Cycling contemplates new life without Lance

Armstrong Wins 7th Straight Tour

Tour de France

July 25, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

With Lance Armstrong's seventh Tour de France coronation yesterday, there is no doubt that the American racer has raised the profile of cycling and encouraged greater participation in the United States over the past few years.

However, Armstrong's retirement announcement raises the question of whether U.S. cycling - a beneficiary of the Lance factor - will suffer substantially from his absence.

"Initially, when a sport loses its marquee player, such as when Michael Jordan left basketball, you have to face that issue," said Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Cycling, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based organization that oversees cycling in the United States. "When a sport loses its icon, there's going to be a little disinterest in the sport. In our case, you hope that other Americans will pick up the slack."

Armstrong's influence extended beyond the sports world when, after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, he created the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997. The foundation - most recognizable for the sale of yellow wristbands - has awarded more than $14 million in research and community grants.

Armstrong, who successfully battled his illness, has had a quantifiable impact on cycling interest and participation.

Ratings for television broadcasts on the Outdoor Life Network, which carries live coverage early in the day and taped programs in prime time, have more than doubled since 2002.

An OLN spokeswoman said nearly 500,000 viewers a day were watching the live telecasts that were expected to draw more avid fans, and almost 440,000 viewers, considered more casual followers, were tuning in at prime time for the recaps that included more feature material.

"We were very fortunate to get the Tour de France at the point in time when we did," said OLN's Amy Phillips. "We certainly didn't realize how dominant Armstrong would be and, yes, we'll probably see a drop-off when he's gone. But the sport is in so much better shape for him being there."

Phillips said OLN's prime-time broadcasts, which include explanations of bicycle racing, might help cultivate audience appreciation for the sport that will last after Armstrong's retirement. "We'll see what happens next year. ... It's a natural progression, and we believe we've done a good job of preparing an audience that's more familiar with the sport," she said.

Just as television ratings have climbed along with Armstrong's succession of Tour de France victories, so have road racing memberships at USA Cycling. Since Armstrong won his first Tour in 1999, road racing memberships have jumped 30 percent, to 33,000. "Actually, there's been steady growth since 2002 when Lance won his third Tour de France," Lee said.

Clubs popular

Locally, Armstrong's cycling heroics have left an imprint.

John Cox of Perry Hall has been involved in cycle racing since 1960 as a member of the Chesapeake Wheelmen, one of the oldest bicycle racing clubs in the country. Back then, a race date in the Baltimore-Washington region might draw 30 to 35 riders. Now, his club alone has about 40 members, and cycle events - held most weekends from April through September - are divided by age, gender and expertise level.

And, lately, it has been Armstrong who has driven that interest, even among nonparticipants, Cox said.

"I do outside sales work [in parts for trucks and heavy equipment] where I meet a lot of people who are close to NASCAR, and I'm impressed by how much they seem to know about the Tour de France and Lance," Cox said. "I was just with one guy who turns wrenches for a living ... and he's giving me a full description of what's happened on the mountain stages."

At local bicycle shops, such as Mount Washington Bike Shop and Light Street Cycles, the daily chatter is naturally about Armstrong. And though people might not be lining up to buy a pricey bicycle like Armstrong rides, the buzz helps sales.

"People stop by to see what's happening with the Tour, and they'll buy something," said Johnny May, a salesman at the Mount Washington shop. Power gels (high-carbohydrate energy boosters), T-shirts and tire tubes are high on the list.

But life after Armstrong is clearly on the minds of people in the sport.

Neal Rogers, the associate editor of VeloNews, a publication that closely follows competitive cycling, said he believes Armstrong's expected absence is already being felt. He pointed to a San Francisco race that has drawn 400,000 to 500,000 spectators in recent years when Armstrong has appeared, even when he was not a key competitor. With Armstrong's retirement, Rogers said, the race scheduled for September was seeking a title sponsor earlier this summer.

Meanwhile, a race founder and the director of communications for Armstrong's team said the change in corporate sponsorship of the Bay-area race was not related to the superstar's departure from the racing scene.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.