The Death (and Resurrection) of American Cycling

The following is a joint-Playing Rooky/Land of 10,000 Losses post.

On a cool October day, cycling in America received the death sentence. Not when Lance Armstrong was indicted by a grand jury; not when USADA filed its “Reasoned Decision;” not even when they stripped him of his Tour de France wins. American cycling as we knew it died with the announcement that Nike was cutting ties with the now-former Tour de France champ. The days of watching Armstrong cruise up the Champs-Elysees, sipping champagne, are now no more than a distant memory, tainted by EPO, and the greatest athlete of the first decade of the 21st century has been fully disgraced from the sport that gave him fame.

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Cycling as we knew it in America is no more.

But then again, cycling was never much of a sport over here. Even with Armstrong dominating the Tour in a way that had not been seen since the days of Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx the sport was never a top ten favorite among an American public that was more interested in tennis, golf, NASCAR and skiing. Even bowling and bass fishing were on ESPN, which cycling could never claim. Yes, the American public cheered for Armstrong year after year in the same way they cheered for the obscure Olympic sports whenever an American rose to prominence. Cycling was little more than Greco-Roman wrestling in the American conscience, and in truth it was understood even poorer. Ask anybody off the street to name a cycling race other than the Tour de France and you would get blank stares. Nobody cared.

That’s because cycling is the most niche of participant sports. Almost nobody is a fan who doesn’t do it. Can you imagine being a fan of poker without playing yourself? It’s the same with cycling. You have to do it to enjoy it. You have to ride in groups or in races to understand the strategy of racing in the pro peloton and the psychology of the riders who sacrifice their chances for the sake of the team. The shallow understanding of cycling that most Americans have has died with Armstrong’s legacy, because the public cared only for victories and a character who exemplified everything that we love: defeating a heinous disease (cancer) by beating foreign pros at their own sport on their own soil. The details weren’t as important as the meta-narrative–the story that lifted Armstrong to mythic heights.

That legacy is dead, and we could mourn that. We could give up on cycling altogether. Some will, I suppose, but they are the ones who didn’t see this coming. They’re the ones unaware of drugs in cycling and therefore oblivious to the ways that the sport has been changing in the last five to ten years. If you think the change after the steroid era in baseball was dramatic, then welcome to cycling’s brave new world. This is a new sport, still stained by doping, but being reinvented almost daily by a foreign fan-base and media that are fed up both with the dopers and the excuses. It’s a sport with teams like the USA’s Garmin-Barracuda that are founded on the principle of clean cycling–even while being run by former dopers. There are stains–it will take some time to clean up–but things have changed.

They are changing in America as well. Nike’s dismissal of Armstrong is the seminal moment in the history of cycling in the United States. The past has been cut. The future is one without yellow bands on the wrists. Things are changing. Millions of Americans ride their bikes. More and more have  started to ride regularly, commuting to work, or using their two-wheels as part of a workout plan. Triathlon is the second only to running as the fastest growing sport among American adults. We are riding their bikes as much as ever, and fans are turning out at races as never before. When Armstrong was riding there was hardly an American race of note on the calendar, but now there are two races with world class credentials (The Amgen Tour of California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge) and a third (The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah) gaining rapidly in popularity. There are more and more fans on those often dreary, cold summits; there are more fans still at destination finishes in Vail, Colorado Springs and Los Angeles.

Cycling will never be considered a major sport in America. It is not made for TV, for one. But let’s not confuse the issue: cycling is popular; now more than ever. In my town of less than one thousand people in the middle of nothing but farmland, there are people riding their bikes past my house every summer evening: recreational riders, people riding for their fitness, kids learning how to pedal for the first time, and even the occasional cyclist like myself in spandex and bent low over the drop bars of a road bike. Cycling has never been so mainstream.

Today, the last visages of the Lance-era were put to death. It’s about time those old days were drowned for good. Tomorrow is a new day. I welcome it, and I know I’m not alone. Tomorrow, somewhere around America, one hundred-thousand people will hop on a bike and the sport will be reborn anew. They won’t care about USADA or the UCI; they won’t have considered doping and they might not even know what the words “Time Trial” mean, but they will be part of cycling’s new dawn. So it’s been a mixed bag, Lance. We thought you would change the sport, and I guess in a way you did, but every resurrection requires a death.

Today, our sport is resurrected.

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