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Cycling's future uncertain



Published: Thu, July 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



REVEL, France -- Lance Armstrong is counting down the days now, and the rest of international cycling is counting right along with him.

"It's been great, but it's time to do something else," Armstrong said as he approaches Sunday's finish line of his seventh straight Tour de France victory.

He doesn't get any argument from the other riders who have tired of chasing the Texan for all these miles over all these years.

The American domination has become something of a sore subject, particularly in France. It is one thing for the French to be second-best to Italy, Spain or Germany -- all great cycling nations -- but to constantly finish behind a rider from America, where cycling is about as popular and well-understood as team handball, well, that is something else.

The French newspaper L'Equipe cattily noted the other day that if you combined the times of the top five U.S. riders in the Tour and the times of the top five French riders, the American were 3 hours, 24 minutes faster. In the interest of completeness, the paper pointed out that the home team was also behind Spain, Italy, Germany, and the states of the former Soviet Union.

Armstrong onlyknown rider

It is little comfort that in the United States, not only could the average citizen not name the four other American riders among the top 20 overall in the Tour -- Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, Bobby Julich and George Hincapie -- but it would be the rare person who could pick even one out of a police lineup.

There is no question that bike racing has a higher profile in the United States than it did before Armstrong and his storybook comeback from cancer, but no one knows whether the blip will remain on the screen after Armstrong has retired.

"We Americans have definitely gotten spoiled with Lance winning, and how easy he made it look," said Julich, who rides for CSC. "I think the interest will be there, but honestly, even myself as an athlete, I've gotten tired of seeing the same old thing develop year after year."

In the United States, however, where Armstrong's string of wins prompted daily live television coverage of the race, casual fans will still know about the Tour de France, but significantly fewer will tune in to see Floyd Landis fighting to make the top five.

"Americans are after the big [events] and the mentality that it's first place or nothing," Julich said. "I don't think Lance could have changed that even if he wanted to."

Interest in bike racing won't diminish simply because it is bike racing. It will diminish because there won't be an American victory to celebrate every year.

Always beenfringe sport

"It's always been a fringe sport compared to the big sports in America and it always will be," said Landis. "Here in Europe, it's a big sport because it's been that way for 100 years."

USA Cycling, the national governing body for the sport, is hoping to ride Armstrong's coattails and ramp up its elite youth development programs while increased interest makes it a little easier to raise money.

"The Lance factor is certainly going to taper off at some point, but I don't think it's going to happen right away," said Jim Ochowicz, president of USA Cycling. "I think Lance will be around cycling and help promote those activities for young riders."

Best of luck, but finding a guy who can win the Pittsburgh Criterium is not the same as finding a guy who can win the Tour de France.

"I think the quicker we develop a young American the better," Armstrong said. "All countries have droughts. While I hope that doesn't happen, it very well could."

The big question is whether anyone in the United States would notice.

XBob Ford is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.




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