Despite Armstrong, Americans haven't got on their bikes
NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Lance Armstrong may be poised to win a third consecutive Tour de France on Sunday, but cycling in the United States still has a long, difficult climb even to come close to the popularity the sport enjoys in Europe.
The irony is that cycling was very popular in the United States at the turn of the last century when velodromes and dirt tracks dotted the country and even Madison Square Garden regularly staged races.
But these days even the glamor of the Tour de France, with its grueling tests of stamina and courage (this year's tour is over 3,870km), are often relegated to the back pages of newspapers and just a few seconds of television time.
Cycling's popularity in the United States succumbed to Americans' fascination with cars, which "had greater speed and greater danger. It's easier to go faster. It's the cowboy thing," said Bill Strickland, executive editor of Bicycling Magazine. "Cars became the American horse and supplanted bicycles. And then we adopted other sports."
Cycling became very popular in Europe because "people ride to work, take their bikes to the grocery store. It's harder to own a car and drive a car there," he said.
Another reason offered for Americans not taking to cycling is their lack of understanding of the sport and its intricacies, said Karen Bliss Livingston, a seven-time women's U.S. national champion.
"When I was at the World Championships in Holland, you would go into the bars and everyone was talking about it and they understood the sub-plots and the details of cycling," said Livingston, who is now in marketing with Bicycling Magazine, which she said was the largest cycling magazine in the country with 1.2 million readers.
For example, Americans don't understand that when someone won it was with a great deal of help from teammates, said the 37-year-old Livingston, who won more than 300 races in her professional career from 1984-1998.
"It's sad in a sense," she said.
Cycling also suffered, Strickland said, because it didn't translate well to television where the drama and pain are often hidden.
In football and hockey, for example, when a player is hit hard "he's laid out for everyone to see. It's kind of fun. But the suffering is internal in cycling," often because "cyclists try to mask their pain from opponents," he said.
For television viewers, "it's like a candle burning down," Strickland said. "It may be excruciating to the candle but it's not a lot of fun to watch."
While the details of cycle racing seem to escape many Americans, Armstrong's story of winning races and surviving testicular cancer that had spread to his brain certainly has resonated with the public, Strickland said.
But unlike Greg Lemond, whose three Tour de France victories spurred an increase in licenses for amateur racers in the United States, the 29-year-old Armstrong's exploits had not brought a surge in American interest to race, Strickland said.
Instead, "what he's done is made cycling more popular with people who are not cyclists. He's raised awareness of cycling. He's a hero and he beat cancer and won the Tour in dramatic fashion," Strickland said. "People who like NASCAR love Lance.
"But I don't expect cycle racing to make a major impact in the United States," he said.
On the business side of bicycling, Armstrong's impact was "hard to pinpoint" in terms of bicycle sales, said Mark McCubbin, a spokesman for Trek bicycles, which provides frames for Armstrong and his team. "But it's done a lot in terms of recognizing cycling as a world class sport,"
In California, where lifestyles and the weather are conducive to year-round cycling, there is at least anecdotal evidence that the sport might be slowly gaining in appreciation.
Mark Smith, who manages City Bicycles, a medium-sized shop near Sacramento, says Armstrong's accomplishments this year have provide a "buzz" among his customers.
He also says that sales of racing shirts, even those with some of what he described as the "loud' colors of the European teams, have been selling well lately.
Some of the added interest in the sport, Smith said, might be due to daily coverage of the Tour by national cable broadcaster Outdoor Life Network, which bought the rights for a reported US$3 million to air the Tour in the United States.
Even if cycling never becomes more than an esoteric sport in the United States, Armstrong's popularity has given bicycling enthusiasts a consolation prize of sorts.
"There is definitely more friendliness toward cyclists now. People in cars are more considerate," Strickland said. "You're not a guy in funny clothes now. It's more like, 'hey you're Lance Armstrong.'"
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