Chain Reaction

August 19, 2001

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.

COLOR PHOTO: CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP

"What Tiger Woods did to golf, Lance Armstrong is doing to
cycling," says an exec who has seen bike sales spike.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)