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USA Cycling at crossroads as Rio Olympics approaches

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Kristin Armstrong could win her third straight Olympic gold medal in Rio. The women’s pursuit team is favored to capture gold. Several Americans could land on the BMX podium.

Will anybody in the U.S. notice? Or even care?

That is perhaps the biggest challenge facing USA Cycling as the Rio Games arrive. One of the nation’s most popular participatory sports is dealing with aging athletes, declining membership and a vast disconnect between amateur riders and their elite counterparts.

It has left USA Cycling officials to wonder just where they stand in the sport’s structure.
“There is no doubt we need to adapt as an organization,” agreed Derek Bouchard-Hall, who took over as the governing body’s CEO last year after a successful career in private business.

To usher the organization into the future, Bouchard-Hall spent several months examining USA Cycling’s shortcomings, then came up with a three-prong approach to shake things up.

First, he is championing a renewed emphasis on amateur cycling, rather than funneling so much of USA Cycling’s resources to elite athletes. The idea is that by fostering growth at the grassroots level, the sport in the U.S. will become more robust in the long-term.

Second, he wants to broaden the coverage of USA Cycling to encompass not just racers but the everyday cyclist, those who ride in mass events such as RAGBRAI — the bike ride across Iowa taking place this week — and Gran Fondos, the pseudo-races that have become all the rage.

Finally, he wants an organization that is more open, transparent and willing to adjust to feedback, a customer-focused approach that stems from his previous job with bike retailer Wiggle.

That’s not to say USA Cycling is abandoning elite athletes. Instead, Bouchard-Hall believes the amateur cyclist and elite cyclist go hand-in-hand, the growth of one helping the other.

“People say, ‘Where do you put your efforts, the amateurs or the elite?’ The answer is both,” he explained. “This is a balance that all national governing bodies in America face.”

The Rio Olympics may offer an opportunity to kick-start his plan.

Sure, broadcaster NBC will focus on more glamorous sports such as gymnastics and swimming, the traditional Olympic sports that push the public needle. But whether they are mere highlights of Armstrong in the time trial or Connor Fields on the BMX track, or online streams of cycling events throughout the Olympic program, the visibility of the Summer Games is priceless.

That is crucial for USA Cycling, which has always struggled to raise money.

Part of its support comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and is based on success at world championships and other major competitions. But according to recent USOC tax returns, sports such as shooting, rowing and sailing often receive more money than cycling.

“Where we suffer is our federation doesn’t have the funds,” said Sarah Hammer, who anchors the women’s pursuit team. “Something like swimming, they can generate their own through sponsors.”

USA Cycling has rarely had that ability, even when Lance Armstrong was in the spotlight.

Some worry things could get even tighter for elite athletes if Bouchard-Hall redirects some of their scant funding to support the growth of grassroots cycling. But he quickly dispels that notion, pointing toward fundraising and sponsorship plans to help fill those coffers.

More importantly, Bouchard-Hall said, people should understand that his plan to revitalize USA Cycling is a long-term approach that will eventually benefit elite athletes, too.

By growing the sport at the local level, Bouchard-Hall hopes USA Cycling’s slow membership decline will turn around. More young people will pick up cycling, reversing a trend toward an aging demographic. And some day, the best of those athletes will advance far enough in the sport that they will compete at world championships and the Olympics.

“We’re not even participating in track cycling in some of disciplines, which is unfortunate,” Bouchard-Hall said. “We believe we’re a really important part of the racing ecosystem, but we also believe it’s the right thing to do to foster participation at all levels.”

USA Cycling received a small bump four years ago from the London Games, where it won four cycling medals — fifth-most of any nation. But Bouchard-Hall hopes for a bigger return from the Rio Games, where the time zone will make tuning in easier for American fans.

The difficulty lies in trying to build on the visibility.

“We’re not a sport that generates a lot of attention without big megastars and big money,” Bouchard-Hall said. “When we had Lance, we got a lot of attention, cycling got a lot of publicity. But our Olympians, as great as those stories are within the sport — and people who follow the sport do love them — they don’t translate well outside of them. What we need to do is get out the stories and that’s a difficult challenge.”

But it’s also a unique opportunity. The Olympics are a once-every-four-years chance to help Bouchard-Hall jumpstart his vision for the future of USA Cycling.

“You have to be able to change as an organization when everything around you is changing,” said Mark Gullickson, the long-tenured director of USA Cycling’s mountain bike program.

“I think Derek was faced with some really tough challenges,” Gullickson said, “and we’re still in the early phases of where you’re headed. But I think we’re making changes that we need to make if you really want to change the direction of the program to meet the needs of the members.”

2019 Tour will honor 1st victory of 5-time champion Merckx

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BRUSSELS (AP) The start of the 2019 Tour de France will be all about honoring Eddy Merckx in his hometown of Brussels.

Merckx, known as “The Cannibal” for his ferocious taste for victory, won the first of his five Tours in 1969. Half a century later, the Belgian great still sees it as one of the major accomplishments for a cyclist generally considered to be the greatest ever.

“I wore the yellow jersey 96 times. It is the best memory of my career. It still gives me goosebumps,” Merckx said during Tuesday’s presentation of the Grand Depart – the opening weekend of the three-week Tour.

Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages and is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times. French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are the others.

Tour organizers said it will be the second time the race will set off from the Belgian capital, which hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958.

The 2019 race will also mark 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.

When it comes to the first two stages on July 6-7, the iconic Wall of Geraardsbergen climb should take center stage.

The 192-kilometer (119-mile) first stage of the Tour will have the Wall, for decades the toughest climb in the Ronde of Flanders classic. The Wall will come early but the stage, which makes a big loop south of Brussels, is still set up for a sprint finish close to the royal palace.

It will also have its stretch of famed Flemish cobblestones and will pass through the hometown of soccer player Eden Hazard.

The second stage will be a 28-kilometer team time trial through the Belgian capital along its wide-open boulevards. The riders will also pass by St. Pieters-Woluwe in suburban Brussels, where Merckx lived as a child and where he got to pull on his first yellow jersey.

From Brussels, it is an easy trek south into nearby France for the rest of the race.

Peter Sagan wins prelude to Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Three-time world road racing champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia made an outstanding start to the 2018 cycling season Sunday when he won the People’s Choice Classic, a prelude to the first World Tour event of the season, the Tour Down Under.

Sagan beat star sprinters Andre Greipel of Germany and Caleb Ewan of Australia in a bunch sprint to win the 50.6 kilometer (31.4 mile) race over 22 laps of a street course in central Adelaide.

The win means Sagan will wear the tour leader’s ocher jersey in the first stage of the six stage Tour Down Under on Tuesday. Sunday’s race does not count toward general classification.

Ewan won the race in each of the past two years and Greipel is the only three-time winner. The 132-strong field that lined up for the race Sunday included seven former winners.