12 June 2014

A World Cup Tournament Of Cycling Nations

In an earlier post, I briefly described an interesting paradox:  Some of the nations that have dominated bicycle racing are also among those that have been among the world's elite in football (what we Americans call "soccer"). Yet, the wheel and the ball rarely, if ever, cross each other's paths.

I was thinking about this again, today, as the World Cup football tournament opened with host nation Brazil's team beating its counterpart from Croatia.  Brazil perennially fields one of the world's strongest sides and, playing in its home country, is expected to win the tournament.

I couldn't help but to notice that the teams that have the best chance of keeping the Brazilians from winning it all come from Argentina, Germany and Spain. Other teams believed to have at least an outside chance are those of Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, England and Uruguay.

Now, I don't have to tell you about the cycling traditions of France, Belgium, Italy, England, Spain, Germany or even Portugal:  Each has produced a disproportionate share of winners of the world's top bicycle races.  Cycling is also a popular form of recreation in those countries, and using bicycles for transportation is making a resurgence in them. And all of them, with the possible exception of Portugal, have their share of notable bike builders.

Of the three South American soccer powerhouses in the tournament, Argentina seems to have more of a racing tradition and culture than the others.  In its relatively brief history, the six-stage Tour de San Luis has become an important part of the UCI Americas Tour, one of the Continental Circuits sanctioned by l'Union Cycliste Internationale.  Levi Leipheimer won the TdeSL in 2012, one of the last triumphs of his career.

Argentina was also home, for many years, to Spanish-born Francisco Cuevas, considered one of the most meticulous craftsmen among frame-builders.  He would later emigrate to the US and set up shop in Queens, a stone's throw from where I live now and even closer to the Kissena Velodrome.
Some other fine builders practiced their trade in the home of the tango, and a company called Saavedra produced some rather nice components, most of which were Campagnolo knockoffs.  One of their most interesting pieces was a headset that looked like a cross between a Campy Super Record and a Stronglight Delta.  But, at heart, it was more like the Delta with its roller bearings.  But perhaps their best-known product was their Turbo rim, which became popular among time trialists because it was the lightest--although far from the most durable--available.

Perhaps one reason why Argentina had a relatively strong bicycle culture and industry is that so many Europeans--particularly Italians-- emigrated to it. Indeed, it's often been called the most European of Latin American countries.

Uruguay doesn't seem to have the kind of cycling history Argentina can claim.  But, to be fair, it's a much smaller country, only about the size of Connecticut. On the other hand, a Google search of "bicycling in Uruguay" seems to turn up nothing but rave reviews in which two-wheeled tourists rave about the good roads, spectacular scenery, rich history and friendly local people they encounter.

That leaves us with Brazil.  It doesn't seem to have much of a history of road racing, but there seem to be a lot of downhill races in various parts of the country.  And, as some have noted, the popularity of cycling for transportation and recreation declined as the bicycle was increasingly seen as a "poor man's" vehicle.  But that image is starting to change, and a bicycle culture is developing in Sao Paolo and other cities.  

The only Brazilian bicycles I've ever seen were made by Caloi.  They make a variety of bikes, but all the Calois I've seen were mountain bikes.  I first started noticing them in the early '90's, around the time I took up off-road riding. Their aluminum bikes seemed like lower-rent versions of Cannondales.  I haven't seen any lately; then again, I haven't been a mountain biker in some time.

Brazil has won more World Cup football titles than any other nations.  How soon before a cyclist from that country wins Le Tour, Il Giro or La Vuelta? 

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