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Barely a week after the US Masters golf tournament left town, Augusta coloured its city fountains a shade of Georgia peach this week in the name of another top sporting festival.
It even produced “godfather of soul” James Brown, its most famous son, to start the event: the Tour de Georgia, America’s premier cycling race.
Now in its fourth year, the 600-mile, six-day race, which finishes on Sunday, is a fixture on the cycling calendar. But like the rest of the sport in America, its success has been linked with the “Lance factor” – the boost the cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner has given the sport.
Last year, Armstrong used the Georgia race to announce his retirement. This year, the question is what will happen to this minority sport now its superhero is no longer competing.
In Europe, cycling is hugely popular and has been a mainstream sport for decades. Italy and Spain host their own three-week tours to try to rival the Tour de France and there is a full calendar of week-long and one-day stage races in Portugal, Germany and Italy that unfold along roads crowded with fans.
In the US, by contrast, mention of the Georgia race is usually greeted with raised eyebrows: “The tour de what?”
Last year, Armstrong’s presence ensured attention and the pre-race press conference was packed.
“Lance was riding and everyone came out,” recalls Jonathan Vaughters, director of the TIAA-CREF team and a former team-mate of Armstrong. “I remember driving along in the race and seeing signs saying ‘Go Sheryl Crow’ [the rock star, Armstrong’s then girlfriend] – those were not cycling fans.”
This year, without the celebrity watchers, the press event was half empty.
But Vaughters and others are optimistic. In addition to the Georgia race, the inaugural Tour of California was held in February this year. AEG, the sports team owner and event organiser, put on the eight-day, 700-mile race and has promised a $35m investment over five years.
More importantly perhaps, it attracted eight “ProTour” teams – a name given by Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, to the world’s top 16 teams, which gain automatic entry to all leading races and in return commit themselves to competing in each one. Discovery Channel, Armstrong’s former team, is the only one not based in Europe.
Crowds of 1.3m turned out to watch the California race, which was won by Floyd Landis, a 30-year-old American.from Pennsylvania.
“You saw all these people, these sponsors and spectators there, paying attention to cycling,” says Tom Danielson, the 28-year-old Colorado-born rider who came eighth in California. He won in Georgia last year. “Cycling in America is growing and sponsors will realise this.”
Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s friend and long-time agent, thinks the superstar’s long run has given the sport time to take root.
“We’ve got over what I call the education hump – people know what a peloton is and a little about the tactics,” he says. “It’s turned people who were Lance fans into cycling fans.”
Increasing numbers of American fans made the pilgrimage to Europe to cheer on their hero through his years in the Tour de France. But they are still American fans and they want home-grown winners.
Perhaps fortunately for the California tour, eight of the top 10 places went to US riders. As this year’s Tour de Georgia teams were presented to the public, the biggest cheers were reserved for Landis, Danielson, and Utah-born David Zabriskie, who came second in California. Last year Zabriskie, 27, became only the third American ever to wear the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France after Armstrong and Greg LeMond, winner of three Tours (1986, 1989 and 1990).
“When LeMond was the great American cyclist, he was the only guy out there,” says Ken Dice, executive vice-president of marketing at Discovery Networks, which sponsors the Discovery team. “If you look around now, there are American names popping up in lots of other teams. You can see what Floyd [Landis], Bobby [Julich, third in California] and Levi [Leipheimer, sixth in California] have done for other teams and this really starts to be a story.”
Landis, Julich and Leipheimer ride for Swiss, Danish and German teams and spend most of their time racing in Europe. Furthermore , home to the best and most famous races. While American victories on home ground are prized by their teams, Georgia, and now California, are also used as scouting grounds for future talent to take to Europe.
“American races are as difficult by virtue of the course. But add more ProTour teams and they’d be tougher,” says Landis.
Vaughters, a professional in Europe for nine years, agrees. “You go to an ordinary American race, you’ve got 20 guys who are really good and after that you’ve got guys who are still working the night shift in Taco Bell to pay their entrance fee,” he says. “Stick any one of those top 20 in a European race and they’ll do fairly well but there are another 180 guys in each of those races, however small, and they’ve all been 100 per cent dedicated to cycling since the age of 12.”
Vaughters’ TIAA-CREF team style themselves as the youngest in the peloton and the aim is to develop young US riders. Cyclists tend not to reach their best until their late 20s. Vaughters and Frankie Andreu, who raced in nine Tours de France and is now director of the tiny Toyota-United team, have a certain cool factor among fans at the Tour de Georgia because of their European racing experience.
Unlike Europe, where the sport’s broad roots include many working-class fans, American supporters tend to be affluent professionals with at least one degree. Most also cycle in their spare time.
Vaughters calls cycling the “ultimate nerd revenge sport”. He explains: “These are the kids who were stuffed into lockers in high school. Cycling appeals because you don’t have to be a certain size, or even that co-ordinated, to be good at it.”
A large number of “pedal heads” spend inordinate amounts of time discussing the technical merits of different bikes and components.
But “pedal heads” are attractive to sponsors. This matters in cycling since road racing is almost completely dependent on sponsors’ money because the roadside fans pay nothing and television rights, such as they are, go to the race organisers, not the teams. In return, the teams are known by their sponsors’ names, which can change from one season to the next.
“Five years ago I thought the Lance phenomenon was going to come and go, I never thought you’d see sponsors spending the money they are to be connected to a bike team,” says Stapleton.
But Armstrong will cast a shadow for a while yet. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate the achievement in having three Americans in the top 10 at the Tour de France – a real possibility this year – when compared with Armstrong’s record seven victories.
“Lance’s story is impossible to replicate,” agrees Landis. “A lot of people came to the sport because of him. Hopefully they’ll stay.”
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