Why American Cycling Needs a New Greg Lemond or – Whisper It – Lance Armstrong
We love sports in America. The hype, the drama, the speed, the strength and the skill. And statistics, always statistics. Above all, we love ball sports – football, basketball and baseball. It is a battle in a fixed arena, where two teams of five to eleven players face off and the team with the most points at the end of regulation wins.
There are no balloons in the Tour de France, at least not for sport. But there is coordination. Just watch a bunch of sprinters maneuver for the line in slow motion. Or Tom Pidcock pose his bike like a MotoGP racer. The drama unfolds on a network of secondary roads that wind through cities, over mountains, through valleys, gorges and finally along the world’s most famous cobbled boulevard, the Champs Élysées.
There are 176 players on the Tour pitch, playing for 20 different international teams. It’s 21 days, anything can happen. There are heroes, villains and underdogs. There is risk, drama, Herculean effort, bad boys, sages, brotherhood, tact and statistics. Remember, we love statistics.
America’s love of professional team sports took off in the Roaring 1920s. A combination of widespread daily print media and the portrayal of superstars like Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees baseball team York popularized the sport in mainstream culture. Ruth was a dominant heroine, an archetype that American fans love to follow. (Just winning isn’t enough, the Americans need their hero to dominate.)
Across the waters, the Tour de France was founded in 1903 as a publicity stunt for a failing French newspaper. It gained popularity and notoriety throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Americans began to pay attention to it. It’s thanks to a Californian cyclist by the name of Greg Le Mond.
LeMond won the Tour in 1986, then nearly died in a hunting accident. LeMond recovered and took two more wins in 1989 and 1990. If Americans listened to the Tour in those days, it was no doubt because of LeMond’s stunning victory in 1989. He had lost his mind to his teammate, Laurent Fignon, only to take him back in the final stage.
LeMond won the overall by just eight seconds, the smallest margin in race history. His victory from behind became known as “the most stunning victory in Tour history”. He also shone a light on the race for American fans and inspired the next generation of American cyclists, including the Tour’s most notorious star turned villain.
Lance Armstrongthe one-who-must-not-bear-the-name-of-cycling, the Texan whose Lone Star flag flew over the French capital as he addressed the world from the top step of the podium after his seventh victory row, asking everyone to believe in miracles.
Years later, after being reported by former teammates, Armstrong admitted to doping throughout his Tour-winning run. Opinions run wild these days when it comes to Armstrong. His seven record titles have all been erased from the history books but the man has not been forgotten and his influence on racing still looms large. During the Tour, Armstrong and his ever-staunch teammate, George Hincapie, host a popular daily podcast where they analyze the race and provide insight into their Tour experience some 20 years ago.
Villainous or not, no one can argue that Armstrong’s history and dominating winning streak spanned the cultural chasm. In America and around the world, he and the Tour de France have gone from obscurity to household names, a feat no other cyclist has achieved.
After Armstrong retired in 2005, the question became, who’s next? Because without heroes, America’s interest in cycling quickly wanes.
For years Jonathan Vaughters’ various teams have been on a mission to prove they can win big races and stay clean. They had promising riders like Alex Howes, Peter Stetina and Tejay van Garderen who went on to have solid careers, but nothing close to LeMond or Armstrong fandom. The next generation of hopeful American stars included Joe Dombrowski, Ian Boswell and Nate Brown – again, great drivers but not superstars. But this year’s Tour shows signs that things could change.
Two young Americans sharing the same hometown of Durango, Colorado, Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) could be on their way. As Armstrong debriefs Stage 15 with Hincapie, both noted the impressive performance of Simmons, the youngest rider on the Tour.
“I can’t say enough about Quinn Simmons,” Armstrong said. “It’s so difficult, after two weeks, to have that kind of endurance, that kind of power, to still have an impact on the race. My first year on the Tour, I was the youngest in the race, I could never have done that.
Hincapie then added, “We’re going to see him a lot in the years to come, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile Sepp Kuss, who won a mountaintop stage solo in last year’s Tour, has heaps of promise. With the loss of Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk, he now has the pressure of Jonas Vingaard’s yellow jersey defense largely on his shoulders.
Kuss will have one of the most important tasks for anyone in the peloton over the next few days. Will it be an experience that will propel him to the next level?
There are also several other Americans knocking on the door. Similar to Kuss, Brandon McNulty played a vital role for Tadej Pogačar in the mountains. UAE Team Emirates have already lost climbing ace George Bennett and strongman Vanguard Laengen. Then there’s Matteo Jorgenson, who came close to stage wins on several occasions. And Neilson Powless (EF Education-Easypost), who narrowly missed out on the yellow jersey by just 13 seconds on Stage 5, would have been the first legitimate wearing of the American jersey since LeMond’s victory nearly 30 years ago .
Americans love their sport. Their heroes aren’t just the best, they dominate — Tiger Woods, Serena Williams style. Professional road cycling may never be a top sport in America. But if it gains popularity, it will be because of a hero. A story that people can root for and, more importantly, they need their hero to win over and over again. Will any of these names surface as the next Armstrong or LeMond? Be sure to tune in to this final week of the Tour to get a glimpse of a possible star of the future.