The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race

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The United States has long had a fickle relationship with professional bicycle tours that has ebbed and flowed from the rise of the great American rider Greg LeMond, through the days of Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, to the current generation of new riders like Tyler Farrar and Taylor Phinney. The mid-1970s had Colorado’s Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, that grew into the Coors Classic, lasting for 14 years and attracting world class riders until its demise in 1988. Few remember the Tour de Trump, named after the Donald himself, from back in 1989-1990 (then renamed after another icon of capital, as the Tour DuPont), which had large cash prizes and brought world class cyclists. Donald Trump’s lawyer’s famously threatened legal action against Ron Krajian, organizer of Aspen’s “Tour de Rump” bike race, for trying to capitalize on the good Trump name. Trump’s brief adventure sponsoring a tour, and the gauche touch of naming it after himself with a mock French “de” flourish in the title was classic rhinestone Trump, but Trump understood the value of naming a tour.

Today, the Tour of California holds a growing prominence in international professional cycling; now in its eleventh year, last week’s tour drew many of the world’s best professional riders. The only other U.S. cycling event coming close to it has been Colorado’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which was cancelled this year after it was unable to secure a sponsor. This year’s men’s Tour of California lasted eight days, covered 782 miles with stages held in southern California, the central sierras and along coastal and valley stretches north of the Bay Area. The stage routes showcase beautiful coastal, mountainous, and agrarian landscapes, it has unclassified climbs and challenging dissents that match those of any top international bike race. The men’s tour had a one day individual time trial and seven road races—178 riders, from 18 teams began the race, 131 finished. The women’s tour this year lasted four days, two days of road racing, a team time trial, and a criterium around the capitol grounds in Sacramento on the final day. There were 18 women’s teams 176 riders started and only 86 finished.

The Tour of California plays important roles in the world cycling circuit. After it changed from a February race to May six years ago, its prominence grew on the international circuit—bringing Tour de France podium contenders, as its schedule now overlaps with the first of the annual grand tours, Giro d’Italia and provides a good option for racers staying out of the Giro to focus on France in July. It also provides opportunities to showcase Americans and some lesser American teams as well as young rider squads like the Bradley Wiggins Team or Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team.

In conversations at the race last week I was subtly and not so subtly corrected several times, by fans, officials, and others, who automatically inserted the corporate name sponsoring the Tour, saying “Amgen Tour of California” as if the big pharma sponsor was part of the actual race. I had the feeling that resistance to this branding only highlighted one’s outsider status. This branding seemed like something out of David Foster Wallace’s corporate naming rights world in Infinite Jest, where even the naming of years has been coopted by neoliberal forces, with years named after products, resulting in names like: the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U.), or Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland. But my resistance to such branding efforts runs deep. I still have difficulty referring to sports stadiums by their corporate billboard monikers. But the Tour of California’s branding operation works hard to soften the blow of corporate branding, incorporating a Breakaway from Cancer® campaign into pre- and post-race events, using cancer survivors at public moments full of testimonials of recovery thanks to the protected intellectual property of the race’s big pharma sponsor.

Given Amgen’s ongoing legal problems, getting cyclists and fans to simply refer to the tour as “Amgen” is a sign of a good public relations investment. In 2012, Amgen agreed to pay $762,000,000 in criminal penalties and payments for whistle-blower lawsuits for off-label activities described by federal prosecutor, Marshall L. Miller as “pursuing profits at the risk of patient safety.” One federal prosecutor described this 2012 case as “the single largest criminal and civil False Claims Act settlement involving a biotechnology company in U.S. history.” Last summer Amgen paid out $71,000,000 to settle claims filed by attorney generals from 48 states finding that Amgen had again pushed drugs for non-approved uses. But the public’s associations with these corporate wrongdoing incidents can be sportswashed. Such positive sponsorship transforms the corporate name itself, as it becomes shorthand, not for engaging in criminal activities, but for gathering some of the best bike racers on earth for an epic tour. Any organization paying out three-quarters of a billion dollars for criminal and whistle-blower penalties can afford to sprinkle some fraction of these funds for some bread and circus, and it turns out this bike tour is exactly my kind of circus.

