race observers saying what seemed to be stupid statements, but statement made because of watching the sport the last 20 years.

Let me give you a history of comparing the racing in the US to Europe. Back in the 80’s, when I was getting me feet wet internationally, cycling was a very small sport in the United States. It was small, but growing in leaps and bounds. And it was a very immature sport too, with the sport being established and competed in Europe for the better part of the century. When I turned senior and rode on the National team, I was nothing special. I was a good bike racer, kind of skinny, but could climb and sprint okay. When I first went to Europe on the national team, I went to Southern France and Italy with what was considered the “B” team. The “A” guys went with Eddie B. to race in France mainly. Anyway, the first race I went to was the Tour of Vaucluse. It was in Southern France and one stage climbed Mt Ventoux.

Most of the riders on the team were my age, 20 or 21 and very green. Bernard Thévenet and Robert Millar were there on the Peugeot Professional Team. Bernard Thévenet had won two Tour de Frances. Laurent Fignon and many other Tour stage winners were riding on their respective National Teams. The field was good. But, we were good too. We didn’t win any races, but I finished in the top 10 a couple days.

We all did. The up and coming Americans could and did hold their own with the best European racers and the sport had just started. My team mate Andy Hampsten, won a stage in the Giro, the first time he rode in a Grand Tour. He finished 4th in the Tour de France, the first time he competed in it, with Greg Lemond winning. Americans on the National team through the 80’s won many prestigious amateur races. I was on the American team with Roy Knickman and Jeff Pierce who won the Tour of Berlin. I was on the US Team with Alexi Grewal, Andy, Chris Carmichael, when Matt Eaton won the British Milk Race, which was arguably the most prestigious amateur stage race in the world at the time. Later on when the best Europeans came to the US to race in the Coor’s Classic, the Americans had no problems winning stages and competing on the highest level. I finished 2nd overall in the Tour of the Americas, when many of the best European in the world came. We were a very small cycling country and were having stellar results.

And the sport was very small, barely crawling in infant terms. Then, all of a sudden, somewhere in the early to mid 90’s that all changed. All of a sudden the speeds in Europe got stupid fast. It was like I was a junior and racing completely over my head. Andy went from winning The Tour of Switzerland, Romandie, the Giro, to hardly being able to be pack filler anymore. I witnessed it first hand. It was a joke. So, I switched to MTB racing.

And the same thing happened in MTB racing, but it was delayed by a couple years. When the Americans first went to Europe, we ruled MTB racing. John Tomac and Ned would duke it out for 1st place and sometimes the majority of riders in the top 10 would be from the United States. Then it got stupid. Abunch of whole teams, like the Giant Team, Sun Chippie from France, and others, all of a sudden, every rider on these team could crush the best Americans. Plus, many Canadians were doing the same thing. Very quickly we became non-competitive internationally.

So, flash forward through the years. Obviously, after the admissions of doping of nearly ever American road rider that has had a result in the past 10 years, we as a country, haven’t been able to compete on any level on the road. And our sport is way more mature. There are 3 times as many licensed bicycle racers in the United States now than there were in the late 80’s. 5 times more than the early 80’s. We should have more riders that are good on the international scene than we did in the 80’s, because we have a much bigger pool of athletes to choose from, and, if anything, the sport is smaller in most of Europe.

But, no. The US is a farm team training facility for the “real” races over in Europe. There is no reason that we shouldn’t have the best criterium riders in the world. We race more criteriums than every other country on the planet combined. But, these guys show up from Australia, South American, just about anywhere and make us, once again, look like children.

Let me tell you, there is no reason that the races over here should be any different than the races in Europe. If anything, we should be faster. I’m sick of people saying that the reason the racing in Europe is so much more “advanced” than here is because they are all that much better. It wasn’t the case in the 80’s and early 90’s, but as our sport got more developed, we fell further and further behind. All of a sudden, we’re barely AAA compared to European bike racing.

We have more bike races than ever before. And more professional teams traveling extensively. USAC has a much more developed program that sends our best riders over to Europe for extended periods. And we suck. Any explanations for this?

Doping in the sport is the only explanation. When the racing here is on par, once again, with the racing in Europe, then I’ll be satisfied that the problem has cleared, but until then, let’s not all be making all these excuses and reasons for the Americans not to be riding on par with their European counterparts. Nearly all of them are just not true.

