When Lance Armstrong cruised to his seventh victory in the Tour de France in 2005, television ratings in the United States were at an all-time high, averaging more than 607,000 viewers over the 21 stages of competition.
Much has happened in the sport over the past 14 years, most notably Armstrong’s fall from grace following his admission to using performance-enhancing drugs. He was stripped of his titles in 2012.
Since then, interest in the sport has dropped significantly in the United States, and no American has fared better than Tejay van Garderen’s fifth-place finish in 2014. Over the past four years, just over 300,000 fans have tuned in each day on average, according to NBC Sports, which will televise the Tour again when it gets underway Saturday in Brussels.
Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, want to end the American drought.
In May, Rapha, a high-end cycling clothing line owned by the Waltons’ private equity firm, announced the formation of a foundation to help develop the next generation of bike racers. The foundation has earmarked $750,000 in grants for cycling development organizations over the next six months, and it plans to issue a second round of grants in November, bringing the total to $1.5 million. The company billed it as the largest single donation to American cycling development programs.
Sam Walton’s grandsons are fervent cyclists. Since 2007, the Walton Family Foundation has invested $85 million in bike trail infrastructure in Bentonville, Ark., where the company is based. Now it believes it’s time to focus those philanthropic efforts on raising a generation of top American talent.
“People want to be inspired by people, and they want to dream. It’s hard to underestimate the impact that a real hero in the sport could do for the U.S.,” said Simon Mottram, founder and CEO of Rapha. While Mottram said future grants may go to organizations supporting cycling in other ways, such as advocacy, “we felt it made sense to start close to our heartland, which is the racing part of the sport.”
Tejay van Garderen of the United States finished fifth in the Tour de France in 2014. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)
The Rapha Foundation awarded the first five prizes to rider development organizations, with a mix of road, mountain bike, cyclocross and track cycling programs. Recipients include Star Track, an organization that promotes New York City youth racing at a velodrome in Queens; Boulder Junior Cycling, a competitive youth development team based in Colorado; and the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which oversees 19,000 student-athletes competing on bikes across the United States.
Pete Taylor, co-executive director of Star Track, said the funding is a game-changer for his organization.
“It’s going to change the lives of a lot of kids,” Taylor said, adding that the grant will go toward hiring more coaches. That, in turn, will allow the organization to take on more young riders, he said, and to give riders who want to race more chances to travel to events.
Those who follow professional cycling aren’t sure money alone can fix the sport’s problems in this country.
Among the challenges is that it has been a dangerous decade for road cyclists, pushing many enthusiasts into off-road ventures such as mountain biking, cyclocross and gravel-road riding. From 1985 to 2010, bike fatalities steadily declined. But fatalities are rising again, with a stunning 10 percent jump from 2017 to 2018. Explanations for the spike include cellphone usage, larger cars and more congested roads.
“Part of the problem is convincing parents to let their kids ride bikes,” said Phil Gaimon, a Los Angeles-based retired pro-tour racer. He said without more bike lanes and legislation for safer streets, “you’re going to have $100,000 worth of bikes ending up in garages.”
The Waltons, in a statement, said they want to continue their work building bike lanes, but that is not currently a focus of the Rapha Foundation initiative.
Gaimon said he struggles to recommend pro racing to young athletes.
“It’s not unionized; it’s not safe. I never felt like I had any job security,” he said. “The most I ever made was $65,000. Our most talented young athletes are going into the NBA and the NFL, and they should be doing that.”
Then there’s the problem of accessibility. Top-end bikes retail for $10,000 to $12,000. Even entry-level road bikes are hard to find for less than $1,000. That reinforces the image of cycling — referred to by some as “the new golf” — as an elitist sport.
There’s also the fact that stages of the Tour de France go on for hours with just tiny snippets of excitement.
“The people running the grand tours seem to be really only concerned with whose grand tour is the hardest,” Gaimon said. “There’s often no urgency to tune in until the last minute.”
Added Peter Flax, a former editor of Bicycling Magazine who has covered the sport for two decades: “The quality of the coverage feels unchanged for the last 20 years. It’s the same people using the same cliches.”
This year, NBC Sports is making several changes in hopes of increasing interest in the Tour de France. An augmented-reality feature will allow commentators to show possible scenarios. Onboard cameras will show point-of-view shots in real time, and NBC said it will intersperse “commentary on hot-button issues” with play-by-play.
“[The augmented reality feature] is 100 percent what I spend my winters thinking about,” said Joel Felicio, a coordinating producer who has covered the Tour de France for 19 years.
And then there’s Armstrong.
“Lance Armstrong represented the pinnacle of interest here, and when he was brought down, it left this sour taste and this vacuum,” Flax said. “The way he cheated and told lies, it really changed the complexion of the sport — for both fans and young racers.”
When Gaimon tells people that he’s a former pro cyclist, they almost always ask if he doped or knows competitors who did.
“It’s what people are curious about,” he said. “The only time cycling is newsworthy . . . is when it’s for doping or it’s some other wacky scandal like motors on bikes.”
Mottram said he thinks the Walton family grants can help change the narrative by identifying and nurturing the next generation of champions.
“You have to create heroes for fans,” he said.