On Sunday, as Great Britain’s Chris Froome sips champagne and puts on yet another yellow jersey in Paris, American participants Nathan Brown, Andrew Talansky, and Taylor Phinney will be celebrating far away from the podium, having finished 43rd, 49th, and 161st on the general classification.
They were the only three Americans to start the 2017 Tour de France this year, all with Cannondale-Drapac, for whom they rode in aid of second place finisher Rigoberto Uran, a Colombian. It was only the second time since 1996 that so few riders from the United States started the Tour. The other year was 2015. Five riders started the 2016 Tour, which means that the number of American riders who rode the Tour over the past three year span was equal to the number who started in 2011 by itself.
There’s no question that American cycling is in a lull since the high-water days of the 2000s. I know what you’re thinking: Yes, part of the reason has to do with blood doping. Performance enhancing drugs aren’t the only reason, however, and in fact they’re far from the biggest reason.
But yes, Erythropoietin (EPO) was running through the veins of the best American riders of that generation. From 2001 to 2011, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Tom Danielson, and Christian Vande Velde combined to finish top-10 in cycling’s three grand tours 17 times — 10 of those in the Tour de France. Here’s Lance Armstrong’s record for academics’ sake: seven straight Tour wins and one third place finish; one fourth place finish in the Vuelta a España; and one 12th place finish in the Giro d’Italia.
Out of those 26 top 10 Grand Tour finishes, 17 were voided due to failed drug tests and doping confessions.
Since 2011, American riders have finished top 10 just six times in grand tours — Tejay Van Garderen finished fifth in the Tour twice, Talansky finished fifth and seventh at the Vuelta, and 10th at the Tour; and Chris Horner won the Vuelta at the ripe age of 41. Beyond those three riders, Americans haven’t had grand tour success on the level of the early 2000s.
You’re right: It is very convenient that American cycling has been worse since a bunch of guys got busted for doing something they shouldn’t have done. American cycling is so much more than a single era in its long history, however, and fixating on the misdeeds of the recent past doesn’t begin to answer for why, after coming so far, U.S. competition has stalled. There are a lot of reasons why American cyclists don’t always make it big in Europe that have nothing to do with cheating.
But yes, this is kind of about drugs
“There was definitely a sour taste in cycling,” Jackson Stewart tells me. “America only knew Lance. Before they only knew [Greg] LeMond, and then they only knew Lance. And even just when it was accusations at that point, it was clear that the general perspective was, 'You guys are cheating.' So they didn't really even have a chance to love the sport because they never understood it.”
Stewart is an assistant team director for BMC Racing, one of three American teams in cycling’s top level World Tour competition along with Trek-Segafredo and Cannondale-Drapac. He rode for BMC from 2007 to 2010, though he didn’t compete very often in Europe, where cycling’s most prestigious events take place. He says he never doped, despite how rampant the practice was in those days.
“And I want to say we’re just a few years from coming out of this fog,” Stewart says. “I was a clean rider, but I always heard about all this stuff. I even had coaches who warned me about it when I was super young, like, 'Hey you sure you want to do this?' And I was just naive: 'I can beat anyone, I don't need whatever you're talking about.’”
The United States was far from the only country taking advantage of advances in doping technology back then. In 2014, reporter Teddy Cutler found that from 1998 to 2013, only four out of 16 Tour de France winners hadn’t been linked to blood doping. In that same time span, he found that among the 81 different riders who finished in the top 10, 65 percent were linked to doping.
The effect of cycling’s doping scandals was arguably most damaging in the United States, however. They stripped Americans of Armstrong, a national icon, and seeded distaste for the Tour, many Americans’ only connection to cycling. That disconnect, it could be argued, dissuaded many young athletes from pursuing cycling as a career.
Billy Innes, USA Cycling’s program director for the junior national team, tells me that his program has at most 400 17- and 18-year-old athletes at any one time. Meanwhile, a fanatical cycling country like Belgium — population 11.3 million compared with the United States’ 323 million — may have 1,400.
“Of those 400, a third of them live in So Cal. And of those 400 there are maybe three or four that can compete at an international level,” Innes says. “Whereas Belgium will have 30 guys who are just outstanding. And they also have the channel through which to turn pro. They have a ton of teams that they can go into, and they can be developed in the long term.”
It hurts that Americans only really care about the Tour de France, and only intermittently
“1997 was my first Tour; I remember I was living in Brookline, Mass.,” Tyler Hamilton tells me. “I remember riding down the roads there, like getting yelled at, 'Get on the sidewalk.'
“I remember getting back, people asking like, 'How was your vacation in France?' They thought you stopped for picnics and stuff like that.”
When Armstrong started winning, the Tour de France became a major summer event in the United States. Hamilton was one of the Armstrong’s best lieutenants on the U.S. Postal Service team for the first of his three Tour titles. He says that when he returned to Massachusetts after Armstrong won his first yellow jersey in 1999, people were instead shouting “Go Postal!” from their windows.
Levi Leipheimer, who rode next to Armstrong for two years at U.S. Postal and one year at Astana, says it was difficult to adjust to the sudden attention.
“Oh yeah. I'm not one who really enjoys being in the spotlight that much,” Leipheimer says. “I'm just kind of a quiet person, so it was something that was — I think I can handle like interviews and speaking with people one-on-one, but it's kind of an unnatural situation to be semi-famous.”
