Like its predecessor, Drive to Survive, the new Netflix Unchained series seeks to humanize the World Tour’s automaton-seeming athletes that make up professional road cycling’s peloton. But as the exploding gravel scene in the U.S. faces “growing pains,” Nic Morales wonders if the effects of Unchained’s inevitable popularity will remain culturally abstract, or if they will serve to usher in an era of Road 2.0 on America’s gravel roads. Read on for Nic’s reaction to the series in this latest installment of The Dust-Up, our ongoing opinion column.
What is the most popular sport in the world? By most normal stats, football or ‘soccer’ takes the cake. World Cup viewership dwarfs the next best thing by a significant margin, and recent investments in its most popular yearly competition, the English Premier League, have broken the glass ceiling into that ever important final frontier—an American audience. Of course, viewership isn’t the only means by which one can measure popularity. Actual, physical participation may not result in multi-billion dollar tv rights, but it’s a telling metric in its own right.
Though I can’t prove it, it’s hard to imagine that cycling wouldn’t be among the most popular pastimes. The inherent advantage, and difference, is that cycling isn’t just a sport– it serves a tangible, utilitarian purpose. It is a means by which the developing world can be active members of the global economy in the same way an iPhone-wielding hipster can commute to their local cafe. Cycling, through no ordinary metric, may be far from the world’s most popular sport– but it’s difficult to imagine a more common activity.
With that sense of almost universal familiarity in mind, the crew behind Netflix’s Drive to Survive—a series that popularized the once relatively niche sport of Formula 1 to largely unconcerned masses—has decided to turn their focus to professional cycling. In large part, Drive to Survive‘s success may be attributed to the production team’s humanizing approach to what many previously thought of as an impenetrable sport. Instead of focusing solely on performance, the sometimes overly dramatic documentary-adjacent series honed in on the most relatable aspect of any sport– the people. By introducing mainstream audiences to the personalities behind largely soulless and disconnected advertising mediums, average, office-going folk became enamored with the likes of Daniel Ricciardo.
Now, it’s cycling’s turn. More specifically, professional cycling. And it couldn’t come at a better time. Like many outdoor activities, the boom afforded by the pandemic has fundamentally changed the landscape of bicycle manufacturing. How that intersects with the inevitable popularity of something like Unchained, Netflix’s new eight-part series taking a closer look at the narratives and storylines of the 2022 Men’s Tour De France, remains to be seen. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine this isn’t a somewhat calculated move by the production house. In the past three years, more people than ever before have gone out and ridden a bike. Unlike Formula 1, where very few people in this lifetime will ever understand what it is to pull 6 G’s in a car, cycling has relatability. You can go out and do it! The difficulty lies with those who view the activity as more than a sport.
By solely popularizing the sporting aspect of cycling, it may further solidify the idea that it’s nothing more than a tool for performance. Cynically, one need look no further than the ‘event pipeline’ many corporate shops have adopted in recent years.
Warning: get ready to put on your tin foil hats.
Given that the death of American road cycling (and road cyclist) has been declared a number of times, I think it’s fair to say this country’s unique set of material circumstances hasn’t and wouldn’t allow for a major resurgence in road cycling– despite whatever success Unchained garners. However, gravel cycling seems to be approaching a critical, cultural inflection point, as the pro field drifts (literally, and figuratively) further from the sub-discipline’s mass participation, self-sufficiency roots. What’s worth considering is what ‘kind’ of cyclist is created as we navigate through gravel’s ‘growing pains’? Is this new generation of cyclists—catalyzed by the pandemic and solidified by the uptick in the sport’s popularity—the kind that can appreciate everything the bicycle has the capacity to be? Or is it a consumptive audience that views it as a uni-dimensional activity? In short, are we looking at the road 2.0 culture, raced on dirt and slightly wider tires?
