Posted: Tuesday July 26, 2005 3:43PM; Updated: Tuesday July 26, 2005 5:00PM
"There was a five-or-so year period where USA Cycling dropped the ball," says Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong's who now covers the sport for OLN. "There were financial problems, and the development of young riders kind of quit out."
Once Levi, George, Bobby and Floyd hang it up, says Andreu, "we're going to have a period of about four years where the U.S. may have one or no guys in the Tour. There's going to be a huge dropoff."
Austin Murphy will answer questions from SI.com users.
Surely such predictions are overly gloomy. Surely some young rider -- a Tyler Ferrar or Craig Lewis or Danny Pate -- will exceed expectations and take the sport by storm.
"Who can see the future?" asks Christian Prudhomme, who just succeeded Jean-Marie Leblanc as the Tour's director general. "In 1997, everybody thought [Jan] Ullrich would win six. At that time, the only question about Armstrong was, 'Will he survive?' [The U.S. is] a big country. You have a rider who is 18, 19, 20 years old. We don't know him [yet]. And in three years he will win all the races."
I hope you're right, Monsieur Prudhomme. But I also know that, for seven years, cycling fans have been enjoying the equivalent of a housing bubble, maxing out our credit cards, not putting anything away. Now the bill comes due.
Must we go out on such a melancholy note? No. For a kind of darkly comic pick-me-up, let us revisit the incredible ride turned in on Saturday by Mickael Rasmussen. Desperate to hold onto third place in the general classification -- he led Ullrich by 2:12 -- Skeletor tried too hard, and simply could not stay on his bike. Twice he fell off; three times he had to stop and change bikes, another time he came to a complete stop after almost falling. I felt sorry for him, but I also felt sorry for the portly fellow in his team car who found himself enduring a program of unscheduled plyometrics, scrambling out of the car to pull the hapless Dane out of the underbrush, fix his bike, then push him up back out onto the road.
You could almost hear the clown music. If the French cops didn't know better, they probably would've stopped Rasmussen -- whose red, polka-dot jersey, worn by the Tour's "King of the Mountains," only magnified the absurdity of his plight -- and subjected him to a field sobriety test. His implosion dropped him from third to seventh overall. He was applauded warmly that afternoon when he mounted the podium to don the polka-dot jersey, which he kept. In an upset, he made it down without falling.
Then came Armstrong's final day. I liked watching him shepherd his children up the stairs and onto the podium in Paris. One of the twins -- Grace or Isabella -- seemed reluctant, so Bernard Hinault took her by the hand. I liked watching Lance embrace Basso and Ullrich, the two guys who will battle it out for first next year. I especially liked watching the Texan, pressing his hat to his chest, trying without success to disguise his emotions while a French band knocked out The Star-Spangled Banner.
Earlier in the Tour, when I asked if he'd ever run for office, Armstrong told me, "The problem with politics is that it's not so far from what I do now. You get put up there, and people throw stuff at you."
He thought about that for a moment, then added this: "Standing on the top step in Paris, hearing your national anthem, that's a big fastball right back at 'em."
Thinking of Armstrong on the top step, I am reminded of Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, gazing at the sky at the end of Apollo 13, wondering when man will next walk the moon: "And who will that be?"