Armstrong spurs growth of cycling in U.S.

Updated: July 25, 2005, 4:11 PM ET
Associated Press

Without fail, it happens daily at this time of year. Someone, typically middle-aged and at least a wee bit out of shape, ambles into Lance Armstrong's favorite bike shop and professes to be "just looking."

And a few minutes later, that person wheels away a bicycle -- the first one he's owned in, perhaps, decades.

There's no simpler example of the legacy Armstrong has created -- and left behind Sunday, when he took his last victory laps along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where hundreds of thousands watched him wrap up his seventh and final Tour de France title.

"You see him in this race, see his legs, and he's you know he's definitely got one or two more left in him," says Ken "Woody" Smith, manager of the Richardson Bike Mart in Richardson, Texas -- a store that builds an annual shrine to Armstrong, complete with authentic yellow jerseys and other mementos.

"But he's said his family comes first," Smith added. "And it's our loss."

Indeed, Armstrong believes the time is right to put his family first. Flanked by his children -- son Luke, 5, and 3-year-old twin daughters Grace and Isabelle -- in Sunday's postrace celebration, Armstrong vowed that his retirement decision was final.

Now, cycling in this country not only needs a new star, but a new hero.

"He's made cancer survivors out of people," Smith says. "He's got people who don't look like bike riders buying bikes. He inspires everyone to do more, to be better. ... I can't imagine what it'll be like without him."

Even Wayne Gretzky, hockey's all-time scoring leader, is somber when he contemplates Armstrong riding away.

"I always said the greatest time to retire for a professional athlete is when the public says, 'He could have went another year,"' Gretzky told the Outdoor Life Network. "And that's when you know you've retired at the right time."

USA Cycling, the sport's national governing body, says more Americans are riding bicycles these days than ever before -- a direct correlation to Armstrong's popularity. And the stable of professional riders in this country may have the most depth and talent in history, in large part because Armstrong raised the bar so high.

Without question, the Texan has left cycling better than when he found it.

"But I don't know what happens next," says John Sabatier, a director of the rapidly growing Everglades Bicycling Club in South Florida. "And that scares me to death."

Since Armstrong won his first Tour in 1999, membership in officially sanctioned road-cycling clubs has risen more than 20 percent. Bicycle shops nationwide report higher business, with a distinct spike every summer around Tour time.

Sabatier estimates that his club has seen a 40 percent jump in members since 1999, mainly because of the Armstrong phenomenon.

"It's the bug. They get bit by the cycling bug," he says.

Yet even while Armstrong has dominated a sport like perhaps no other athlete, cycling still finds itself fighting for respectability in the United States. And several up-and-comers might have to collectively carry his torch now, since no one expects to see another Armstrong-type rider again.

"I think the biggest change over these last few years has just been having Lance in the program and him doing the things he's done," says Jim Ochowicz, the president of USA Cycling. "It's been huge for him and huge for a lot of other guys who find themselves having more and new opportunities now."

Take Armstrong out of the equation, and it was still a pretty solid Tour for American riders.

David Zabriskie wore the leader's yellow jersey at the start, before dropping out because of an injury. Armstrong's longtime top lieutenant, George Hincapie, won a stage and finished 14th overall. Levi Leipheimer was sixth, just five minutes behind third-place finisher Jan Ullrich of Germany. Floyd Landis was ninth overall. Olympic bronze medalist Bobby Julich was near the leaders early, then faded a bit and still finished 17th.

It's a much different scenario from the days when riders such as Armstrong and his predecessor as the American bike king, three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond, were considered the only true world-class U.S. cyclists.

"Before Lance, there'd typically be a few elite Americans. Now you see different Americans leading different teams, having significant roles on premier teams," says Kip Mikler, editor of the cycling magazine VeloNews. "We're not going to have another American seven-time winner, but they're pretty competitive."

Another major facet of the legacy Armstrong -- a cancer survivor -- leaves behind is his mark on culture, even away from the bike.

More than 50 million of those yellow "LiveStrong" wristbands have been sold, with the money raised going toward cancer research. Now, a new Armstrong-inspired clothing line -- "10//2" -- rapidly is gaining popularity, with some proceeds there benefiting the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

The line derives its name from the date Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer -- Oct. 2, 1996.

"In terms of persona, we'll most likely never see another Lance Armstrong," says USA Cycling spokesman Andy Lee. "Not only because of his dominating Tour de France wins over the years, but because of the incredible human interest component to his story."

For the last three weeks, people at bike stores and hospitals nationwide have crowded around televisions to watch OLN -- a once-fledgling cable network that smartly decided to begin showing the Tour live, and has seen its ratings soar -- telecast the images of Armstrong's final race.

At the bike shop in Richardson, a store that once had Armstrong as a team member in the late 1980s, some dome devout cyclists planned to skip their traditional Sunday ride and instead savor every moment of Armstrong's final day as a pro racer -- the best to ever mount a saddle.

"Lance took what Greg LeMond did and capitalized on it, multiplied it by five or six," Smith says. "It's on the rise. Will it plateau? Maybe, yeah. But people need a hero, and Lance has been our hero, and next year there will be another hero. What he's done is gotten people involved in cycling. Now they're hooked."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press