Teams can ride at the front for day after day, for nearly  three weeks, because they recover so quickly nowadays?  Bullshit.

Teams can ride at the front for day after day, for nearly three weeks, because they recover so quickly nowadays? Bullshit.

20 thoughts on “The Racing is No Better in Europe than the US

  1. Euro

    David Millar was pooping his diapers in the ’80’s. I think you mean Robert Millar.

  2. Ian Reid

    I have to respectfully disagree. Cycling and it’s pool of racing talent is on a much higher level in Europe than here. Racing is only part of cycling and cycling is a much wider spread culture in Europe. Racing is a blue collar sport in Europe that exposes the sport and the culture to many youth where as here in the US it is still at the youth level still very limited access to the elite or families already within the sport. Until this country and the cycling industry quit focusing on the short term profits of $10,000 bikes to masters and start putting road bikes in the hands of blue collar children at a respectable price and follow that up with investing in those kids with sweat equity at a much higher level than they have American cycling and racing talent will be a farm country of only the elite and wealthy.

  3. Anton

    There’s no US or Europe split. There’s guys on the needle and guys off the back. That’s the only difference.

  4. Bruce Gilbert


    We have both been around this sport for too long the realize you would not enter a race without tires on your wheels. Enough said. Unfortunately, winning justifies all in the current environment.

  5. Anton

    While we’re at it. Let’s finally bring out in the open all of US riders that were blood boosting under Eddie B that weren’t named in the 1984 LA games fiasco. There’s a lot of ‘clean’ legends that we know got ‘special treatment’. We’re pretending the truth is known when all we’ve seen is the tip of the iceberg.

  6. Bruce Gilbert

    Ian has part of the problem defined.
    When I started racing in the early 60’s, the demographic in cycling was European blue collar. Today it is white collar, technical, professional. There is usually a higher level of disposable income, requiring less sacrifice to be part of the sport. The cost of high end cycling equipment has risen way out of proportion compared to inflation and the rest of the economy at large.

    Shimano just made a really nasty obsolescence move. The new 11 speed cassettes will not fit and cannot be made to work with the majority of existing wheelsets out there. There are a handful of very high end wheelsets that can be adapted, but that is it. I called SRAM yesterday, but all they had was a lame apology, mumbling about time for a technology change and how some customers will be forced to upgrade from currently sold obsolete equipment.

  7. channel_zero

    In my very recent, direct experience of cycling in France, Bruce is right. American cyclists and French cyclists in general have a great deal in common. They are mostly white collar professionals who can afford the equipment. I think they have generally less equipment than American consumers, but that’s about the only difference. Some areas in France are seeing declines in racing and even recreational participation. Each country is pretty different too, so it’s hard to generalize.

    Fundamentally, USAC’s development model is broken, but so too is the federation’s implicit approval of doping. Nothing is going to change as USAC is not a member-directed organization.

  8. Roberto

    Steve, your timeline is close to being accurate. It actually began to happen in 1987, when certain Pro’s got hold of EPO for the first time. By the early nineties it was becoming pandemic. But your statement about Andy becoming barely pack fodder, is accurate. It’s also the best argument you’ve ever made, of why Lance doped. You just basically said, without doping, no matter how talented you were, you couldn’t win. And short of leaving the sport, Lance and the others had no option. 99 percent of the people in his position, would have done the exact same thing. And he was in no position to change what Europe had started. At some point you have to get it through your head, it’s not fair to ask someone to give away their life, for a principal very few seem to believe in. I’m not saying what Lance, or any of the others did, was honorable. But it was the only avenue open, if they wanted to race in Europe.

  9. Kris

    Agreed. This model plays out in youth sports ACROSS THE BOARD!!! Sports which have a broad base in Europe and are based in the “Club System”. Parents here have to either be part of the 1% or mortgage everything in sight to keep their kids competitive in sports which are typically “blue-collar” in Europe, cycling and soccer are good examples of this. Equipment, coaching, camps, travel, etc., all things which are subsidized by the individual federations in Europe. So, forget doping for a moment, but ask yourself what does USAC do to level the field? What the F**K do those $60 annual race license fees go to?