Of course mega-corporations are everywhere in professional cycling—if it’s not just the contagious brand obsessions of bike frames and components, it’s the teams themselves. This is a sport where most teams are corporate names: the prominent teams are the names of banks, financial services, floor manufactures, brewers, phone companies, hearing aids, candy, cloud servers, bicycles, health insurance, medical testing devices, etc. These corporate teams always make me think of that awful 1975 Norman Jewison Sci-Fi film, Rollerball, where corporations in the distant future year 2018 have replaced nation states with corporations, and corporate sports teams compete to the death. While corporate ownership of sports teams dominates professional athletics around our world today, most US sports teams prefer to rebrand with city names so that we have teams like the Seattle Mariners, not, the Nintendo Mariners. The corporate advantages for this practice can be seen when corporate named teams get caught in scandals—such as when Phonak star Floyd Landis was caught doping and was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France win, Phonak moved quickly to shut down the team because of the bad publicity.

But like other professional sports, many of cycling’s athletes come from modest economic backgrounds. The history of bike racing is full of working class upstarts breaking into racing with bikes borrowed, sponsored, or modestly built themselves. The sport itself has deep working class origins, and while many riders connect with these roots, the overbearing corporatized world of cycling transforms the world in which these roots are transplanted.

At the Tour’s stage six time trials in downtown Folsom, I watched Sir Bradley Wiggins toy with catching Mark Cavendish, who had a one minute head start on the 12 mile course. Wiggins has pulled back from road racing and his presence at the tour was in part supporting his team of young riders, and also as training for track races at upcoming the Rio Olympics. The most impressive time trial ride I saw was by 19 year old American rider, Neilson Powless, who placed 10th in the field, but showed remarkable speed for having challenged top climbers on a mountain stage two days earlier. Powless proved himself capable of challenging the world’s best riders with impressing raw climbing ability—holding 5th place 4 days into the tour, and finishing 9th overall at the tour’s end—only a minute and a half behind Julian Alaphilippe’s winning time. Powless won the best young rider’s jersey, and caught the attention of the cycling world, and seems to have the rare abilities that will help him make a large mark in tours to come.

The Tour of California was an important race in the early career of current world champion Peter Sagan, having won two stages and the points classification in 2010 during his third year as a professional cyclist, and then returning to dominate stages and points in years to come. From 2012 on, Sagan began winning sprint stages in Grand Tours, snatching victories from the strongest sprinters, but also showing unusual strengths doing things that sprinters can’t usually do, like climbing, racing cobbled routes, even showing off bike rodeo skills riding prolonged wheelies uphill. Sagan’s good looks and laid back joking personality soon made him a favorite with fans and other riders—he now wears his hair unusually long, keeps the start of a short beard, and could be played by a time traveling young Brad Pitt in a biopic, but his voice would have to come from Andy Kauffman’s Latka Gravas.

Sagan dominated the sprinter points competition this year from the first day of the California tour, winning the first stage and while giving up the yellow jersey, he kept the green sprinters jersey for the whole tour. Last year he won the tour by a few seconds, this year with wins in the first and fourth stage he raised the record for the tour’s all time stage wins to 15.

Sagan’s arguably the best living rider, but you wouldn’t know it from the modest ego we see in public; he loses as gracefully as he wins, and he makes it all look like fun. At the conclusion of the last stage in this year’s Tour of California, I’d picked out a spot to sit and watch the racers break around a sharp turn, so I’d been out of view of the finish line—and last I’d seen there was a tight fight between Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, and Peter Sagan, but I hadn’t been able to see the outcome from here I sat. I later saw on TV that the finish was a classic Cavendish last minute explosive sprint, pulling out ahead of Sagan, then cutting him off within the last dozen meters before the finish line. With the race over I used my press pass to walk past the barrier, and cut across the race road to get to the main press area across from the awards stage. Walking by the riders, I saw Julian Alaphilippe surrounded by his team, ecstatic in his tour victory, and about half way to my destination I saw I was standing a few feet from Peter Sagan, as he was being greeting by his wife. I couldn’t resist my inner fanboy, and stopped to take a few pictures, he looked right at me in a way that didn’t occur to me until later, when I saw the hard lost finish of the race, was of a mixture of fatigue and the weight of publicly living out the difficulties of racing hard for over 85 miles, only to lose in the last seconds. Ten minutes later he stood on the podium with Cavendish’s arms around him and Kristoff, beaming a wide smile, aglow in the green points jersey that was now his.

