Lance Armstrong’s return to professional bike racing has had a direct impact on the number of cyclists registering with USA Cycling in 2009. The number of license holders is expected to reach an all time high of 66,600 members by the end of this year, according to Andrea Smith, USA Cycling's director of communications.
USA Cycling statistics show a steady increase in the number of licenses issued between 2002 and 2008 that can be directly related to Armstrong's popularity during and after his seven Tour de France victories. “There is no way to say exactly why we have had such an increase, but common sense lets us figure that one of those factors is certainly Lance Armstrong,” Smith told Cyclingnews.
By the end of the year, USA Cycling expects to see a 5.62 per cent increase in memberships over the 63,273 registered members last year. Of the 66,600 expected total, 45,000 memberships come from the disciplines of road, cyclo-cross and track, while the remaining figure includes mountain bikers, coaches and officials.
Armstrong retired from professional bike racing in 2005 after seven successive Tour de France victories (1999-2005) with the former US Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams. He returned to the pro peloton with Astana in January, beginning his comeback with Australia’s Tour Down Under and the North America’s Tour of California in February. He went on place 12th in the Giro d’ Italia in May and third in the Tour de France in July.
The membership increase following Armstrong’s comeback in January is similar to a membership spike during the peak of Armstrong’s popularity. USA Cycling reports that the most significant increases occurred between 2004-2005 and again in 2006, the year following his retirement.
"Certainly the ‘Lance effect’ has been a factor," Smith said. "One thing that we noticed is that during his last couple years of racing we were growing at a rate of about five per cent per year. That is five per cent more members than the year before."
Further analysis shows that the number memberships continued to increase during Armstrong’s retirement, however, the rate of change dropped from five per cent to three per cent in 2007 and 2008.
"When he retired we did continue to grow, but at a slightly lower rate of three to 3.3 per cent in 2007," Smith said. "Now that Lance is back we are up to over five per cent again. We are always appreciative of that."
"It’s like a momentum that Lance has created around his success and comeback from adversity and we are so happy to be apart of it, it’s been great for us."
However the statistics show a significant decrease in USA Cycling memberships between the years 1999-2002. According to Smith, this is explained by the loss of several local districts during those years. "There is some direct correlation between the fact that somewhere in early 2000, we lost some organizations and then slowly they have been rejoining under the USA Cycling banner. But the organization is stronger in the growth in popularity of road cycling."
Other factors that contribute the steady growth of USA Cycling license holders include proactive outreach and education such as increased mainstream media relations and advertising. "We are constrained by budget in these areas so a lot of the advertising we are able to gain is pro bono, remnant space donated to us," Smith said. "We are making an effort to do small things and make small strides and we like to think those have made some of the difference."
Furthermore, the US has continued to produce International Cycling Union (UCI) ProTour ranked teams like Garmin-Slipstream, Columbia-HTC and Armstrong’s newly formed RadioShack outfit. The performances of US riders including three-time Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, Tour de France overall contender Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie and 2009 time trial World Champion Kristin Armstrong have served to further bolster the nation's standing in the cycling world.
Keep the momentum rolling
For many, Armstrong, 38, has become a synonym for inspiration, both in terms of winning his battle against cancer and his subsequent sporting return to win seven consecutive Tours de France. Not only has Armstrong made a comeback to cycling, he continues to support the fight against cancer as the founder of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. At the conclusion of this year's Tour of California, Armstrong noted the importance that athlete-stories have in keeping momentum and popularity of cycling growing.
"Sports need people," said Armstrong. "It's important to have those stories so people pay attention. As teams and people involve in the sport, you gotta keep that going. If you don't have the athletes who have the story and carry the personality, the sport will go away. It’s our job to develop young guys, riders who can keep people interested in cycling and interested in their stories for whatever reason. People look at my story and you can say they’re interested because he’s a strong cyclist or because he’s a cancer survivor."
"Anytime you create a movement, it has to begin with a person," he continued. "Sports are no different. If you look at cycling and the characters and the personalities we've had in American cycling over the years, the sport has embedded and flowed with that. Similar to Tiger Woods and golf, Michael Jordan and basketball or Michael Schumacher and formula one racing. When you think of these sports, you think of these people."
Smith acknowledged the need to cultivate young cycling talent in order to capitalize from the momentum that Armstrong’s story has created in American cycling. The US has seen a rise in specific Under 23 programs like Armstrong’s Trek-Livestrong, Land Rover-Orbea-Benefiting the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Garmin-Slipstream. Many of the continental teams registered in the US also support development programs by signing Under 23 cyclists to their rosters.
"It’s hard to ever repeat Lance’s story but, it’s our job to continue inundating the cycling world with great American talent, developing young racers and putting them in a position to succeed and become that next generation."
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