I’m painting in broad strokes here, but events like Unbound have changed how cycling works in this country. Where the popularity of something like Unchained may have sent a new crop of cyclists perilously into the void, what now awaits an excitable populous is the gravel industry. Partially because of the continuous and ever-increasing rise in pedestrian fatalities, many have taken to the idea of riding a fast bike off-road like fish to water. Of course, cars becoming trucks and said trucks having continually gotten larger, less efficient, and deadlier isn’t really something you want to consider when deciding between alloy or carbon wheels for your Trek SL-whatever. And, most people don’t think about it. They aren’t set along a path that presents the bike as a tool for multiple purposes. They’re sold the idea of bicycles as an experience. It’s not a tool that can replace a car, or help them see their immediate world in a different light. It’s a reality of gels, aerodynamic hydration packs, and exporting that sense of adventure to places deemed ‘appropriate’ to ride.
Without intending to step in it, there has been some controversy at this year’s big event. I don’t intend to get stuck in the mire of mud-slinging (we’ve talked about the mud enough, haven’t we?), but it seems that people have gone from attending organized events with the intention of having an experience–authentically being open to whatever happens after a year or more of intention and focus–to expecting the experience. Whatever the order of operations that allowed for the palpable change in culture (i.e. second place finisher Petr Vakoč wanting a separate finishers chute for the pro field, or Howard Grotts agreeing ahead of time to give a teammate his wheel), it’s clear the change in how these events are viewed has trickled down. Gone are the days of genuine parity, here is the era of curated experience. We’re still in Kansas, Toto, it just looks different. Perhaps reading tea leaves in a mud field is just drawing what I want to see, but, it does seem as though the culture has changed. From experimental and experientially-focused to commodified and transactional.
Mind you, I’m not saying shops and event organizers around the country have gathered in a dark room and colluded to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s not that clear cut, which this year’s Unbound case (again) illustrated as the event organizers dug in their heels while Instagram was flooded with hindsight pleas for a mud re-route. It’s simply people making the best of an evolving situation, and some of these people have different ideas about the best way forward. Midwestern America is a veritable dream for this format of racing because of the naturally rugged terrain and lack of traffic-related logistics; the inverse is (mostly) true, too, as gravel races in postage stamp-sized towns rake in real revenue that benefits the local economy. What I am asking is: As we continue down this road, where’s the point of no return?
If we continue to ossify the path of local bike shop-to-cross-country experience, at what point will there be a focus on areas that don’t lend themselves to the current fad? As the multicultural American consciousness continues to digest and form a societal understanding of what cycling is today, will that look like a transformative tool for the better that lends itself to equal parts adventure and function? Or, another atomized, hyper-specific, and entirely consumptive experience in the form of team cars kicking up dust on the dirt roads of Kansas in the name of pursuing peak performance?
As something of an experiment, I took a look at the bikes around me. The bikes pictured throughout are the rigs of those who I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with and are glistening examples of why bikes can be so simplistically superlative. In equal parts, my buddy Dave’s Gorilla Monsoon has served as a daily commuter, weekend gravel grinder, and multi-day bike packing steed. My Crust Bombora is the tool I used on a solo, single-day 200-mile effort and then rode to my local coffee shop the next day. Justin’s Mosaic GT-AR is a custom decision that, despite bringing financial ruin, allows him to balance a new kid, roadie impersonations, and light dirt excursions all the same. Tyler’s Cosmic stallion? A veritable big ride machine as much as it is a casual cruiser. You get the idea. These are relatively normal people with normal goals and normal lives. As often as their bikes have served as ways to self-actualize, they’ve also been able to serve more practical purposes that bring them closer to their communities.
I’m sure there are amazing people doing amazing things in the world of event organization and I’m sure I’m oversimplifying the problem. But I’m also a firm believer in rhetoric. How we speak about things determines how we conceive of them– the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. For the nth time in a few years, we are once more on the precipice of something big in the world of cycling. A series like Unchained could bring unprecedented awareness to cycling in the West. What, I ask, do we want that to look like?