IMAGINE NO LANCE. No seven Tour wins, no 40 million little yellow bracelets. No Alpe d'Huez, where he declared his dominance, again and again.
A world without Lance Armstrong would be a much duller place. Only baseball in the summer sports pages; Liggett and Sherwen covering ice dancing to pay the mortgage. Your neighbor bragging about his Callaways instead of his new carbon-fiber Trek. Cancer would still seem like a death sentence. And instead of six or seven Americans vying for the top 20 in this year's Tour de France, there might be only two. Or one. Or none.
Yet when the seven-time Tour champ hung up his cleats for good last July, recent also-rans Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich were not the only ones to heave a sigh of relief. As much as they've enjoyed Armstrong's run, fans are eager for a return of the Tour's element of suspense. His Discovery Channel team's defensive command-and-control style was a good way to win, but the outcome was rarely in doubt. Thankfully, with the capo now out of the picture, viewers can look forward to more tactical gunplay than in an episode of The Sopranos. "This year, it's gonna be totally open," says Tour veteran Bobby Julich, 34, one of Basso's top henchmen on Team CSC. "Not just the same Tour replayed seven times over but something different and spectacular and exciting."
Indeed, the 2006 race is what veteran watchers call a "changing of the guard" Tour, the kind that produces the most memorable outcomes, like in 1986, when Greg LeMond ended teammate Bernard Hinault's bid for a sixth win. Or 1997, when 23-year-old Jan
Even better, this year's Tour promises to be an American cycling fan's dream come true: Three U.S. ridersPhonak's Floyd Landis, Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer, and longtime Armstrong lieutenant George Hincapie, of Discovery Channelwill be riding with at least a shot at the overall win. Several more Yanksincluding CSC time-trial ace Dave Zabriskie, who wore the yellow jersey last year, and Davitamon-Lotto breakaway specialist Chris Hornercould win stages or even slip into yellow for a few days.
So much for the good news. The flip side is that we'd better enjoy it while we can, because most of these riders are but two or three years away from exiting their prime and following Lance onto the fairway. The current crop of American stars belongs to U.S. cycling's Greatest Generation, a coterie of well-groomed talents who mostly came up through Chris Carmichael's now defunct Junior National Team in the late eighties and early nineties. Julich and Horner will be 35 this year, Hincapie is 33, Leipheimer is 32, and Landis, this year's breakout star, is 30. Tom Danielson, 28, is set to ride his first Tour in 2007 (after testing the waters in May's Giro d'Italia), while Zabriskie, 27, has a good shot at winning any time trial. But after them, who? "Zabriskie's kind of the last really good guy for a while," says former Armstrong teammate Jonathan Vaughters.
But Vaughters is also trying to prove himself wrong. As manager of the development team TIAA-CREF, he's bringing young Americans to race in Europein much the way Armstrong, Hincapie, Julich, and Tyler Hamilton went to Europe in the early nineties, racing for the legendary Motorola team. "Lance opened the doors for a lot of us," says Julich. "Once people saw the success of Motorola, they weren't as scared to sign Americans."
Vaughters's sights are set just as high: With a squad including former under-23 world champion Danny Pate, 27, and rising star Craig Lewis, 21, he hopes to get TIAA-CREF into the ProTour (cycling's major league) by 2009. His goal is for the team to play the role that U.S. Postal (now Discovery and only nominally American) did in 1998, when it served as a farm squad for American talent. And TIAA-CREF isn't the only U.S. development team tearing up European roads. The U.S. under-23 national team, which operates out of a house in cycling-mad Belgium, has produced riders like sprinter Tyler Farrar and climber/time-trialist Saul Raisin, who appeared to be headed toward a promising Tour career of his own before a horrific crash, in April (see "Come Back, Kid").
These younger riders have something going for them that the thirty-something stars of today didn't: They got into cycling in the Age of Lance. Cycling has always been a bit of a misfit sport in America, attracting that peculiar breed of loner kidlike Armstrongwho doesn't mind riding solo for hours. But Lance made cycling cool. Bikes are showing up in ads for broadband service and SUVs, and the number of licensed road racers in the U.S. has grown by nearly 20 percent since 1999. More important, the number of accredited coaches has risen from 62 to more than 1,000 over the same period. Where the U.S. once lacked important races, two key pre-Tour showcases now take place on American soil: the Tour of California, in February, and the Tour de Georgia, in April. And even without Armstrong, this year's inaugural Tour of California drew more than 1.3 million spectators.
So when the Tour rolls out of Strasbourg on July 1, put on your Discovery hat, pop open a cold one, and park in front of the TV for the duration. And afterwards, head for the nearest amateur race to watch the juniors compete, so that maybe, one day, eight or ten years from now, you can say you saw the Second Coming.
The Bottom Line: Shameless Tour Promotion From the Experts
"The winner may well be another American. But unlike with Lance, the American presence will be pushed to its limits."
Jim OchowiczPresident of U.S. Professional Cycling