Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Little Tour That Could

Out on the road we don't talk about it much, the Tour of Missouri. I think the subject has come up only once in a long while, and the conversation was more a comparison of what stages each of us would attend. Me? Whatever stage lands in St. Louis. This year that's Stage 1. A few of the others were wondering if there will be an accessible 'Etape du Tour' like there was last year. The fear being that it will be held at one of the across-the-state stages. Even more important, who will lead it now that Mary Kay as quit Maplewood? To that I'm indifferent because there's no way I can get a kitchen pass for an all-day bike ride; not now; even if it is the Tour of Missouri.

I sometimes wonder how others talk about the Tour. Is there hot debate about the strategies of major teams? Or maybe who will lead the breakaways? Maybe some gossip around a few of the riders? Or is it more like where to sit along the race routes? I can never get a sense of it. We're told the Tour of Missouri is a Big Deal(tm) - one of only two races in the United States rated as worthy of attendance by the biggest and best international teams. Indeed, the biggest teams and the biggest names have, and will, come to town. How did that happen? Are the stages that challenging? C'mon, there's bigger hills in Arkansas. It certainly can't be because of the weather. Maybe its because this is the Midwest and everyone is so nice. One thing's for sure: whoever puts the Tour together must be a fast talker.

That's a good thing. The Tour needed some fast talking to stay alive this year - or so I'm told. On July 10, the Post-Dispatch published an article by Kathleen Nelson and Tony Messenger informing that the race could be cancelled because the Department of Economic Development proposed to eliminate the $1.5 million allocation for the Tour of Missouri from the state's tourism budget. At first the article focused on the reaction of the tour organizers: "devastating". Then the article framed the cut as a poor timing issue: "interest in cycling is growing while Lance is only seconds from the lead in the Tour de France!" Like that has anything to do with it. Then it became an economic development issue: the state has an interest in investing in tourism. But really really, it was a personal political confrontation between the Tour's primary political supporter, Pete Kinder, and the governor, Jay Nixon. That Kinder is expected to challenge Nixon in 2012, and also that Kinder leads the commission from which the money would be cut, the article hints, means it must be personal.

The vacuum drawn by all the butt holes puckering across the state set off the motion detectors at my neighbors house. Those with incurable cases of Compulsive Outrage Disorder came out of the wood work, posting on forums and calling talk shows, accusing anyone who wears spandex of unspeakable crimes against humanity. The Tour pundits and cycling affectionados came out too, demanding the road be shared and threatening to withhold their carbon credits. Yes, it was clear from the article that something was rotten in Jefferson City. What was not clear from the article is why the Tour receives half its operating budget from the state and what that money is used for.

The very next day, sensing that their first attempt didn't muddy the waters enough, Kathleen Nelson published a combined Tour de France race report/political editorial ironically titled "Tour of Missouri clearer than Tour de France", complete with very bad analogies of peleton strategy and political hegemony. I guess as a counterpart, Tony Messenger filed his own report characterizing the budget proposals as "a high stakes game of chicken between the governor's office and the nonprofit agency that runs the September bike race", as if there were spandex-clad ruffians in Pete Kinder t-shirts staring down the governor though his office window.

The truth of the matter can be found by reading all three articles together, minus the hyperbole. The obvious part is that this state, like so many others, has money problems. I think the governor's staff simply pulled a bunch of non-critical line items out of the budget and asked the responsible departments to justify their expenses. All very straight forward. Of course, when the sports beat reporter and the church beat reporter "broke the news" in twenty different contexts, everybody got defensive and turned on the PR machines. At bottom was the governor's budget director asking what the money would be used for. Not an unreasonable question when the amount is $1.5 million. At top was getting the Tour organizers to turn over their books - which, by the way, the public is still yet to see.

The final word on the matter came from Messenger on July 14 in a blog entry of all things. A blog entry that was basically one long quote from Governor Nixon stating only that people who receive state money should be prepared to show their work. I'm pretty sure that's a governors responsibility. So the Tour organizers came up off the goods, the state budget staff had a look and cut them a check. Problem solved. Now that this ridiculously fabricated "tug of war between the governors office and the tourism commission" is over, you can all go back to your regularly scheduled programming. For me, that'll be riding down to the Central West End on race day to collect some autographs, have a beer, and take in the crowd.

I hope the Tour of Missouri continues. I want the Tour of Missouri to continue. But I want the drama to be on the race course, in the midst of a first class, honest-to-goodness, Pro Tour stage race that I can see up close. Everything worthwhile seems so tenuous these days. What I don't need is a sports reporter who doesn't know anything about the sport stirring up political apoplexy.

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