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American making imprint on world cycling scene

People thought Jim Ochowicz was crazy, or at least overly ambitious, when he first told them about his master plan. He wanted to build a world-class cycling team comprised of Americans who would challenge their European counterparts on their own soil for the first time.
/ Source: The Associated Press

People thought Jim Ochowicz was crazy, or at least overly ambitious, when he first told them about his master plan. He wanted to build a world-class cycling team comprised of Americans who would challenge their European counterparts on their own soil for the first time.

These were the days before Greg LeMond, and long before Lance Armstrong, when the sport was still considered exotic. There was no television coverage of the Grand Tours, no blogs and Twitter feeds for eager fans to keep tabs on the world's best riders.

There was certainly no place for Americans in the pro peloton.

"It would have been a great shock to see what's going on today," Ochowicz says.

Three decades later, the United States is poised to embrace a greater role than ever on the world cycling scene. Domestic stage races in Colorado and California are booming, a youth movement led by charismatic riders is poised to keep America competitive, and the crowning achievement came last month when Richmond, Va., was awarded the road world championships for 2015.

It's a far cry from the early 1980s, when the 7-Eleven Cycling Team was blazing a trail that Lance, LeMond and everyone else would follow.

"Without a group like 7-Eleven, without a rider like Greg and a rider like Lance, who were major figures not just in cycling but in the sports world, this wouldn't have happened," Ochowicz said. "We're making a lot of headway, and continue to make headway."

Indeed, Ochowicz remains at the forefront of the sport, pushing it ever forward.

The two-time Olympian served as president of the USA Cycling Board of Directors, and is now the manager of the BMC Racing Team, which includes a couple of the brightest young stars.

Tejay van Garderen, who many believe is the heir to Armstrong as the next great Grand Tour hopeful, wore the jersey of the best young rider at the Tour of California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge — the two domestic races that have earned their stripes as world-class events.

Then there's Taylor Phinney, whose father Davis was part of those early 7-Eleven squads, and whose mother, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, was an Olympian in both speedskating and cycling.

Phinney rose to fame on the track, where he captured a pursuit world championship before switching to the road. The 2010 national time trial champion has his sights set on making the U.S. Olympic team headed for London in late-July.

"They both have huge potential," said their BMC teammate, George Hincapie, who will ride his 16th Tour de France this year. "They're the biggest, as far as young Americans go, the biggest out there. They've become proven, world-class stage racers."

Perhaps more than anybody, Phinney encapsulates the new school of American cycling.

A self-described "class clown," Phinney authors his own humorous blog, interacts regularly with more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, and has the charisma that portends stardom if he can continue to develop the endurance necessary to compete in spring classics like Paris-Roubaix.

"When it comes to the new generation of riders, it's an incredibly exciting time," Phinney said. "Guys like Tejay — he's the next hope for the Grand Tours. Then you have guys like Ben King on RadioShack who just digs himself in a hole every day and claws out of it.

"Yeah," Phinney said, "it's just cycling is kind of booming in the U.S."

Jonathan Vaughters saw the boom coming before just about anyone.

The longtime pro decided to organize a junior program after he retired from competition. Many of the athletes that Vaughters recruited have grown into stars on the professional stage, helping his program — now Team Garmin-Barracuda — win the team classification at least year's Tour de France.

Among the 20-somethings riding in its argyle kits are Tyler Farrar, perhaps the best sprinter to emerge from the United States; Peter Stetina, who made his Grand Tour debut at last year's Giro d'Italia; and Andrew Talansky, who was the best young rider at the Tour de Romandie.

"Right now, Americans are considered one of the primary nationalities that succeeds in cycling, just like the French, the Dutch, the Italians," Vaughters said. "A long time ago, it was an oddity to be an American, and if you were an American on a foreign team, it was even more exotic. Now, Americans are just part of the peloton, and usually at the sharp end."

Stetina grew up around a cycling subculture in Boulder, Colo., but when he looks across the landscape, he can't help but marvel at how far the sport has come in the U.S.

"When we were all juniors was when Lance was winning his Tours de France," he said. "Now it's just kind of like a mix of the right instances all coming together."

It's not just elite cycling that has experienced the boom.

The number of licenses granted by USA Cycling has grown from 42,724 in 2002 to roughly 70,000. The number of sanctioned events in the U.S. grew by 11.2 percent in 2010, the most recent figures available, while the number of recognized clubs grew by 8.8 percent to 2,414.

Mass recreational events have sprouted up across the country — in Kansas City, for example, there are organized rides that stop at microbrews and barbeque joints along the way. Many have a charitable component, such as Tour de Cure, benefitting the America Diabetes Association.

"You can go back to Lance's success, and the seven Tours which put the sport in front of a much larger viewing audience than just the cycling world," said Steve Johnson, president of USA Cycling. "That fed back to people as the kind of thing they want to do with their time."

Just like the NFL or Major League Baseball, only a few supreme talents will ever understand how it feels to compete at the highest level. The rest of us are left to watch from afar — and that's easier than ever.

Television coverage has blossomed in recent years, even though the sport is difficult — and expensive — to capture given its varied terrain, unpredictable weather and far-flung locales.

NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus, first bought the rights to the Tour de France in 1999, and officials have pointed to the programming's success for helping build overall viewership for the cable channel. Universal Sports also offers several races on TV and online.

There are also chances to catch a glimpse of elite cyclists in person.

Several stage races have experienced modest success in the U.S., including the Coors Classic and Tour de Trump. But it was the Tour of California, launched in 2006 with the backing of sports giant AEG, that finally drew the world's best talent to domestic soil in big numbers.

The race, held in May, has become a key prep for riders aiming for the Tour de France.

The success of the Tour of California in part led to the establishment last year of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, held in Colorado in late August.

The inaugural event in the Rocky Mountains drew more than 1 million fans, along with a list of riders that included Tour champion Cadel Evans, runner-up Andy Schleck and American stars such as Levi Leipheimer, who ultimately won the race.

The race plans to announce a new deal with NBC for the 2012 edition next month, and already organizers are preparing for an additional 500,000 people to line the route.

"The sport has been through a lot of ups and down the last 30 years," said sports marketing executive Steve Brunner, who has been involved in domestic cycling for decades.

"Coming out of the Lance era, everyone thought things would sort of fold with his pending retirement," he said, "and it's almost blossomed in a pretty unique way."

In a way that Ochowicz and the rest of the 7-Eleven Cycling Team could have never imagined.