It is satire, even though labeled "Opinion." Good satire, is so subtle that you don’t recognize it as such until you read the whole piece. The result was that many cycling fans got bent out of shape, and probably after reading half of the article, sent off angry comments.
I saw the article for what it was, however, I did pick up on this single sentence in the first paragraph where Stein said:
I've been following cycling since 1994 and have learned to appreciate the subtleties of team strategy, drafting, counterattacks and a 20-cyclist crash down a mountainside.
I doubt that. Joel Stein like many journalists probably doesn’t have an inkling what it takes to even compete in the Tour de France, let alone win. To know that you have to at least be a cyclist, and one that can ride a road bike at a certain level.
That would be, one who has reached at minimum a level fitness and expertise to ride in a pace line, following a wheel within a few inches. A person can read, or listen to experts commenting on the Tour de France, who will tell you how drafting behind someone you are using 15% less energy than the leading rider.
Sounds easy, but only those who have been in such a pace line with riders who are fitter, and far stronger than they are, really know just how difficult and physically painful this can be. To appreciate what an extreme endurance sport bicycle racing is, it has to be experienced at some level.
In the late 1960s I held a Category 1 Racing License in the UK. There were three categories at that time, and to become a Category 1, a rider had to win or place in a certain number of races, and maintain that level. Early in 1968, I went to France with two other riders from my club to compete in a weekend two-stage race.
This was my first and only trip to race on the Continent of Europe. It was both a revelation, and a humbling experience. One that quickly made me realize how far superior the racing cyclists were on the Continent at that time.
Saturday’s stage was a 100 km. event (62 miles.) held on a circuit barely five miles around. In England road race fields were limited to forty riders. (Sixty in some larger events.) In this event in France there were 120 riders riding on narrow country lanes barely 12 feet wide. This experience alone was overwhelming.
The pace was extremely fast right from the start; I kept expecting things to settle down after a short while, but the pace never relented. I found myself near the back of the peloton, and had enough experience to know this was not a good place to be.
With so many riders on roads this narrow there were very few gaps for a rider to squeeze through to move forward. It was a matter of, seeing an opening, sprint through, and then wait for the next opening. All this while riding at a pace that was only slightly less than my maximum speed.
It took me two complete laps of the circuit, about ten miles riding at maximum effort, just to get from the back to the front of the field. Once there I found one of my team members who told me the field had split, and about 30 or 40 riders were somewhere out in front and already out of sight on this twisting narrow circuit.
By this time I was so exhausted it was all I could do to maintain my position and finish the race. The next day’s stage was a 185 km. (115 miles.) road race over hilly terrain; I was determined to do better than the day before.
There was a break early on in the race, and I decided not to chase. The problem was I did not know the course or the other riders; I had no way of knowing if the break was significant or not. However, after about two thirds of the distance covered, when a chasing group of eight riders formed, I followed.
I think I rode harder that day than I had ever ridden in my entire cycling career, but I was out classed in every way. I finally blew up completely, was dropped, swallowed up by the peloton, now moving at a pace similar to the previous day’s event.
Like a dose of salts, I went through the bunch and out the back. Struggling along on my own just trying to finish, came the final humiliation. I was caught by a rider with a flat rear tubular tire, going bumpedy-bumpedy-bump along the road.
I worked with him for a while, but when we came to a significant climb, he rode away from me. Yes, with a flat tire. I realized that weekend, the only way to compete at this level, was to move to France and race and train with these riders on a regular basis. This was not an option for me as I was married with two small children.
I never went back to ride there again, there was no point. I was in my early thirties probably at the highest level of fitness I would attain. These were French amateur riders, holding down day jobs, and training in their spare time. I found it difficult comprehend the level of the European Professional Riders.
When I read something by a Los Angeles journalist who has probably never ridden a road bike say, “I understand the nuances of bicycle racing,” I have to say, “I’m sorry but you only think you know what cycle racing at the Tour de France level is all about.”
I have been trying to think of another sport that calls for maximum effort over and over during the course of a day's riding. Then the riders rise the following morning to do it again, and again for about four weeks. This is the Tour de France; there is no other endurance event like it.