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Cycling ready for post-Lance reality
Lance Armstrong hadn’t raced in the Tour de France in a couple years, likely a factor in what USA Cycling president and CEO Steve Johnson didn’t notice as he observed the world’s most prestigious — albeit drug-scarred — cycling event this past summer.
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“During the end of the Armstrong era, you’d see drawings on the roadways of needles and other anti-doping messages,” Johnson told FOXSports.com on Monday. “You didn’t see that this year. If anything, there appeared to be a change of attitudes. The nature of the event seems more pure.”
The International Cycling Union took another step in the cleansing process earlier Monday as it announced it had stripped Armstrong of his record seven Tour de France titles. The move comes days after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency accused Armstrong of masterminding “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” in sports history.
There is now a hole left vacant by the stripped Armstrong titles (1999-2005). Add in the fact that American rider Floyd Landis had his Tour crown ripped from him after a positive test for testosterone in 2006, and the U.S. shares a great deal of the blame for dragging down the event.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to affect viewership in the United States, but I think people will now watch it with their eyebrows raised,” said professional cyclist Adam Myerson, captain of Team SmartStop/Mountain Khakis. “We are going to need more doping controls and more transparency.”
Viewership has waned since Armstrong last competed in the Tour de France in 2010, a race built as a sendoff for a hero that conquered cancer and then cycling. This year's race averaged a 0.20 rating (290,000 viewers) on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), down about a third from two years ago. NBC Universal, however, remains bullish on the event, and a new 10-year deal commences in 2014.
Ratings were no doubt hurt by the fact no Americans were in contention in a race eventually won by Britain’s Bradley Wiggins. Johnson points to a new crop of American riders who can engage the casual fan.
“We have a whole new generation of riders ready to assert themselves,” Johnson said. “I think these kids will be role models. They will help create interest in the sport as they compete in these international events.”
Much of the last crop of great American riders failed to live up to “the role model” part, even if some turned into anti-doping crusaders after they either tested positive or admitted to doping under penalty of perjury.
American riders Frankie Andreu, Tom Danielson, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters, David Zabriskie and Landis all admitted to federal officials that they participated in the doping conspiracy with Armstrong; each was sanctioned by doping authorities.
“It is not easy to admit your mistakes and accept your punishment,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart wrote earlier this month in a document that laid out the allegations against Armstrong and his associates. “But that is what these riders have done for the good of the sport and for the young riders who hope to one day reach their dreams without using dangerous drugs or methods.”
Zabriskie and Hincapie remain two of America’s top riders and their current six-month bans will expire in time for them to compete in the 2013 Tour de France.
“Cycling has made remarkable gains over the past several years and can serve as a good example for other sports,” Hincapie said in a statement. “Thankfully, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is no longer embedded in the culture of our sport, and younger riders are not faced with the same choice we had.”
That’s good for rising young American riders like Tyler Farrar, Tejay van Garderen and Joseph Rosskopf. They are part of a sport that continues to grow in the U.S. despite the avalanche of doping allegations. Riders licensed by USA Cycling have nearly doubled over the last decade to 70,829 in 2011, and the number of clubs (2,569 as of last year) has also made steady gains.
Maybe this next generation of riders — at least in the eyes of a skeptical U.S. audience — can return the Tour de France to a time before needles, blood transfusions and pharmaceuticals became as common as spokes and handlebars.
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