This is the last year Americans will follow the Tour de France. Little children will torment their pets, master their first video game, log 26,000 hours in front of the family television set, and borrow $200,000 for their college tuition before this nation next tunes into the Tour.
Americans don't care about professional bike-riding. Hold on. Put the gun down and allow me to explain. It's been 38 years since the founding of America's first big-time, world-class soccer league (North American Soccer League), and Americans still don't care about soccer. Professional bike-riding is a bug at the feet of American soccer.
Lance Armstrong has carried the Tour de France on his shoulders and brought it into the living rooms of meat-eating, red-blooded American sports consumers. Sadly, this is Armstrong's last year as porter. Win or lose, Lance says he will retire come July 24. You've got to admire the Hollywood movie he's giving us on the way out. Armstrong is going for an unprecedented seventh Tour de France victory. This would be an athletic achievement in the category of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, or Rocky Marciano's career record of 49-0. Now, add the cancer-comeback story. Lance Armstrong, cancer victim, brain cancer victim, cancer in the testicles victim. He not only survives, he overcomes, returns to professional racing and wins a 23-day, 2240-mile bicycle race six times in a row. Going for his seventh. Plus, he's an American homie.
Put all that together and this year's tour is boffo box office. And, let's not overlook the convenience situation. Don't do that. The tour is televised live at the most convenient West Coast time of 5:30 a.m. every morning on the Outdoor Life Network (Channel 60 on Cox cable) and replayed day and night until everybody makes a profit.
Might as well enjoy the show. This bicycle spectacular is absolutely not going to happen again unless Lance wants more money. So far, I've seen Lance in 24-Hour Fitness ads, Nike ads, Coca-Cola, Subaru, Bristol Meyers, and PowerBar ads. Sports Illustrated says he earned $18 million in 2004. Who knows, maybe 2005 will provide Mr. Armstrong with enough money, and he will quietly exit public life stage left.
Still, this may be the last Tour de France that has the attention of red-blooded American sports consumers. What follows, for your info pleasure, are two hand-selected and underreported news items. Read and amaze your friends.
Number one. The prize money is peanuts. First place isn't bad, $480,000; second place is $204,170; third, $110,000. After that it quickly goes to dog food. There are 189 guys wearing short, festively colored, skintight Bermuda shorts. The first 19 riders are guaranteed to receive $1200 or more. Finishers in the 91 to 150 spots receive $480. Riders finishing in the 150-and-up spots receive zero dollars and a free meal from their parents.
Number two. Not everybody likes Lance Armstrong. The French Ministry of Youth and Sport held a random drug test one day before the Tour de France kicked off. Turned out, the random drug test screened one Tour de France rider, Lance Armstrong. There have been continuing rumors about Armstrong and drugs for years. Last summer's tell-all book, L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, made some rumors public. In the book, Emma O'Reilly, a former personal assistant, physical therapist, and masseuse... let's break here. Whenever somebody has a job title that is over two words in length, we are in the land of fake employment. What, exactly, is a personal assistant, physical therapist, and masseuse? Pertherseuse?
Returning to O'Reilly. She says Armstrong had her go on long trips to pick up pills, offload syringes, and used her makeup to hide needle marks on his arms.
Thin gruel. Lance has money enough to buy his own makeup. But, her charges were more than enough for SCA Promotions, a Dallas, Texas, firm that, according to their website, "helps marketers and agencies eliminate risk associated with large prize or premium offers." SCA Promotions was obligated to pay Armstrong $5 million if he won the '04 Tour. SCA eliminated their risk associated with large prize or premium offers by refusing to pay Lance his 5 mil, saying drug rumors should be investigated first.
Another former gofer, Mike Anderson, said he saw steroids in Armstrong's bathroom. And a medical doctor, Prentice Steffen, claimed he was fired from the U.S. Postal Service Team because he wouldn't prescribe performance-enhancing drugs. He told reporter Ron Kroichick, "I believe the whole Armstrong persona is fiction. I don't think he's a nice guy, and I don't think he ever was. I don't think the cancer changed him. It's a nice story, but it's fiction. It's marketing."
Steffen was fired before Armstrong joined the team. Armstrong has never failed a drug test. On the other hand...