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May 2, 2004, 8:37PM

Despite Armstrong, cycling pedals in place in U.S.
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

IN the midst of the highest-profile North American cycling happening in almost a decade, one witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people and won by an icon with under half a minute to spare, two ominous things happened.
Although unrelated, they together served to remind why the sport will continue to pedal uphill on a continent that lacks a deeply rooted passion for the spectacle of Lycra-clad dynamos riding bicycles hell-for-leather over hill and dale.

The second Tour de Georgia had everything -- a beautiful setting, perfect weather, an enthusiastic fan base, a major-league budget of some $5 million and, probably most importantly, Lance Armstrong. The six-day, seven-stage race had a big-time feel, sort of a mini Tour de France with a NASCAR accent.

Nonetheless, it also had one small tear in its safety net that nearly resulted in a monumental tragedy. A confused local wandered onto the time-trial course outside of Rome in his pickup truck and ran over Craig Lewis, a potential successor to Armstrong in the years to come. Lewis suffered a concussion, collapsed lungs and multiple fractures, some requiring surgery to repair.

And just as excitement had peaked following Armstrong's double-stage victories -- a career first for the greatest American cyclist -- the flagship sponsor of his team, the U.S. Postal Service, announced it will be leaving the sport at the end of the year. This as he prepares to break the record for Tour de France victories, an accomplishment approximately akin to a chap named Jean-Pierre toppling Hank Aaron as baseball's home-run king.

So, despite everything the remarkable Lance Age has done to stimulate American interest, it can be argued that professional cycling continues to pedal in place in the United States. We'll know more, of course, in the next few years -- once Armstrong heads for the beach, beer in hand.

"That's the big question mark -- what happens after `the man?' " says Jonathan Vaughters, a former Postal teammate of Armstrong's who retired last year after a decade of professional cycling in Europe. "When he's no longer racing, will all the people who have become fans because of Lance still be interested in our sport?"

Vaughters himself is a pivotal figure who may partly hold the future in his hands. He coaches the U.S. under-23 team for which Lewis rides, and he'll be meeting in the next couple of days with the team's sponsor, the investment-services company TIAA-CREF, in hopes of further cementing the relationship for the longer term.

"I think (TIAA-CREF) has bought into my vision of what's going to be required to develop the next generation of American superstars," Vaughters said. "Most business decisions aren't philanthropic, but in their case, it is. They decided to forego the glamor side (of cycling). They weren't interested in the posing. They want to grow the sport. Getting this sponsorship was absolutely my greatest accomplishment in cycling."

It seems evident that without significant financial support in the United States for both the competitions and the generation-next competitors who will carry on post-Lance, interest will wither again, just as it did following three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond's retirement.

The Tour de Georgia is only the latest in a succession of American cycling events with sky-high aspirations to become something more than regional semi-pro outings. Each of the previous -- the Coors Classic in Colorado in the 1980s and the Tour d'Trump/Tour du Pont in the Northeast in the early 1990s -- flamed out after promising runs because the sponsorships' shelf-lives expired.

As, frankly, has Postal's.

"These business decisions aren't based on philanthropy," Vaughters notes. "The mission (of sponsorships) is to raise brand awareness. After five or six years, that becomes redundant and the sponsors move on. You see it in the big European tours, too. The sponsors behind the Tour de France when Greg was winning are all different than the ones today."

Before the Tour de Georgia, Armstrong was asked to assess the race's possible impact.

"We've had a couple of false starts in the past," he said. "Hopefully this is a restart, a fresh start, something we can build on. But it's not easy to have the support of local governments providing the infrastructure. Those are not free things. It's more challenging here than in Europe because those races, which have been around for a long time, get many of the (costs) waived. Here, you have to have major corporate support."

Ironically, a few days later, he would be worried about the same for his team, the most publicized -- because it's the most accomplished -- in the history of American cycling.