  10. Rt

    Regarding doping, I race as an amateur in Europe and I have teammates who used to be pros in the early 2000s but still race with us, they won’t hardly train at all, like only 10x in the past 3 months and somehow be finishing a 5 day stage race with conti teams and nat’l teams. I train a good amount and get my ass kicked and they come off their couch and do ok, you can’t tell me things are better now. I like to think they are though. The speeds this year seem really fast.

  11. Kris

    Rt, maybe you are overtraining? More couch time! Well, let’s see what goes on at the Tour of California. I have two racers I’ll be following, two riders who I have known and watched since they were juniors, and I know are on the up and up. I do not think they will get blown away.

  12. Ian Reid

    I had the opportunity to travel and attend many youth events when over in Belgium, France and Italy in my years in the cycling industry. It is amazing the level of club support like little league in the US. Each club will own the bikes and lease them to the kids. As you grow out of one (from 22 to 26 inch coursa bikes) you pass it down. You get a bike a kit and a helmet, all subsidized by the clubs if you cant afford it. You could go to a regional event for kids and 1000 people would be there including the 300 kids from 5-13. It’s a culture they invest in. Our system does not invest in the culture of cycling. Soon as we stop promoting the racing in youth cycling and start to instil the passion for the bike and the club culture that we have in the masters, grand fondo and grasshoppers for kids USA cycling will be second class to Europe.
    I tried to get a european style program rolling in the states a few years ago, sat down with some men with money and all these guys with money just wanted to throw 100,000 bucks to ride with Lance. Totally twisted values IMO.
    It has to start at the club level and build from there. Our masters clubs need to quit beating clothing manufactures up for 5 dollars off on a chamois so Jimmy in his Benz can get entry paid at the next masters race. If masters clubs invested in kids I bet the industry would invest more in them.
    That’s why cycling is so great in Europe, it’s a family sport and time together. More people invested in the culture that opens the sport up to more kids who could be the next champion.

  13. tilford97 Post author

    Ian-I understand where you’re coming from, but that has always been the case. When I started racing, the sport was definitely blue collar in Europe, with the same , culture, talent pool and club system set up. We, the US riders, had no such support and just happened our way to the sport and could get together and compete with the best Europeans, nearly from the start. Now, our system is much more advanced, many more riders, with good riders getting more support, working less, thus should be better in comparison. It’s the same development system in Europe as always, but our riders are much worse by comparison. I don’t think the culture theory is an explanation.

  14. NJRoadie

    Silly, all doping stopped in 2006, which coincidentally is when the statute of limitations expired. There is no doping now; nothing to see here just move along.

  15. Daniel Russell

    Steve, so you think the UCI ProTeams are still doping and those that profess that they are clean is pure BS?

  16. Vitaly

    You have to pay a little closer attention and provide the correct context. The commentator was Declan Quigley, not David Harmon. Unfortunately, my favorite Carlton Kirby is on sabbatical for the next few months. Secondly, the comment was in reference only to Bradley Wiggins, and not it the last 20km, but in the last few KM of the stage when he got on the front to make sure he’s with the peloton past the 3k to go mark as to not lose more time like he did the day prior. Go watch the stage again.

  17. Jack Sparks III

    Racing situation is one thing

    if the women are much better in Europe let me know now, I’ll be on the first plane over

  18. channel_zero

    Regarding Ian’s comments, the “family style” racing is what independent BMX racing is all about. ABA is still at it. There’s a couple of others too if I’m not mistaken.

    Fortunately, BMX is much bigger, so the independents aren’t under immediate pressure from the UCI.

  19. dougeg

    Carlton “the tool” Kirby is doing play by play of the Giro on the BEIN network here in the States. He’s been BEIN’s #1 anouncer on a number of races throughout the spring. And, in my opinion, he’s the worst! He’s a homer, an unintelegeable screamer, a not funny jokster. I have to mute for periods of time, or I’ll throw crap at my tv. thank you

  20. Andrew

    Ninety-nine percent? Man, you have really low esteem of your fellow humans. I think a fair number of people would turn down being a pro cyclist if they had to take drugs to do so. Maybe not a majority, but certainly more than one percent.


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