Commentary

Tour a success, but sport feeling crunch

Updated: February 25, 2009, 3:26 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Tour crowdDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Tour of California drew a reported 1.6 million spectators over the nine-day race.

SAN DIEGO -- A few news items, observations and ruminations left over from the Tour of California:

View from the cheap seats

Although the spotlight stayed firmly on the sport's celebrities last week, few could have appreciated the phenomenal fan support more than Tim Johnson. The 31-year-old from Beverly, Mass., is a veteran of the domestic scene. His résumé reads like a roll call of dearly departed U.S. corporate sponsors: Saturn, Jittery Joe's, Health Net. He also has won multiple U.S. championships in cyclocross, road cycling's earthier cousin.

Johnson, who now rides for Health Net's successor, OUCH, has seen interest in the sport wax, wane and wax again during his nine years in the pro peloton, and he has a keen grasp of what drives that lunar cycle. He views any and all factors boosting enthusiasm as a good thing, even if they are inevitably temporary, such as Lance Armstrong's comeback.

"When we pulled into Pasadena, I was dying to be in the breakaway," Johnson told ESPN.com the morning after the stage that finished with five hotly contested loops in the neighborhood around the Rose Bowl. "I wished so much I had been up there. Pulling into the finish circuits, the crowd was incredible. As we got into the suburban streets, it got bigger and bigger and bigger, and when we finally took a right-hand turn into the circuit, I was just blown away.

"I had done [Tour de] Georgia '05, which was huge when Lance came. I've done every Tour of California. I've been to the world championships. This week has blown all of those away. It is an economic downturn, people do have a lot less money to spend, but that's one of the draws of cycling -- it's free to everyone. You can see, you can feel, you can hear. People feel the wind when we ride by."

Yet although the U.S. season opened with a big bang, it will continue with more of a whimper. Races are vanishing from the schedule, predictable victims of the recession. There is precious little for U.S. teams to focus on for quite a stretch other than the Redlands Classic race in northern California in late March.

Georgia's demise after six years leaves a notable hole in April. The Tour of the Gila later that month in New Mexico has survived, but with reduced prize money. The once-portentous Philly Week in early June, a three-race series in Lancaster, Pa., Trenton, N.J., and Philadelphia, is down to one day -- the road race within the city of Philadelphia. That event has lost some of its starch since losing its designation as the U.S. championships. (Nationals host Greenville, S.C., is in the final year of a three-year contract with USA Cycling, and the title race will be up for bid again in 2010.)

Still, Johnson said he wouldn't trade the California gold rush for anything. "If it makes other things seem relatively small by comparison, that's OK," he said. "I mean, the football season isn't the Super Bowl every week."

September's Tour of Missouri is growing, Johnson said, and will be a fitting bookend to the season. Locally organized races, such as a new, one-day event in Boston on June 27, are popping up. And Johnson said some of the smaller U.S. races are still better attended than those he has seen in Europe. "Some of these second-tier French races, they're 50 years old and they act like they're 50 years old," he said.

"I'm not pessimistic, I'm hopeful," Johnson added. "A boom in participation has gone along with each of the spikes [in spectator interest]. It's always going to make the bottom higher and higher, and the dip after that spike will be lower."

Crowd control

One measure of popularity for any bike race is the number of (a) mostly naked and/or (b) oddly costumed partisans who await the peloton on significant climbs and run alongside riders shouting encouragement, or occasional disparagement, as the case may be. As Garmin-Slipstream's Dave Zabriskie noted in the post-Tour of California news conference, American fans still have a bit to learn compared to their counterparts from the old countries when it comes to being ready for their close-ups.

"In Europe, they get out of the way pretty quick," Zabriskie said. "Here, I'm not so sure they knew what they were doing."

As the peloton passed through the Sierras on the way to Clovis in Stage 4, riders encountered a man dressed in a yellow-and-black devil outfit with a cape bearing the slogan "Liveclean," bearing a pitchfork made of giant syringes. Images shot by cycling photographer Tim De Waele from the back of a motorbike on the course show the man running along the inside of a curve on an incline in the road, with little margin between him, the bunch on one side and piles of plowed snow on the other. Then, Armstrong extends one gloved hand and pushes the man clear, sending him into a snowbank.

Armstrong's spokesman, Mark Higgins, said Armstrong believed the man constituted a safety hazard.

Waiting for judgment day

Union Cycliste Internationale chief Pat McQuaid met with reporters during his traditional flying visit to the race and said he remains uncertain about when cycling's international governing body would be able to take the next step in the biological passport program -- namely, instituting sanctions and penalizing riders for blood-test results that show evidence of manipulation but are not positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the historic sense.

A proposed system is still being reviewed by the legal departments of the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency, McQuaid said. The first test cases likely will involve "a small number of riders," he said. "I haven't asked how many. I don't want to know until we're ready to move."

He admitted the potentially radical approach could enmesh the UCI in even more costly, drawn-out challenges than it has already experienced from athletes but said he is confident it will withstand them and become a key weapon in combating doping.

McQuaid commended teams that have instituted their own testing programs but said he hopes the bio-passport program will soon render them superfluous.

Test patterns

Rock Racing has begun the 2009 season without an independent anti-doping testing program, at least for now. The team, which has made a point of giving new life to a number of riders with past doping convictions, did not renew its contract with Scott Analytics because of budget constraints. As a Continental-level team, Rock is not part of cycling's biological passport project, which has been gathering blood samples from 800 riders for the past year-plus, although its riders are subject to normal in- and out-of-competition testing by national and international agencies.

However, the company headed by Paul Scott, the co-founder of the now-defunct Agency for Cycling Ethics, will perform tests on riders from two other U.S.-based Continental teams: OUCH, whose leader is the freshly returned Floyd Landis, and another squad set to make an announcement shortly.

Followers of the sport know that Scott, an attorney and former client manager for the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory at UCLA, assisted in Landis' assertive but unsuccessful effort to invalidate his positive test for synthetic testosterone during the 2006 Tour de France. Scott said he is well aware of the appearance of conflict of interest.

"All I can say is that my professional integrity is on the line, and it's going to be fair because I'm going to run it that way," Scott said. "I don't think Floyd did what they said he did, but if something shows up [in the current testing program], he'll be treated like everyone else."

The OUCH riders will be tested approximately once a month, except for Landis, who has agreed to more frequent testing, Scott said.

Next, a stimulus package?

Garmin-Slipstream team director Jonathan Vaughters has been elected interim president of the AIGCP (the French acronym for International Association of Professional Cycling Groups), which represents the Pro Tour teams' collective interests with the UCI, race organizers and the media. If things go well in the next few months, he will then serve a full two-year term.

Vaughters' first challenge was to ensure there was accurate communication regarding the UCI's recent decision to enforce a long-standing rule about the design of certain components on time-trial bikes. The issue caused a ruckus in the peloton when it was thought (incorrectly) that international authorities were on the verge of seizing equipment. Instead, the UCI conducted inspections, took photographs and will come down hard at the Grand Tours.

The AIGCP has a turbulent recent history, with teams fighting bitterly over anti-doping policies. Astana and Milram are still outside the fold. But Vaughters said the issues he'll deal with initially are straightforward -- race food and lodging, course design or the length of transfers between stages. "We can't touch any of the complicated stuff yet," Vaughters said. "The wounds are still too raw."

Site selection

The Livestrong Global Cancer Summit, intended to be the culmination of the Lance Armstrong Foundation's international cancer awareness campaign tied to Armstrong's comeback, will be held in Dublin, Ireland, after the weeklong Tour of Ireland stage race in August.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.