Something to build on
But Postal's pullout, speculated upon for months, in no way reflected negatively on the upstart Georgia event, which matched expectations as a cycling spectacle.

"My hope is that we can build on what we saw last week," Vaughters said. "I'd give my left arm to see it happen, and I think that if everything is done correctly, there's a strong possibility the Tour de Georgia and maybe other races like it -- even a grand tour across the U.S. -- could be successful without Lance.

"As you saw in Georgia, we have the fan base to support first-class events, but they cost in excess of a million dollars a day. And for all the fans who love cycling, you might have as many people complaining to the mayor, `You can't close my road!' European fans are used to it because of the tradition, so they're more tolerant. They don't get as grumpy as Americans do."

Or impatient. Lewis, who possesses "Lance-type potential" according to Vaughters, was hit because the driver circumvented traffic cones and briefly drove on to the course while trying to get into a parking lot. There was no police officer close enough to the intersection to stop him before he collided with the young cyclist. The man was arrested, but that does nothing to help the 18-year-old, who won't ride a bike again for six to eight weeks.

It's a delicate subject, to say the least. One reason elite European riders have always been hesitant to cross the pond to compete in the United States is safety. As the Tour de Georgia's director, Stan Holm, concedes, cycling is "an inherently dangerous sport," and making it safe is an infinitely complex logistic task.

"We've been kind to the (Tour de Georgia) organization as far as what we've said about the accident," Vaughters said. "The truth is, 98 percent of that race was safe. But there was a small oversight in the time trial. That road was not entirely coned off. The riders were allowed one lane. In Europe, the entire road would have been shut down.

"They realize what the (problem) was without me barking and yelling about it. Honestly, it's too bad because the more security you have and the more roads you close the more expensive it is and the more you risk angering people."


Attracting young riders
Why should it matter that cycling gain a solid U.S. toehold?

"I was raised in Colorado, and I remember one day all these bikes going by on a van," said Bobby Julich, the third-place finisher in the 1998 Tour de France who hadn't competed in the United States in eight years before last week. "That's what got me into cycling. I asked my dad, `What's that?' He said it was a bike race. So we went and watched it.

"It was a really huge thing for me. When you're 18, 19 years old, you watch the races in Europe on TV and it doesn't seem real. It seems fictional, like a TV show. That's why it's great Jonathan has his young guys here because it's not going to be a TV show for them. For me, the Tour d'Trump in 1990 was the biggest thrill I'd had in cycling up to that point.

"To be able to have a race of this caliber, against some top Europeans on our soil, is great and not just because it's fun for us old guys to come back. It motivates the young riders, making (a cycling career) seem more achievable."

Adds Vaughters: "What Lance does (in the Tour de France) really doesn't have any trickle-down effect. Races like this give the kids something in their country, on their television, in their newspapers, to relate to. It offers legitimacy. Lance, Bobby and I all come from the same place -- it was because of the Coors Classic and the other races that we had something to shoot for.

"My young guys will learn about the grind of stage racing this week. They'll learn how to struggle through pain, how to eat right and get enough rest. It's a true test for them to see if they can reach the finish line."


Don't forget the veterans
The older homegrown cyclists, such as the first Tour de Georgia champion, Chris Horner, and 2004 double stage winner Gord Fraser, who gave up on the European racing grind for one reason or another, have no less of a vested interest in a race like the Tour de Georgia building on a promising foundation. They, too, receive minimal trickle-down benefits from Armstrong's accomplishments in France.

"It's hard to make a living here," said Fraser, who spent a half-dozen years as a domestique in Europe before returning home to raise a family. "We're surviving. That's about it."

He laughed.

"Lance makes as much a second as I make in a year," he said. "Obviously, we'd all like to succeed doing something we love. So hopefully a race like this will attract the interest of more sponsors."

Horner said: "I believe we're one major sponsor away from doing anything we want."