Cycling is much more than the Tour de France. The UCI World Tour is composed of 37 events, including the three three-week grand tours, but also 20 one-day races that are attended by the best riders and receive much greater attention in places like, say, Belgium and the Netherlands, where winning on the famed and treacherous Paris-Roubaix cobblestones can make you a national hero.
American riders, however, often grew up prizing the Tour above all else — “I remember watching LeMond win the Tour, and to me that felt like what I was supposed to be doing,” Leipheimer says. The Armstrong era put the yellow jersey on an even higher pedestal.
Freddie Stouffer helps scout and sign riders as the operations manager for Trek-Segafredo, another of the United States’ three World Tour teams. Though Trek is headquartered in Wisconsin, its racing team carries just three American riders on its roster at the moment — Peter Stetina, Greg Daniel, and Kiel Reijnen. Stouffer says he’d like to sign more Americans, but the United States’ fixation on the Tour keeps more athletes from racing.
“We need the depth to be able to show that there's more out there than the Tour,” Stouffer tells me. “In America, we love our winners, and if we can produce winners in some of these other races, it draws attention to cycling in general. I think a lot of the U.S. non-cycling audience would be interested in Paris-Roubaix because of just the uniqueness of a race like that with the cobblestones, but most Americans don't even know that race exists.”
Logistically, being an American rider sucks
“If you live in Belgium there are a lot of races that are within two hours of your house. Well we have to fly sometimes 20 hours to get to Europe,” Innes says. “I would like to create a Paris-Roubaix winner, but the [European] athletes that are doing well even at junior levels, they're doing one-day races all the time.”
Of those 37 World Tour events, 30 take place in Europe. Just one, the eight-day Tour of California, takes place on U.S. soil. To compete among the best riders in the world, American riders must live among the best riders in the world and familiarize themselves with the roads and mountains that they will be spending hours with throughout the year.
“It's hard. You have to live away from home almost the whole year, whereas a lot of the Europeans, in between the races they're going home,” Hamilton says. “You're living over there kind of like a monk. ... You [have to] live very simply, and be really disciplined.”
Living in the United States isn’t really a viable option for an American rider with grand tour ambitions. Outside of perhaps the Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the Tour of Colorado, the U.S. doesn’t offer many races with international-caliber competition.
The reason for that is twofold.
The first is that in the fallout from the doping era, there are fewer sponsors willing to fund big races. As an example, Stewart mentions the one-day Philly Classic, which Armstrong won in 1993: “There's no reason for Philly to die off. ... I guarantee you the prize money has gone down.”
The second has to do with infrastructure. Cycling races require sometimes 200-plus kilometers of road closures for racing, and cities and states in the U.S. are much less likely to acquiesce those requests than European counterparts.
“Here in Belgium, it's amazing. It can be a junior road race on Saturday morning, and they're shutting down all the roads, and the whole town comes out to watch the race,” Stouffer says. “It’s like college football Saturday in the U.S. If you're saying roads are closed down because of access to the stadium, no one says anything, no one cares.”
For potential American riders, then, their options are either to hope to be discovered on a poorly funded, often woefully short American course, or to pay their own way to go up against riders who are much more practiced and better subsidized in Europe. Belgian riders, according to Stouffer, even get tax benefits and social security.
“Then if a rider doesn't make it, or gets injured and can't race any more, well now, based off his constant racing, he already has some money in his social security plan,” Stouffer says. “Whereas in the U.S., it is like the unicorn, and if you're not in the cycling community and you tell people what you do, they sort of look at you like, ‘Huh, and you can support yourself doing that?’”
And despite all that, American cycling is actually doing pretty OK
Perhaps the current crop of riders could be better — Americans in the late ‘90s and early 2000s had to deal with many of those same logistical challenges, too — but they could certainly be worse.
The heyday of Armstrong, Leipheimer, and Hamilton came after an even quieter period for the United States than the current one. In the space between LeMond’s last Tour title in 1990 and Armstrong’s first in 1999, American riders finished in the top 10 of the Tour just five times, peaking with Bobby Julich’s third place finish in 1998. Before that, an American hadn’t even competed in the Tour until 1981, when Jacques Boyer took the starting line. The Tour de France had existed for 78 years by that point.
If you’re willing to accept the fact that American riders in the early aughts were competing on a relatively level playing field with regards to doping, then you have to accept that, perhaps, they were just a special group of individual athletes.
“I don't know, we worked our tails off,” Hamilton says. “Looking back, sometimes I'm just like, I'm glad I don't have to do that any more. Just so much time on the bike, having to be super disciplined.
“At one point in my career I was 2.8 percent body fat, which is insane. Not healthy either. You had to live that lifestyle. If you were 95 percent committed, you weren't going to make it.”
Leipheimer mentions a slew of 20-something American riders as a sign that the United States is on the come-up — names like Cannondale-Drapac’s Joe Dombrowski and Lawson Craddock, or BMC’s Brent Bookwalter and Joey Rosskopf. He won’t say that they will live up to the legacy of U.S. Postal, however, or what, exactly, separated his era from every other in American history.
The steps to becoming a Tour rider — much less a great one, he says — are ill-defined.
“You don't know. You really don't know,” Leipheimer says. “You have to keep working hard and have a lot of patience because it’s a long, long road, with many little tiny improvements and progression along the way.
“And then one day it just happens. You're there.”