Can cycling overcome its credibility issue?

05/04/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 11:55 AM

When the start of the Tour of California returns to the capital next Sunday for the first time in five years, the best cyclist in the United States won’t be pedaling from Sacramento to Thousand Oaks.

Tejay van Garderen, the event’s reigning titlist, is focused on the Tour de France, the pinnacle of the sport. He’ll be in Europe training and racing in build-up events with a singular goal: to peak for the three-week Tour de France in July.

Tall, thin, sharp-witted, mature beyond his 25 years, van Garderen is a husband, a new father and the leader of the international BMC team, registered in Santa Rosa.

Until 2012, when he finished fifth in the Tour de France, van Garderen was an upstart rider with strong lungs, piston-like legs and a sizable pedigree of junior national titles.

Now, all has changed. He has arrived at the top of a global sport that has a credibility issue. Cycling’s reputation has crumbled like a massive crash in a finishing sprint.

Van Garderen and a few other young American cyclists have a dubious responsibility they’d rather not have: While they’re pedaling, they carry the burden of a sport seeking to restore its image from the lingering mess of performance-enhancing drugs.

Like young stars in other sports, cycling’s popularity with the mainstream public in the United States is only healthy when its top athletes win at the highest levels. And when they’re not caught doping.

“I can just keep riding clean and racing to the best of my abilities,” van Garderen said. “You know, it’s up to the fans whether they want to believe. There’s not really much I can do to prove anything.”

Van Garderen, however, can’t carry the sport by himself. Many sponsors have left. Long-tenured teams with hefty budgets have folded. Several riders, some with significant career victories, couldn’t find work this season and faded without fanfare. A slew of other riders, many former spokesmen for clean riding, particularly their own, have confessed to doping.

In its eight editions, the Tour of California has had six different winners. Floyd Landis, titlist in 2006, the tour’s inaugural year, is a confessed doper. Levi Leipheimer, who claimed the event three straight times, is a confessed doper. Michael Rogers, the Australian three-time world time-trial titlist who won the event in 2012 and was second overall last year, was recently reinstated after a provisional positive test late last season in Japan.

As a result, after more than 30 years of writing about the beauty, athleticism and complexities of a sport whose stadiums can stretch around a city, across a state or through several countries, I’m increasingly conflicted.

I don’t know if I trust cycling anymore. Does cycling deserve anyone’s trust?

Van Garderen’s talents extend past his wiry frame and superior endurance. Road cycling is sometimes described as an expansive, fast-moving chessboard. The Washington-born van Garderen is an emerging master.

Teammate Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, the 2012 world road titlist, said van Garderen “is always riding smart, watching the other team leaders and using his teammates to his best advantage.”

Colorado rider Craig Lewis, a former teammate who recently retired, likewise praised van Garderen: “He’s a rider with the perfect combination of being prepared and having the talent. Most of us are lucky to have just one of those things.”

Lucas Euser of Napa, who rides for the UnitedHealthcare team based in Oakland, has finished the Tour of California five times and is scheduled to compete this year. He’s outgoing and easy to like. He was an early adapter to social media.

“We have to look at the future and how this sport is going to survive,” said 30-year-old Euser. “We have to engage fans. I may not win a lot of races, but I know cycling is a public-relations sport. When we meet the public or go to schools, we always encourage everyone to ride bikes. We educate them about cycling’s benefits.”

Conversely, at least two former pro riders have in recent months chastised the sport. They’ve used social media to express their disdain for one component of a recent phenomenon in cycling – gran fondos (Italian for “big rides.”)

Many current and former riders – solicited consultants and some confessed dopers – promote themselves, give their names to the charity events and ride with the participants.

Kurt Stockton, a retired former national road champion who manages a women’s team and is a race organizer, questioned on Facebook why lucrative gran fondo organizers have confessed dopers involved with their events.

George Mount, who won more than 200 races and was a pioneer among Americans racing in Europe in the mid-1970s, was more adamant.

“Shame on the people putting on this Dopers’ Fondo in Napa,” Mount posted on Facebook about a recent gran fondo. “Shame on the attendees, and shame on the dopers still making money off the sport of cycling.”

“It’s not enough to ruin the careers of all the riders they beat when they were doping. They still are taking money and making claims about their shameful careers. Shame on the sponsors, too. They will be called out on this.”

Lance Armstrong greatly enhanced cycling’s media and public prominence. But his career debacle has now reached media saturation.

Armstrong’s rise and fall has provided great fodder for opportunistic journalists to empty their notebooks in book form and reap vast movie royalties. It’s also perhaps irrevocably deflated the sport’s image.

“For the current state of the sport and the riders who are in it now, we are not paying much attention,” Euser said. “Frankly, the people of my generation don’t care for him that much. The stories are behind us, and we’ve heard them over and over again.

“For me, I understand these guys; they have their own sets of problems. They are going to do what they do. If they need to get it out writing a book, they’re going to write a book.”

Like Armstrong early in his career, van Garderen is articulate and has plenty to say.

A few years ago at the opening Tour of California press conference in South Lake Tahoe, van Garderen scolded the media. He was the youngest rider on the dais. He took the microphone at one point and not-so-subtly reminded reporters Leipheimer is from Montana, not Santa Rosa as often cited.

Last August, in the closing news conference for the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, which van Garderen won, he was outspoken again. He called out Christian Vande Velde, a fan favorite, the 2012 race titlist and also a confessed doper. The Illinois native had just finished the final American race of a long career that included placing fourth in the Tour de France.

When asked how he felt, Vande Velde said, “Maybe I should have gone a little harder in the time trial, but I just didn’t think I was going that well.”

Van Garderen then turned, looked directly at Vande Velde, 12 years his senior, and said: “Christian, why don’t you have more confidence? Didn’t you finish fourth in the Tour de France, dude?”

Vande Velde, responding over the audience’s uncomfortable laughter, sheepishly said, “You don’t know what it’s like being me.”

Brashness helps define successful cyclists and van Garderen has plenty. It’s an attractive balance of confidence and bravado.

Still, when the topic is the future of cycling, van Garderen’s opinion is more diplomatic than bold.

“We are already open to out-of-competition testing, biological passports and all this stuff, so I hope for fans that’s enough. I’m not sure what else I can do other than give my word that I will never disappoint.”

Van Garderen speaks convincingly.

So did all the others.

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