Why Americans Don’t Watch Cycling
The Tour de France ended this past Sunday with Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia taking home the win after a historic upset performance on Stage 20. The 21-year-old came from one minute down to beat main rival and compatriot Primoz Roglic, who led the race for the past two weeks. Despite being one of the closest tours in history, with main contenders separated by only half a minute for most of the race, the race only attracted 400,000 viewers per stage in the US. Meanwhile, significantly smaller countries like Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium had ratings near 1-2 million viewers per day. Even in Denmark, a country whose population is less than 2 percent of the US's, attracted twice as many fans. So why don’t Americans enjoy watching cycling?
Low cycling viewership in America is heavily rooted in the US’s dominant car culture. The life of the average American revolves around the car, with 64 percent of Americans saying that they drive every day, while only 2.3 percent bike daily. Furthermore, American infrastructure caters around the use of cars: safe bike lanes and wide shoulders are rare sights, and a high number of crashes and bike fatalities discourage people from riding. In Europe however, biking is an integral part of daily life. An EU survey found that 36 percent of Dutch people commute by bike, and in Copenhagen, the Danish capital city, this number reaches 62 percent. Safe, separated infrastructure in European cities also allows people of all ages to cycle without fear of riding alongside distracted or irresponsible drivers, encouraging more to commute on bikes. While the integration of cycling into daily European life allows people to develop a better connection to cycling, the lack of a preexisting relationship in American makes it hard for commercial interest to grow. Since only a small percentage of Americans take cycling seriously, professional cycling viewership in the US has stayed low, and will continue to do so until cycling becomes a part of American culture.
America’s lack of connection with cycling is further exacerbated by the nature of the sport. Watching the pro peloton for the first time is incredibly confusing and uninteresting. Understanding racing requires knowledge about the time system, classifications, rider names and team names, and the use of domestiques, and much more. Even after learning the rules, watching cycling is just plain boring. In the first half of a race, most contenders will stay in the back, saving their energy for the final few miles and relying on teammates to shelter them from wind and pass them food. Winning attacks will only happen in the final 20 kilometers, or in flat sprint days, the last 500 meters. There is no incentive for a title competitor to reach his maximum performance until certain mountain stages, so most stages lack any importance or changes in standings. This means that cycling requires immense patience to watch, which is something American viewers don’t want. Sports like basketball and football outcompete road racing, as they saturate fans with immediate gratification.
Cycling needs to make many improvements if it wants to attract more fans, and while bike paths can’t be built overnight, modifications can be made to the race format. An easy solution would be to shorten stages, forcing riders to up their pace and be more aggressive due to the fewer opportunities they have to attack. For example, the shortest day of the 2018 Tour de France, stage 17, was one of the most exhilarating races of the year. The shorter race gave way to a flurry of attacks from big names like Julian Alaphillipe, Nairo Quintana, and Tom Doumolin right from the start, allowing viewers to witness plenty of overtakes and more visible strategic moves. The stage also finished in just over two and a half hours, making it about the time of an average NBA game. Shorter stages encourage attacking and generate more instant gratification, appealing to new viewers of the sport.
Cycling can certainly become more popular in the US if adequate changes are made to the current race format. But without considerate infrastructure and cycling culture embedded in the heart of their cities, Americans won’t be replacing football on Sundays with road racing anytime soon.