At the risk of incensing Armstrong's legions of fans, Vaughters suggests the best possible way to attract same might be to have a Julich or a Tyler Hamilton steal the yellow jersey off the Texan's back in July.

"That way," he said, "sponsors would see that our sport has depth, that it's not just one man carrying the show by himself. If Lance goes away and the spotlight goes away with him -- I don't think that's going to happen, but it could - it would be more difficult to pull off a major stage race in the U.S. What I'm hoping is we'll continue on the upward road and wind up with something to rival the Giro (Tour of Italy) or the Vuelta (Tour of Spain)."

Armstrong, Julich and Vaughters promised last week to work toward that goal.

"It's a tough fight," Armstrong said. "Cycling is relatively new here. In Europe, you're talking 90, 100 years of tradition. But I love the sport -- for me it's a passion -- and I'll do anything I can to help it."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
MONTH-BY-MONTH
FEBRUARY


Tour of Algarve (Portugal)
-- Placed fifth overall, 1:11 behind U.S. Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis. Defeated Landis by one second in the time trial.
MARCH


Tour of Murcia (Spain)
-- Placed 23rd overall, fifth in the time trial.

Milan-Sam Remo (Italy)
-- Pulled out three days before the start, saying the race didn't suit his needs.

Crite'rium International (France)
-- Placed third overall, third in the final time trial.
APRIL


Tour de Georgia (United States)
-- Won the overall by 24 seconds after taking two stages on the same day, including the time trial, for the first time in his career.
MAY


Tour du Languedoc-Roussillon (France)
-- Formerly the Midi Libre, a five-day stage race (May 19-23) of moderate difficulty through hot, hilly country.
JUNE


Dauphine' Libe're' (France)
-- Seven-day stage race (June 6-13) through the Alps and Provence, with a grueling time trial up Mont Ventoux, a perfect test for the first Tour de France time trial up to Alpe d'Huez.
JULY


The Tour de France (France)
-- The pinnacle of the cycling year as he pursues a record sixth consecutive yellow jersey (July 3-25).
AUGUST


The Olympics (Greece)
-- A secondary objective after the Tour because he has never won a gold medal. Time trials are Aug. 18.
OCTOBER


Ride for the Roses (United States)
-- Annual event benefits the Lance Armstrong foundation (Oct. 15-17).

Tour de Texas
At last week's Tour de Georgia, some began wondering whether Lance Armstrong intended to get busy and organize a Tour de Texas. Coincidentally, a news release announcing the coming of the United Texas Tour in the fall of 2005 made the rounds at the race.

Being in Texas, the race has to be bigger, of course. The sponsors, Lubbock-based United Supermarkets, are marketing it as the longest, richest stage race in the United States. Armstrong's cancer-fighting foundation will be the beneficiary.

The 10-day event will start in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, go through Wichita Falls, head northwest to the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, turn south through Lubbock, then head back east through Abilene to the Metroplex. Some 50 towns will be visited. None, however, is in the Houston area, because the 47-store United chain doesn't have a presence in Southeast Texas.

First prize will be $175,000, more than enough to attract the elite domestic racers and perhaps a few from the international stage, although the dates could conflict with the Vuelta, the season's final grand tour in Spain.

-- DALE ROBERTSON
 

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Discussion Starter #2
Ullrich article

May 1, 2004, 2:33PM

Ullrich itching for next jersey despite setbacks
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

It's hard to find any fault with Lance Armstrong's pre-Tour de France physical state. The only concern Armstrong and his handlers were able to muster after the Tour de Georgia is that he might be too ready too early. Over in Germany, however, nobody is saying that about Jan Ullrich.

The man presumed to be the most serious threat to Armstrong's bid for an unprecedented sixth consecutive yellow jersey has long been a notoriously slow starter when the training season kicks off, but he's apparently even behind his usual snail's pace this spring.

