Lance exits, but U.S. now cycling power
A jaw-dropping display of time-trial dominance Saturday secured Lance Armstrong's record seventh consecutive victory in the Tour de France, and put an exclamation point on his storied cycling career.
But as he rode into retirement Sunday with his last push of the pedal beneath the Arc de Triomphe, Armstrong, - unbeknownst to most Americans - is leaving US cycling in the strongest position it has ever enjoyed.
At the elite international level, never has the pool of American talent been so deep. Indeed, three US riders made the Top 10 of this year's Tour de France standings. [Editor's note: The original version of this article wrongly claimed that no country other than the US had more than one rider in the Top Ten of this year's Tour de France.]
At ground level, on the highways and byways of America, the sport has boomed, thanks to the attention that Armstrong's extraordinary success has drawn.
USA Cycling's membership has jumped by 30 percent since Armstrong won his first Tour in 1999, says Andy Lee, a spokesman for the sport's governing body in America. "That's the biggest increase we have ever had in such a period of time," he adds.
And sales of road bikes are climbing even more spectacularly - by between 10 and 17 percent a year during the past few years - according to Bill Strickland, executive editor of Bicycling Magazine. "It's really phenomenal," he says. "You'd have to attribute that to Lance."
Indeed, almost as great as the scale of his achievement, say US cyclists and sports administrators, is the size of the hole he leaves.
For seven years, Mr. Armstrong has singlehandedly embodied American cycling for fans both at home and the world at large. "There won't be another Lance Armstrong," says Mr. Lee. "We cannot pretend" interest will be just as high without Lance winning.
Even among those not inspired to actually buy a bike, Armstrong's dramatic comeback from cancer has made a television destination out of the once obscure Outdoor Live Network (OLN), the cable channel that carries the Tour in America.
Those watching closely, and looking beyond the leader's coveted yellow jersey that Armstrong wore for the last 12 days of the three-week race, will have noticed other American riders putting in outstanding performances this year.
In Saturday's race against the clock, a 34.5-mile stretch of open country, in which strength and cycling skills counted for more than tactics, four American riders finished in the Top 10, led by Armstrong, who won the stage in a crushing display of power. In the overall standings at the end of the race Sunday, Levi Leipheimer arrived 6th, and Armstrong's former teammate Floyd Landis came 9th, out of 189 starting riders.
David Zabriskie, riding in his first Tour, wore the yellow jersey for three days early in the race - an honor many top riders never achieve. George Hincapie, meanwhile, emerged from his friend Armstrong's shadow to win this year's toughest mountain day stage, and Bobby Julich came a more than respectable 17th.
These results are not Armstrong's legacy, however, even if some of the riders have ridden on his team in the past and learned from him.
Rather, they are the cream of the crop sown some 15 years ago, when Greg LeMond - the first American to win the Tour de France - was on top of his form. Messrs. Hincapie, Julich, and Landis were then boys to whom LeMond was a hero. Now, says Lee, it is up to them "to keep the ball rolling and the spotlight on cycling" in the wake of Armstrong's retirement.
None of them, however, are likely to match either Armstrong's skill and dedication, or the pathos of his personal drama, which have raised the flag of US cycling in previously unknown fields. "One person has never done so much to raise the profile of the sport in America," says Dan Osipow, spokesman for Armstrong's "Discovery Channel" team. "It has reached places cycling has never gone, from the White House to cereal boxes."
"Armstrong passes the 'grandmother test' - my grandmother knows who he is but she doesn't know anybody else in cycling," says Mr. Strickland. "I don't think we have the next American rider who can pass that test."
The public will perhaps have to wait a decade or so to feel the full effects of Armstrong's legacy, when boys watching OLN today grow up. "The challenge for us at junior level is getting kids involved when so many other sports are offered" at school, says USA Cycling's Lee. "Right now, Lance Armstrong is the primary way high school kids learn about cycling."
One young man who knows that personally is Tyler Farrar, a 21-year-old member of the US national team who many see as the next great hope of American cycling. "It was cool to be coming up through the junior ranks when Americans, and especially Armstrong, started to perform on the international stage", he says. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly used a phrase to describe Tyler Farrar.]
"Armstrong is an amazing motivator," he adds. "He represents a gold standard you can aim for, an ideal to strive for."
Mr. Farrar sees the wheel of American cycling turning again in a generation's time. The Americans doing so well now "were juniors when Greg LeMond was at his prime, and now they are hitting their stride," he says. "Fifteen years from now there will be even more Americans doing what they are doing, who are watching Lance now."
"Somewhere out there," Mr. Osipow speculates, "there is a 13-year-old kid who watched the race today and said to himself 'Boy, I want to do that.' "
1) Lance Armstrong (US/Discovery)
2) Ivan Basso (Italy/CSC)
3) Jan Ullrich (Germany/T-Mobile)
4) Francisco Mancebo (Spain/Balears)
5) Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan/ T-Mobile)
6) Levi Leipheimer (US/Gerolsteiner)
7) Mickael Rasmussen (Denmark/Rabobank)
8) Cadel Evans (Australia/Lotto)
9) Floyd Landis (US/Phonak)
10) Oscar Pereiro (Spain/Phonak)