Desiree Cobb had saved the Wheaties box with Lance Armstrong's
picture on it for the better part of two years, waiting for the
moment when she could thrust it into the cyclist's hands for an
autograph. Her moment finally came on Sunday morning, right
after Armstrong had signed in for the inaugural 127 1/2-mile San
Francisco Grand Prix, his first Stateside road race in more than
three years. Cobb, a 27-year-old cosmetology student and mother
of two from Fresno, is so devoted to Armstrong that she plans to
get his foundation's logo tattooed on her right ankle. Getting
his autograph left her in tears on Sunday.
"This may be the biggest day of my life," said Cobb, who plans
to use her cosmetology skills to help breast cancer patients.
"He is such an amazing person. He has done so much for cancer
patients and for cycling in the U.S." Wiping her eyes, she
paused to consider the efforts of the man who is better
represented by pictures in her house than her husband and
children. "Of course, he could do a lot more. It would be nice
if he did a few more races at home so more people could see him."
In the years since Armstrong last rode in a significant race in
the U.S. (the First Union USPRO Championship in Philadelphia in
June 1998), he has won three consecutive Tours de France, become
the world's most famous cancer survivor and emerged as an
American sports icon of first-name-only magnitude. He has
achieved this status despite the fact that his countrymen almost
never get to see him do what he does so well in person.
They did on Sunday. An estimated 300,000 spectators lined the
10-mile circuit that wound through San Francisco's scenic
northern neighborhoods of North Beach, Ghiradelli Square, the
Marina and Pacific Heights, and watched Armstrong help his
teammate George Hincapie to a narrow victory. Armstrong was
cheered constantly, whether or not he was in shouting distance.
The first several times a lead group of seven riders looped
around the course, they heard 'Go, Lance!' even though Armstrong
was never in their group.
Because many U.S. fans have previously cheered Lance only on
television, you can't blame them for their misdirected
enthusiasm; nor can you blame Armstrong for his extended
absences from the U.S. cycling scene. Before the advent of the
San Francisco race, only three high-caliber races were held
annually in the States, all of which take place in May and June
when Armstrong is in Europe training for the Tour de France--the
only cycling event that penetrates the consciousness of the
average American. "I don't want to criticize the sport in
America, but cycling in America is not what it is around the
world," says Armstrong. "America goes in these phases of having
events. It seems like [bicycling in the U.S.] rides the wave of
success of its riders."
Indeed, the now defunct Coors Classics reached its height of
popularity around the time of the L.A. Olympics in 1984, while
the short-lived Tour de Trump and Tour du Pont of the 1990s
followed Greg Lemond's Tour de France victories in '86, '89 and
'90. "When an American is winning, it's an American sport. When
Americans are not, it's not," says Dave Chauner, president of
Threshold Sports, the co-producer of the S.F. Grand Prix.
Armstrong's success has sparked a surge in fan and sponsor
interest in cycling in America. Yet it's unclear whether bigger
and better races in the States will be part of his legacy. "I
don't think cycling in the U.S. is going to become any more
popular than it is now," says Frankie Andreu, director of the
U.S. Postal Service team for which Armstrong rides. "Lance has
the perfect story. He gets cancer, he comes off his deathbed to
win the Tour de France and then he does it twice more. If that
didn't make the sport explode, I don't know what will."
Event organizers hope Armstrong's participation in Sunday's race
will help establish it as an annual event and perhaps hatch a
series of West Coast races. There wouldn't have been any
inaugural event without Armstrong's commitment to ride in it.
"No way they would close the streets of San Francisco down for
anybody else," says Andreu.
According to some riders, the enthusiasm of Sunday's crowd
surpassed that of the biggest and most important race in the
U.S., the 17-year-old, 156-mile USPRO Championship, which drew an
estimated 500,000 fans in June. San Francisco's crowd was
impressive for a first-time event and far bigger than organizers
and riders had hoped. Said Saturn rider Tim Robinson, citing the
true test of a well-attended race, "There were so many people, I
couldn't find a place to go to the bathroom."
The crowd's density was matched by the course's brutality. Riders
who survived to the end and those who didn't (half the field of
120 had dropped out four hours into the race) agree that San
Francisco ranks among the toughest one-day races anywhere. That's
largely due to one vertiginous stretch of Fillmore Street that,
if this race proves perennial, will join the Boston Marathon's
Heartbreak Hill as one of sports' most knee-weakening obstacles.
The .37-mile, 18%-grade hill is so steep that many cyclists had
to traverse it, something you almost never see in professional
cycling. Fans who were standing six deep and hanging out of trees
and crowding balconies and rooftops on Fillmore and on the
slightly less difficult hill on Taylor Street were so loud the
riders couldn't hear their team directors on their headsets. "I
was so ecstatic hearing the crowds, I floated up those hills,"
said Saturn rider Trent Klasna, who won a check for $7,000 as
King of the Mountain, the rider who makes it up the hills the
The only glitch in the race was that Armstrong didn't win. In
fact, he didn't finish. After working to close a two-minute gap
and get Hincapie into the lead group of riders at about mile 80,
Armstrong dropped out, citing the effects of a stomach bug. His
departure surprised and disappointed some spectators,
particularly those who couldn't grasp that no cyclist can remain
in winning condition all season. "What, he can win the Tour de
France, but he can't win this?" griped one young woman loitering
outside the U.S. Postal Service hospitality tent after Armstrong
Any disappointment faded, though, in the last hour of what
turned out to be a thrilling race. Thanks to Armstrong and his
teammates, Hincapie was in a position to battle and, on the last
lap, outsprint a Saturn tandem of Klasna and Michael Barry to
win by 10 seconds in a time of 5:20:42. "We had to use up Lance
for the good of the team," said Andreu. "With all the sacrifices
George has made for Lance in the Tour, this was payback."
Armstrong executed his role in more ways than one. When Hincapie
emerged from the pressroom to ride back to his hotel, a scrum of
50 adoring fans swallowed him. "George! Sign my shirt!" "Sign my
bike!" "We love you, George!" "You da man!" they shouted.
As the giddy clot of humanity moved toward the Embarcadero, it
appeared that San Francisco had fallen for cycling and one of its
heroes. And Lance Armstrong was nowhere in sight.