Why I Like to Watch Bike Racing

by W.D. Ehrhart

For the past week and a half, I’ve been watching La Vuelta a Espana, the Tour of Spain bicycle race. I’ve watched Le Tour de France every July for the past twenty-five years, and since the coronavirus showed up, I’ve taken to watching la Vuelta as well.

I enjoy watching sports in general because you never know how it’s going to end until it ends. And I especially like watching bike racing because it is so international with riders from all over Europe, the Americas, New Zealand, and even the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. And though there are teams sponsored by Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, the riders themselves are a mix of nationalities. Of the 184 riders representing 23 teams, only three riders in this year’s Vuelta are from the United States.

One never hears those mindless chants of “USA! USA!” One is not subjected to the mandatory “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and remove your hats for our national anthem.” No one drags a giant American flag across the starting line as if I’m going to forget what country I live in if I don’t see the Stars-n-Stripes thirty-seven times a day. And there is never a military flyover with F-16s or A-10s or Apache helicopters (oh, the irony of that name, but don’t get me started).

Don’t misunderstand me. I am an American citizen. I’ve never missed voting in an election—general, primary, or special—since the first time I was eligible to vote over half a century ago. I am an honorably discharged U.S. Marine, and I’ve never felt any need to remove the “USMC” tattooed on my left arm. I pay my taxes. There are many things about my country that I like very much.

But I am not “proud” to be an American because there are a lot of things I don’t like about this country, nor should any other thinking person. Our wars of extermination against the original inhabitants of this country, for instance. Or our embrace of slavery as a major source of labor and therefore wealth, and the ongoing and often legalized subordination of those former slaves. Our wars of aggression against Mexico, Spain, the Philippines, much of Central America, and in more recent times Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. Our wars against organized labor in the 19th and 20th centuries. Just to name a few of the things I’m not proud of.

You may want to argue about some or all of the points I’ve made in the preceding paragraph, but I have history and the facts on my side, not national mythology or myopia. Ask Little Turtle or Black Kettle or Frederick Douglas or Emmet Till or Emilio Aguinaldo or Maurice Bishop or Augusto Sandino or Mother Jones. Critical Race Theory isn’t critical race theory; it’s just history.

And while the United States of America isn’t an “evil empire,” it isn’t very exceptional, either. It is just another empire with aspects to be admired and aspects to be deplored and ashamed of.

Which is why I object to the kind of chauvinistic jingoism I am subjected to every time I tune into an NFL or NHL or MLB or NASCAR event, and even at high school lacrosse matches and middle school spelling bees. No other country on earth postures so ridiculously except maybe North Korea. Nazi Germany used to posture like this. I think Stalin’s Soviet Union did, too. Yet another reason I find myself embarrassed to be an American.

Just this morning, I saw a video clip of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claiming that President Joe Biden is “dividing” the nation. This from a man who first criticized Trump for fomenting the January 6th insurrection only to block every subsequent attempt to hold the former president accountable. This from a man who refuses to condemn Trump for insisting that the results of the 2020 election are fraudulent. But Biden is “dividing, demeaning, and disparaging his fellow citizens”?

Nevermind the long sweep of American history. How am I not supposed to be embarrassed by a country where nearly half the voters elect a vulgar, ignorant, narcissistic “reality show” conman president, nearly re-elect him for a second term, and then refuse to accept the outcome of what was arguably the most transparently honest election in U.S. history?

That’s why I like to watch Grand Tour bicycle racing. The flags that fans wave along the bike route range from Denmark to the Netherlands, from Belgium to Wales (coolest flag in the world; it has a dragon on it!), from Slovenia to Italy. I’ve even learned to recognize the Basque, Breton, and Manx flags by watching bike racing.

And it’s all mixed up together, just like the racers themselves: a Swiss flag here, a Slovak flag there, a Union Jack a little farther on. Indeed, bike racing is kind of like a United Nations on wheels. The way the UN is supposed to work. The way the world ought to work. And no one is shouting, “USA! USA!” As if that had anything to do with football or track & field or bicycles or the accident of birth by which I ended up an American instead of an Ethiopian.

W. D. Ehrhart, PhD, is a former Marine Corps sergeant and veteran of the American War in Vietnam. He is the author of a memoir trilogy: Vietnam-Perkasie, Passing Time, and Busted.

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