When the esteemed announcer of the Tour de France for 41 years, Phil Liggett, took the stage at Sacramento, California's historic Memorial Auditorium (May 9) to kick off the ninth year of the Amgen Tour of California at a black-tie gala, he said what the state capital crowd wanted to hear. The cycling race should always kick off in the capital city.
Amgen was returning to Sacramento after a much missed three-year absence. Excited fans had turned out by the tens of thousands in the past when Lance Armstrong made his debut at Amgen in Sacramento (and got his bike stolen.) Then- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the finish line and on the podium to congratulate the cyclists along with actor Patrick Dempsey. It was a glamorous time for a new event that in just a few years had grown to one of the top cycling races in the world.
But after Armstrong and three-time Amgen winner Levi Leipheimer admitted to doping just less than a year and a half ago, would the crowds still return? Would the sport be tainted? Many noticed smaller crowds this year around Capitol Mall. Liggett talked about how the Lance Effect affected the Tour de France.
"Yes, it took a drop as far as our television viewers when Lance confessed to his seven Tour victories all being done on drugs. But we seem to have ridden that out."
It was a conundrum. Lance Armstrong, the very man who introduced so many people to cycling with his unprecedented seven Tour de France victories and courageous battle back from cancer -- turned out to be the same person who turned many of those fans off to the sport.
James Raia, co-author of "Tour de France for Dummies," agreed the sport took a hit due to Lance.
"I think the mainstream public that might see one bike race a year...I think the sport was hurt."
Others I talked to in the cycling world murmered the same sentiment.
Race officials are not yet releasing attendance figures along the stages as they have in the past. But even if crowds are smaller, there's huge excitement for world class sprinter Mark Cavendish and Tour de France winner and gold medalist Bradley Wiggins in the field and both in California in May instead of the Tour d'Italia.
Liggett is not worried. After a festive Stage Two in historic Folsom, home to Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash fame, Liggett liked what he saw -- so many people on bikes and endless bike lanes for them to ride in.
"Whatever you think of Lance Armstrong and everyone does have an opinion and yes, he cheated. But what he did do was bring an awful lot of people to the sport over his 10-year reign. These people have not gone away. They found something they like doing and I'm not talking about the racing cyclists -- the people who found fitness and pleasure just riding a bicycle."
Liggett and Raia think the crowds will return. The Tour de France remains the largest sporting event in the world with 3.5 (b) billion television viewers over its three-week run in July. We just need some time to get over the Lance doping anger and cynicism. To see Cavendish win in a photo finish after circling the state Capitol and Wiggins leading the peleton in the near 4,000 foot ascent up Mount Diablo are sights rarely seen in the United States.
I think I saw the best sign of renewal when I was backstage in downtown Sacramento after Stage One calling the race for my radio station KFBK and standing next to the winner -- Cavendish. A little dark-haired girl, about seven or eight years old, slowly walked up to him and asked with a big smile if she could have a picture. Cavendish, now the father of a little girl himself, smiled back and posed with her.
A new fan was born. The next generation of cycling fans are already out there.