Elite cycling spotlight finally shines on North America
The Tour de France dominates the landscape of professional cycling, a three-week behemoth that draws the attention of fans worldwide.
Now that it's over, the spotlight is shifting to North America.
The Tour of Utah starts Monday and kicks off an unprecedented run of races that include the Tour of Alberta and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. It ends in September with the return of the world championships to the United States for the first time since 1986.
''I don't know, outside of the cycling community, that people understand the magnitude of the fact that the world championships are going to be on American soil. That's a big deal,'' said Jenn Andrs, executive director of the Tour of Utah. ''It's really a testament to the interest and popularity we're seeing of cycling.''
The Tour of Utah once attracted only cyclists based in the U.S. Now some of the top teams on the WorldTour head to what is billed as ''America's Toughest Stage Race,'' where they are greeted by crowds approaching 300,000 over the course of the weeklong event.
The USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, which begins Aug. 17, has attracted past Tour de France winners such as Cadel Evans for seven stages through the Rocky Mountains. The Tour of Alberta has attracted such stars as Rohan Dennis and Peter Sagan in its short history.
''It shows how far the sport has come, and how attractive it is, both from participation as well as for host communities and sponsors,'' said Chris Aronhalt, a managing partner for Medalist Sports, the company that helps stage nearly all major races in North America. ''Not since, boy, even the last world championships in the U.S. in 1986 in Colorado Springs have all the eyes swung from the Tour de France to the United States.''
One of the big reasons high-level races have struggled to take root in the U.S. - the Coors Classic, Tour of Missouri and Tour DuPont have all expired over the years - is the challenge in attracting top riders from Europe. It's an expensive and labor-intensive proposition for teams, often on shaky financial footing, to bring their entire operations to another continent.
But the string of North American races on tap helps make it a worthwhile endeavor. Rather than cross the pond for one race, they can establish a temporary base and compete in two or three - or more - as well as get their riders ready for the world championships.
While the worlds, taking place in Richmond, Virginia, are mostly for national teams, there is an element of prestige for teams having their riders compete. And there is the team time trial, which involves trade teams such as Team Sky or BMC Racing Team.
The Tour of Alberta has included a team trial in its event this year specifically to act as a tuneup for those teams competing in Richmond.
''The important thing is the audience in America has gotten much bigger and more educated,'' said Jim Ochowicz, who runs the BMC team. ''I think the fact they understand the sport a little better now, the turnout for all these events is going to be massive.''
Officials from the Richmond organizing committee expect 450,000 onsite spectators over the course of the nine-day event, many of them traveling from other nations.
The Tour of Utah will be carried live on the Fox Sports family of networks this year, and the USA Pro Challenge will be back on NBC Sports. Its sister station, Universal Sports, will carry the world championships.
''We have races that are shown live in over 200 countries and territories, and that's on par with some of the traditional races in Europe,'' Aronhalt said. ''These events haven't been around for a hundred years, but that's obviously significant.''
The sport of cycling remains European-centric. The Vuelta a Espana - the third of the three Grand Tours - still lures top riders in August and early September. But increasingly, the stage races offered in North America have provided a tantalizing alternative for riders who may be weary after three weeks of racing around France.
''We continue to see our spectator base grow every year, and we are incredibly lucky with the partners we have,'' Andrs said. ''The health and growth of the Tour of Utah and our sister stage races in California and Colorado, it's great for the sport and it's great for us.''