Now that Bay Area resident and Lance Armstrong teammate Levi Leiphiemer took Monday's lead in the Tour of California bicycle race, some Snitchophrenics have taken notice of this Big International Sporting Spectacle, and come away confused.
Funny clothes, foreign sponsors, misshapen bodies, absurd bikes, and weird nomenclature made the Tour seem more like a rolling production of Borat than a bona-fide sporting event.
SF Weekly sets out to clear up confusion with our first installment of Bike Rat: Sporting Learnings of California for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of America.
Question: Why does it say "Astana" on Armstrong and Leipheimer's back and legs? Are they advertising European desert topping? Floor wax?
Answer: Close. Like "Shimmer", the Saturday Night Live skit product that was at once a floor wax and desert topping, Astana is many things. It's the capital of Kazakhstan. And it's the name applied to a group of government-owned industrial companies that sponsor the team of Armstrong and Leipheimer.
Q: Why does the government of Borat's homeland employ our hometown heroes?
A: Like the movie, it's a complicated story whose plot combines the backward culture of a minor post-Soviet republic, and the vanity of modern American celebrity worship.
If Nadia Comeneci is any guide, internationally successful residents of small, former Eastern-bloc countries earn unusual stature back home. To wit: In 2007 Alexandre Vinokourov, a tow-headed cycling superstar, convinced Kazakhstan to fund a super-team to help him win the Tour de France. Kazakhstan's dreams of eternal honor crumbled mid-Tour, however, when Vinokourov was caught employing a doping technique that maximizes oxygen delivery by transfusing human blood. This may sound confusing, until one realizes that the small-town Kazakhstan scenes in Borat were actually filmed in Transylvania, the Romanian region that was also home to Count Dracula.
Despite the doping debacle, the Kazakh moguls seem to have been hooked. They came back in 2009 with a super-duper team, hiring first- and third-place 2007 Tour finishers Alberto Contador and Leipheimer, along with much of the rest of the sport's s top tier. Last year, Armstrong announced his comeback from retirement, having set down his bike in 2005 after winning seven consecutive Tours de France. He said he'd ride in Astana colors, without even drawing a salary, so that he could re-unite with his old team strategist Johan Bruyneel, who'd been engaged by the Kazakhs to run the Astana team.
After four years squiring starlets, Armstrong says he's gotten serious, and returned to cycling to raise awareness about cancer.
So far, however, he's mostly been seen raising awareness of Astana, the capital of a fiefdom run by Kazakh president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev, criticized by some for failing to abate corruption, suppression of dissent, unfair elections, and curtailed freedom of speech.
Point being, cycling's simple once you learn.
Confused by the Tour of California, which runs Feb. 14-22 from Sacramento to L.A.? Address questions to Matthew.Smith@SFWeekly.com, and we'll answer them promptly.