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Murphy's Law

Chain reaction

By Austin Murphy

  Click for larger image "What Tiger Woods did to golf, Lance Armstrong is doing to cycling," says an exec who has seen bike sales spike.  Doug Pensinger/Allsport
I can pinpoint exactly when cycling officially lost its status as a fringe sport in this country. It happened around 4 p.m. on Aug. 7, when I mentioned to my father-in-law that I'd just returned from the Tour de France, and he said, "Boy, Lance really punched it on L'Alpe d'Huez, didn't he?"

This from a gynecological oncologist who last mounted a bicycle during the Nixon Administration, a man who wouldn't know a peloton from a pelican, a derailleur from a drunken sailor. Still, he knew all about Lance Armstrong's third straight Tour victory.

It was happening all over the U.S. last month. People who never paid attention to bike racing, people who think Eddy Merckx is heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, couldn't get enough of the Tour. They talked about green and polka-dot jerseys, about split times and chase groups. In the San Francisco area, where I live, people spoke of The Look -- Armstrong's race-defining stare into the soul of second-place finisher Jan Ullrich -- with a familiarity once reserved for The Catch (Dwight Clark's storied 1982 touchdown grab to beat the Dallas Cowboys and launch the San Francisco 49ers dynasty). "There was a guy in here talking about which cyclist was gonna pull for Lance in that day's toughest climb," says Pat Freeman, manager of the Sausalito Cyclery. "And I'm thinking, Buddy, I sold you your first bike six months ago."

The only thing steeper than L'Alpe d'Huez -- where Armstrong unleashed The Look -- was America's learning curve during the Tour. Road racing is undergoing a renaissance in this country, due in large part to Armstrong and in small part to a guy named Peter Englehart, senior vice president of programming for the Outdoor Life Network. Englehart, an avid cycling fan, was the driving force behind the OLN's successful bid for the rights to televise this year's Tour in the U.S. For most of the last decade those rights were owned by ESPN, which aired little more than a half hour of canned highlights, late at night. OLN describes the Tour as "our Super Bowl" and provided two hours of live coverage every morning, with reruns and highlights throughout the day.

Cooling off in a Connecticut sports bar during the Tour's final week, Englehart found himself eavesdropping on a pair of shot-and-a-beer types discussing the possibility that Armstrong might ride in support of his U.S. Postal Service teammate Roberto Heras in next month's Tour of Spain. "That floored me," says Englehart. "But people are having these conversations all over the country."

That's because, for the first time, Americans -- those whose cable carriers offer OLN, at any rate -- could sink their teeth into the Tour, to immerse themselves in the nuances of the peloton. They were treated to the enlightening, articulate analysis of Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, who calls a sprint finish with the panache of Dave Johnson calling the stretch run of the Kentucky Derby. They came to look forward to the gonzo reports of former pro rider Bob Roll, whose unconventional interviewing style gave him a cult following. Roll also created a stir among his foreign colleagues after that L'Alpe d'Huez stage when he asked Armstrong to discuss how he'd "played possum" that day, feigning weakness to deceive his opponents. Bewildered French journalists could be heard asking, "Qu'est-ce que c'est un possum?"

"What Tiger Woods did to golf, Lance is doing to cycling," says Mike Mayer, a brand manager at Trek Bicycle headquarters in Waterloo, Wis. Young American riders are gravitating toward this sport, thought to be dying in this country, in unprecedented numbers. While mountain bike sales have gone flat, sales of road bikes in general -- and of a $2,699 carbon fiber Trek model that Armstrong rides, in particular -- have jumped a reported 39% since last year.

It may have been his contribution to a sluggish economy, then, as much as his feats in the saddle, that earned Armstrong an invitation to the White House on Aug. 3. After introducing his fellow Texan, George W. Bush said of the Tour, "In the end the race is won or lost in the mountains."

See what I mean? All of a sudden, everyone's an expert.

The author, an incorrigible outdoor sports junkie and Sports Illustrated senior writer, muses on sundry subjects adventure-related.

Issue date: August 20, 2001

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