By Laura Weislo
USA Cycling's chief operating officer Sean Petty is at the Tour of California watching with pride as one of the country's largest races has arguably the strongest field to hit US soil in decades. The popularity of the race has helped grow the sport of cycling in the US, according to Petty.
"The great thing is with the Tour de Georgia, Tour of California and now the Tour of Missouri, a tremendous amount of momentum has been generated by these races. With the teams who are here, and the level of racing, it's pushed the growth across the board," Petty explained. "We have new races in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia - we have more UCI races than ever before."
The ripple effect has made its way from the top level all the way through the USA Cycling ranks, according to Petty. "For our organisation, we've seen growth in membership - we're at 64,000 members, which is an all-time high, and we've sanctioned more than 2500 events last year. The number of events is way up as well, and our collegiate racing has grown a lot."
Petty credits the high profile races like Tour of California for getting more people excited about bike racing. "More people are interested in the sport. With these Tours more people are seeing races. They've seen the Tour de France, and now they're seeing the same guys who race the Tour de France right here, and that's huge. People get to see them in person, and you start to create these heroes [for the fans]."
Having an opportunity to race against the world's top riders is important for the domestic professionals, Petty continued. "For the American riders, it's a good opportunity to ride with these guys and test themselves. They may find they have some work to do, and it's a bit intimidating, but they will know they can get there."
USA Cycling fielded a national team at last year's event, with mainly young riders from the development program, but this year, Petty explained, his organisation had more mercy for the riders.
"We really appreciated the invitation from AEG and Medallist for the national team [last year]. But the quality and calibre of the racing, even this early in the season, is so much harder for our guys. Our guys are just starting their season, so it was a bit much to ask to have them racing at that level in February, when we normally wouldn't ask that."
"Part of it's their schedule and where it fits in their training, and the other part is that the ProTour teams that are here are not taking it easy. With that reality, and the competition for invitations - we appreciated the opportunity last year, but this year we didn't ask.
The growth hasn't exactly translated to women's racing, despite the fact that the Tour of California has included a women's criterium this year. The number of UCI races for women have declined over past years, and this is something Petty would like to see change. "We definitely would like to see more international races for the top women. Kristin [Armstrong], Amber [Neben] and the rest of the top riders spend a lot of time in Europe now, but the big races used to be here. You had the HP challenge, or Ore Ida if you go way back, and even the Coors Classic women's race, and Tour of Texas had a nice women's component."
"It's a question of finance, and being able to shut down roads for additional time. It's up to the organisers - they're all entrepreneurs, essentially. We would certainly like to see more international racing here for the women, especially since our women are so good. They're going to be one of our strongest components on the team [for the Olympics]."