US Cycling looks to future but remains tangled in its past
Lance Armstrong has both energised and tarnished US Cycling - can it continue to grow? (AP Photo/Franck Prevel, File)
In a week when the ugly past of North American cycling has been exhumed for all to see, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge has shown that the sport of road cycling is still alive and in good health in the United States.
But as the cycling community attempts to put cycling’s seedy past well behind us, we can’t avoid the uncomfortable truth that there are plenty more skeletons yet to dig up, as the echoes of Armstrong’s career continue to reverberate through the sport, for better and for worse.
The huge crowds lining the roads for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge are a direct result of Armstrong’s achievements, taking road cycling in that country from a small niche of Europhiles to a legitimate sport and pastime for millions.
With this interest and participation has come money to sponsor teams and riders, developing the next generation of American cyclists.
Yet the Armstrong accusations leave a tangle of unanswered questions for several of the current protagonists in American cycling.
On Sunday, Christian Vande Velde breezed past Levi Leipheimer’s time in the final stage time trial, claiming the general classification victory in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Both Vande Velde and Leipheimer are rumoured to be among the group of Armstrong’s former teammates ready to testify in USADA’s case, in exchange for a reduced ban.
Vande Velde now rides for Garmin-Sharp, the team with arguably the best anti-doping reputation in World Tour ranks. The team is managed by Jonathan Vaughters, another former teammate of Lance Armstrong who has publicly admitted doping and repudiated that choice in a compelling op-ed recently published in the New York Times.
In that op-ed, Vaughters states that his hardline anti-doping stance as a team manager is a direct result of his own experience of the intense pressure to dope as a cyclist, and the shattering effect it had on his own career.
If a dark shadow eventually emerges from Vande Velde’s past, the fact that he now rides for Vaughters’ team is a strong indication that he is now riding clean (to the extent that you can prove any rider is clean).
For those who prefer to focus on the future, while these two elder statesmen of US cycling were duking it out, two of the most promising of the next generation of US cyclists were also showing off their talents.
Tejay Van Garderen, one of the most exciting young riders in this year’s Tour de France, and of this season in general, finished second overall after shooting past Leipheimer on the time trial.
His BMC teammate Taylor Phinney won the final time trial in style, continuing a really good year for the 22 year-old in which he has already won time trials at the Giro d’Italia and Giro del Trentino, and a pair of 4th places in the Olympic time trial and road race.
These two immensely talented young stars are the future of American cycling and a big part of the future of global cycling.
But it’s impossible to ignore the debt these young riders and their team owe to Lance. I mention this not as an attempt to tarnish these riders by association – there is no indication that they are anything but clean – but to point out that Lance Armstrong’s career has a strong ongoing hold on American cycling.
Phinney served his professional apprenticeship at the Trek-Livestrong under 23 team (bankrolled by Armstrong and his longtime personal sponsor Trek) as he developed from a talented track rider to a fully-fledged road professional.
Both he and van Garderen now ride for the BMC team led by Jim Ochowicz, the doyen of American road cycling who managed Lance Armstrong’s first pro team, Motorola, in the early 1990s.
Ochowicz was also president of USA Cycling from 2002 to 2006, when Armstrong was at his peak, and the manager of the US Olympic road team from 2000 to 2008. This week he has publicly supported Armstrong while very deliberately mentioning his positive contribution to the sport.
How much Ochowicz’s career has been improved by Armstrong’s (and his discredited teammates’) is a question that’s worth considering. Van Garderen and Phinney, along with their star-studded team, are now the beneficiaries of the experience and profile that Ochowicz built partly on the back of Armstrong’s success, not to mention the doors that his association opens with sponsors.
Ochowicz has been around a long time, and his career was established well before Armstrong emerged, but his time at the helm of USA Cycling coincided with the most prolific era of doping in American cycling history.
Without Armstrong’s outstanding (but now deflated) record, and the interest and money that flooded into American cycling as a result of his career, we wouldn’t have the crowds lining the roads at North American races, we probably wouldn’t have two American teams in the World Tour, and the next generation of riders like van Garderen and Phinney would not receive the same support.
You could make similar arguments about Armstrong’s effect on cycling’s profile in Australia. The South Australian government certainly thought the halo of tourism dollars his presence at the Tour Down Under brought was worth spending money on. Would the race be so popular if Armstrong had never visited?
Weighing the positives (sorry) of Armstrong’s career against the damage his alleged doping has done to the credibility of cycling is an incredibly complicated moral and legal issue.
He did more to globalise the sport than anyone before him, but may have done more to damage it than anyone else. Many others are tied up in his legacy, and not just in the US. Fans and riders alike understandably want to focus on the future, but with so much history still to unravel, moving on will take a while yet.
Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. A former A-grade club athlete, and now a keen recreational cyclist and roller racer, he once rode very slowly up Mont Ventoux. Tim tweets about sport at @timehhh_sp.