After quitting early in the Fl'eche Wallonne and pulling out of Li'ege-Bastogne'Li'ege, Ullrich announced that he wouldn't attempt to race again until the end of May, opting instead for an intensive training regimen to shed some extra pounds. It's an annual problem for the 30-year-old T-Mobile Net star that has worsened as he ages.

Team director Mario Kummer insists Ullrich, who lost last summer's Tour to Armstrong by 71 seconds while representing the defunct Bianchi team, is in good shape -- for him -- for this time of year.

"I'd describe his form as normal," Kummer said. "It's much better than the last time he rode for us (2002)."

Ullrich said on his Web site that he's preparing to embark upon a "training blitz" and that his recent no-shows and pullouts "will bear no influence on my Tour chances."

Armstrong and his manager, Johan Bruyneel, concurred. And they are careful not to dispense any bulletin-board material.

"Jan will be ready for the Tour," Armstrong said in Georgia. "He always is."

Ullrich's next race is expected to be the GP Hainleite on May 29. There's no word on whether he'll consider entering the Dauphine' Libe're' in France the second week of June, where he'd face Armstrong -- most conspicuously on the climb to the Mont Ventoux summit. That time trial will be much like the one to Alpe d'Huez in July that could determine the outcome of the Tour.

One positive development in the T-Mobile camp is the recently forged accord between team manager Walter Goodefroot and Rudy Pevenage, Ullrich's longtime adviser and Goodefroot's former T-Mobile sidekick.

"Jan felt really uncomfortable with my position in the team," Pevenage recently told a Belgian publication. "From now on, I am no longer persona non grata. But I remain just (Jan's) companion, nothing more."

Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion, has finished second to Armstrong on three occasions and five times overall. The record for runner-up finishes, held by Joop Zoetemelk, is six. But he'll be the only other rider in the field besides Armstrong who has claimed the yellow jersey.
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Last one...Armstrong

May 1, 2004, 2:12PM

Fast Track to France
Armstrong sets his sights on champagne win
By DALE ROBERTSON
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

When the young Colombian climber Cesar Grajales beat Lance Armstrong to the top of Brasstown Bald Mountain last weekend, there was a lesson to be learned for every cyclist in the Tour de Georgia peloton.

Armstrong included. But he, of course, was already beyond well-versed on the value of meticulous preparation.

Grajales won because he knew that vertigo-inducing road better than anybody else on it. Based in nearby Athens, Ga., he'd been climbing to the summit weekly for months, learning every cruel nuance of that hillside. Armstrong, in contrast, had no clue what perils Georgia's loftiest peak held -- because he'd never seen it. He went to Dixie only to continue his preparations for that long ride around France in July. That he ultimately won in Georgia was not important to him.

The Tour de France is Armstrong's all-consuming passion, his Holy Grail, his raison d'etre. There is the Tour and there is everything else, all of it created equal on a plane far below Le Grande Boucle.

"When I win the Tour de France," he said, "I drink champagne. When I win a race in April, we skip the champagne."

Not an hour goes by that Armstrong isn't thinking or dreaming about the 20 tortuous days of racing in July. But those days aren't created equal in his mind's eye, either. One in particular juts well above the rest, haunting and taunting him -- just as Brasstown Bald surely did Grajales.

A sixth yellow jersey, something no man has possessed, is likely to be won or lost on the infamous 21 switchbacks zig-zagging up from the Valle Romanche across the vertical face of the Grande Rousse massif to the ski resort of L'Alpe d'Huez southeast of Grenoble. The climb is 8 1/2 miles at an average gradient of just under 8 percent. And this year, Armstrong will be on his own, bereft of help from the best team the U.S. Postal Service could buy him.

It's a time trial. It will be Armstrong vs. gravity, one on one, winner take all. If he can bury the competition there, the Tour will be over four days before it's supposed to end in Paris.

