Outside magazine, August 1995
We are going to bring an original touch to [the sport of mountain biking]," says a rather smug press release from the Tour de France Society announcing this month's inaugural knobby-tired version of road racing's greatest event, "by bestowing upon it our most precious asset: the title and label 'Tour de France.'"
Such sniffy phrasing may leave you wondering how to respond--the phrase "big whoop" comes to mind--but the French are indeed on a collision course with the mud-splattering sport of mountain biking. And while it all sounds regal, the jury is out on one basic question: Will it fly? Because, despite all the Gallic banner-waving, it's bouncing to life with some notable problems, including a wan level of interest from many top riders, who for now seem more inclined to focus on better-established World Cup stops.
Of course, it has a couple of assets, too: money and France. The seven-day affair, only the second professional mountain-biking stage race ever held, is offering a fat $200,000 purse. It will begin in the town of Metabief, where 200 men and women representing some 30 teams will head southwest on a 300-mile race through the foothills of the Alps. Cyclists, though equipped with knobby tires and dual suspension systems, will ride in pelotons, sacrifice personal glory in the interest of the team, and, of course, spin hard in pursuit of the winner's snazzy maillot jaune. Unlike in the asphalt Tour, however, these riders will blast through pine forests on single-track trails and camp in tent villages--changes that, according to the promoters' enthusiastic yawp, will give the race "that exciting, nomadic feel."
But the stage format also seems to be keeping riders away. "We peak all season for the world championships in September," points out American John Tomac, one of several top mountain bikers who've sent their regrets. "Why would we want to do a couple hundred extra miles and break ourselves down just before it? If the Tour has a future, they're going to have to award World Cup points."
Despite such skepticism, some riders and fans have been calling for the development of a format to determine the world's finest all-around rider. On the World Cup circuit, cyclists tend to specialize in either cross-country, which pits racers against one another on 20- to 30-mile all-terrain courses, or downhill, in which riders plunge like kamikazes straight down a mountainside. Winning the Tour, organizers say, would require a unique range of skills.
"In baseball, if a guy can do a lot of things--hit, catch, and steal bases--then he's a great player," says Tom Kiely, director of the Hawaiian Mountain Tour, the first mountain-bike stage race, held last March on Oahu. "Shouldn't it be the same in mountain biking?"
Perhaps he's a little biased, but Switzerland's Thomas Frischknecht, widely regarded as the best all-around rider on the World Cup tour, agrees. "Of course," he says, sticking a figurative elbow into the ribs of Frenchmen everywhere, "I'd much rather the world's premiere stage race take place in a beautiful spot like Hawaii."