When Lance Armstrong celebrated his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory in late July, armchair cyclists and cancer survivors across America cheered.
When he was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s, the brash Texan was told he might never ride his racing road bike again. So it was fitting when he stood in the center of the Champs-Elysees in Paris after the 92nd annual Tour concluded and remarked, “To end my career with this podium is perfect.”
“Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France has brought many mainstream folks into the sport of cycling who might not have given it much consideration,” said Tom Martin, owner of The Bike Rack in Jackson. “From the drama of Lance’s survival with cancer to the drama of competing in cycling’s most demanding event, people became enthralled.”
Armstrong’s feat of becoming the most successful Tour rider in its 102-year history required 150 days on a bike, traipsing cross country some 120 miles a day in rain and intense heat, climbing the highest mountains and cycling down into windswept valleys at more than 30 miles per hour-and beating 200 other riders.
“Most cyclists realize they can’t do what those guys did, but they realize what cycling can do for their health,” said Martin. “That’s why they come in.”
Four years after Armstrong signed a 10-year deal with Trek, he wanted a faster bike, so Trek produced the Madone. He wanted a lighter bike in 2004 and Trek answered with the Madone SL. This year, Armstrong rode the Trek Madone SSLx, the bike company’s lightest and stiffest road bike.
Variations of Armstrong’s pure stock Trek OCLV carbon fiber bike, which retails for $7,000 to $10,000, start at $2,200.
“Lance has definitely boosted the biking industry,” said Drew Carter, owner of Hattiesburg Bicycle Center, who recently sold two $8,000 bikes. “His involvement with Trek has not only helped Trek dealers, but it has made all the other bike companies step up to the plate and produce better bikes.”
Except for the winter months of January and February, cyclist sales are brisk year-round, with the most profitable month for The Bike Rack — surprise! — in September.
“We probably saw the biggest increase — about 10% — in bike sales during the Tour de France last year, because Lance was going for win No. 6, breaking all-time records,” said Martin. “This year, sales didn’t bump up any more than that.”
Spring remains the busiest selling season for Hattiesburg Bicycle Center, “I guess because people have been cooped up all winter and when things start to bloom and the grass turns green again, they want to get outside on a bike. Used to be Christmas was the busiest time of year, but not so much anymore,” said Carter, who reports a 10% to 15% increase during the Tour de France when America has a strong team.
Mike Murphey, owner of The Bicycle Shop in Starkville, said he wasn’t certain if the Tour de France affected business at all.
“There’s been a gradual increase in road cycling over the years since Armstrong has been winning the Tour de France,” he said. “He certainly bears credit for some of that. But if you look at business during the Tour itself, shops don’t historically see a surge of people coming in and buying bikes because they got fired up watching him in the Tour.”
The Tour has been attributed to a rise in the number of recreational cyclists upgrading to road bikes. Most customers want bikes repaired that have been hanging in the garage or sitting in the attic for several years.
“We also get injured or bored runners looking for a substitute activity,” said Carter. “And cycling is a good alternative.”
At the age of 33, Armstrong is a retiree, and will watch from the sidelines when the 23-day race heats up again in 2006. Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich are two riders considered the most likely to win the title in the first year of the post-Armstrong era. This summer, Armstrong finished 4:40 clear of Basso and 6:21 ahead of Ullrich, who lagged behind Armstrong by only 61 seconds in 2003.
“There’s a big question mark across the industry about the amount of media attention next year’s Tour de France will receive in the U.S.,” said Martin. “In Europe, it’s a different matter because it’s one of the biggest sporting events in the world. If we can keep several strong American cyclists in the race, interest will remain high.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.