Julian Alaphilippe at fin

Julian Alaphilippe at the finish line.

One of the remarkable things about this level of professional contemporary cycling is the unusual degree of public civility between athletes. This doesn’t mean that sometimes riders won’t express anger at other individual riders, especially after causing a crash, or some breach of riding etiquette; but these tend to be exceptions that highlight how a small group of elite riders traveling the same circuits and competing with each other for months on end negotiate contested space off the road. Sometimes apologies are made in ways we just don’t see in other sports. Professional road cyclists also display an unusual honesty and lack of bravado in interviews—with most interviews producing the exact opposite of what you’d get from a World Federation Wrestler. There tends to no self-aggrandizing patter, with luck or other expressions of fortune more frequently mentioned than rare talents—this is terrain far from the trash talk of professional football or basketball prima donnas. When things go bad, riders often simply say they couldn’t find the energy that day—or sometimes they complement the rider who just beat them. Perhaps this comes from there being little to hide behind when loosing, and the grueling nature of the cyclists’ long season is that even the best riders can’t win every day; while it is a team sport with an incredible amount of work needed to support stage wins, in the end the riders are the ones turning the crank around and around and they know it.

While fans bike out to sections of each of the stages, for regular race stages this usually means riding to some distant spot, perhaps 20 to 50 miles from the starting line—but on a time trial, there a central area attracting riders to one area. In the hours before a stage starts, the roads have swarms of twenty- and thirty-something year old wannabe racers riding $8,000 new bikes and wearing immaculate kits emblazoned with the corporate sponsors’ names of their heroes.

Given the racers’ high speeds and the remoteness of courses, as a spectator sport road cycling makes little practical sense. If fans wanted to best watch the race, they would stay home and watch expert commentators, teams of support cars, helicopters, and motorcycles with cameras deliver live coverage of the race in HD with gripping slow motion playback when needed. But there are some advantages to riding out on the course to see the race. You get a feel for the course itself. If you’re climbing up to watch an assent, half hour before the race arrives, the roads close to cars, and there are rare opportunities to ride at high speeds down dangerous twisting closed roads sweeping across both lanes through turns. But there’s something else going on. In some sense, fans participation in biking out to remote sections of races appear as acts of fetishism in which (to distort Marx) the value-relations of the products of fandom within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the ability to physically watch the race one has gone to watch.

With cycling’s reliance on corporate power providing the lifeblood and logistical support for racing, the contradictions of elite cycling are not that different from the contradictions governing most of our lives. Yet at the heart of all this, past the clutter of corporate sponsorship, elites owners flaunting team or tour names as forms of conspicuous consumption, the scientific regiments of training, diet, and technique—beyond all this is a combination of skill, talent, struggle, endurance, nerves, and luck that make a bike race.

But just as the physical effort for this 50-something year old to ride up the 10% grade of a mere category three race incline obliterates the meaning of any such analysis, and the thrill of watching these riders speed uphill over this same road at remarkable speeds make the race appear to be the only thing that matters. At that moment, it isn’t the gear or the corporate entities underwriting and benefiting from all this (or whatever my complaints against them are), or the hype of star riders; it’s only riders pressing themselves in that most basic of competitions: a race. And while I realize that this intense momentary enjoyment of the race occurs within the sponsor’s brandwashing operational scheme; whatever form of false consciousness this is, it is as momentarily satisfying as anything our commodified consumer culture has yet to offer me.

David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.