News Column

Cycling Pedals On post-Armstrong

May 12, 2013

The shadow of Lance Armstrong looms large as the Amgen Tour of California starts its weeklong run Sunday in Escondido, Calif.

Cycling has reached a crossroads with its first big event in the United States since Armstrong acknowledged in January that he used performance-enhancing drugs, a startling revelation that has left some wondering whether American audiences will keep watching the sport.

"For cycling fans, it was all or nothing with Lance," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising. "Marginal sports need superstars. That's what Lance Armstrong provided."

Armstrong carried a sport perhaps like no other individual ever did. Not Michael Jordan or Joe Montana or Michael Phelps.

The Tour champion was beloved for winning a record seven Tour de France titles after overcoming testicular cancer that almost led to his death. The cyclist's Livestrong campaign with yellow wrist bands dramatically increased cancer awareness and went hand in hand with the seven yellow jerseys he won from 1999-2005.

It's difficult to imagine another fairy-tale story coming along to mesmerize the masses the way Armstrong's did.

His legions of disciples were invested in his riveting survival story more than they were in a bicycle race.

"Armstrong was Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth wrapped into one," said Bob Dilenschneider, a New York branding and communications expert. "Then he let a lot of people down and changed people's minds -- some forever."

The sport hit a low point in October, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency made public a report of its investigation that detailed drug use by Armstrong and ex-teammates. The report characterized Armstrong, 41, as the ringleader in teamwide efforts to use illegal drugs and avoid detection. The Texan was banned for life and stripped of the titles he had won since 1998.

The sport's current crop of riders and officials expect cycling to survive their version of the "Steroid Era" as they eagerly want to move forward.

"Armstrong is yesterday's man," Dilenschneider said."He's only an example of what shouldn't be done."

The anti-doping agency's troubling conclusion hasn't worried officials of the Tour of California.

"It didn't take Lance to build what we had built today," said Kristin Bachochin, senior vice president of Anschutz Entertainment Group and the race's executive director. "We never viewed this race as focusing on one person."

But presenting a clean image goes only so far with a fickle fan base that is drawn to iconic figures such as Armstrong.

"You are now back to Square 1," Baker Street's Dorfman said.

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