"The Alpe d'Huez occupies a lot of my time," Armstrong admits. "Thinking about it, training for it, preparing for it technically ... the equipment and the technical issues will be very important there. In the coming months, I'll be spending a lot of time on that road. It's a mountain I know well, but I don't know it nearly well enough.

"I suspect I'll ride it five, maybe 10 times before July. I'll ride it like it's my home course."

With Georgia conquered and his kids hugged, Armstrong returns to Europe this week. Once the weather on the Alpe suits his specs, he'll be there in a heartbeat, plotting and scheming and attacking its flanks from every possible angle.

Up the mountain, down the mountain, over and over and over again.

"You learn a lot by going downhill," he contends, "sometimes as much as you do going up. By descending you get a good read on where it's really steep -- not that you don't get a pretty good impression when you're going up."

Come race day, he'll have catalogued each pothole and memorized every oil slick. He will be one with the camber of every inch of that asphalt squiggle. Armstrong's technical people are even in the process of developing a specifically designed outfit and a specially tweaked bike for the 8 1/2 miles that, he believes, stand between him and a private perch on cycling's Mount Olympus.

It helps that he has a preponderance of good history on the Alpe, one of the Tour's five epic climbs. Most memorably in 2001, when he was in a jam after Postal experienced some early problems in the Jura, he suckered Jan Ullrich into thinking he was "bonked" by contorting his face and exaggerating his fatigue, only to suddenly blast from the pack as if his Trek had morphed into a Harley.

It was that display of raw, unrestrained power that earned him the sobriquet, Le Monstre American -- the American monster -- from the French sports daily L'Equippe.

But he struggled on the slopes a year ago, which only hardened his resolve for 2004. Truth to tell, he struggled several places last summer, and that has led him and his Postal boss, Johan Bruyneel, to tighten every screw in the run-up to his pending attack on history. Nothing is being left to chance. There have been meetings to plan meetings. While some have accused Armstrong of taking it easy -- or at least easier -- by spending April in the United States, Bruyneel contends the revised itinerary is vastly more efficient and has him well ahead of schedule.

His coach, Chris Carmichael, concurs.

"Lance is stronger than I've ever seen him at this stage of the year," he said during the Tour de Georgia. "He's really, really strong."

Enjoying a bit of down time with his children in Austin hasn't let him cut corners. The Tour de Georgia was hard work and productive work. He couldn't have begun his Alpe d'Huez dissection before May anyway because of the capriciousness of the southern Alpine climate in spring.

"You don't want to spend a week there just to be freezing the whole time," he said.

Also, before coming home, he sandwiched side trips around the Criterium International in late March to check out the second time-trial route outside of Besanc,on, and he perused the team time-trial course near Lille, as well.

Of the former, he said, "It's very interesting, with a good climb at the start and then a rolling road all the way. It could be quite hard after three weeks of racing, plus it's also very long at 64 kilometers (39 miles). That's the longest time trial I've ever had to ride at the Tour."

He would know that, too. There's little he doesn't know. He's aware, for example, that the other four cyclists who won five Tours all failed in their attempts to win a sixth. Miguel Indurain slumped to 11th place in 1996 after taking five in a row like Armstrong. Bernard Hinault was nosed out by Greg LeMond in his final try in 1986. Jacques Anquetil couldn't finish his last run in 1965. And Eddy Merckx was twice thwarted, placing second in 1975 and sixth in 1977 before surrendering to the cycling gods.

But Armstrong is recalculating his odds by minding to the most minute of details. If he loses, he loses. Just don't say he wasn't ready.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
hawker12 said:
Good writing. Who is Dale Robertson? Does he regularly write about cycling?
Steve
He's one of the local sports writers who tends to focus on tennis and occasionally cycling. Probably like 90% of most US newspapers, the frequency of cycling articles in the Chronical increase this time of year. Steve Sievert and Ken Hoffman also write cycling colums, the latter more humor-based.
 

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Thanks Tower. I thought it was pretty good writing and well researched...especially for non-full time cycling writer.
 
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