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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.”

Ferdy Kuebler, 1950 Tour de France champion, dies at 97

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LONDON — Ferdy Kuebler, who came back from injury and the interruption of World War II to win the 1950 Tour de France, has died. He was 97.

The Swiss won an epic battle with French rider Louison Bobet in the 1950 race, and became world champion the following year.

Andre Haefliger, the chief reporter at Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte, said from Kuebler’s home in Switzerland on Friday that he could confirm the death on behalf of Kuebler’s widow, Christina. Kuebler died Thursday at a Zurich hospital. He had been suffering from a cold.

Switzerland’s national cycling association, Swiss Cycling, paid tribute to Kuebler and offered its condolences to his family. “We are taking leave of one of the greatest cycling legends of our time,” it wrote on its website.

For many, his biggest achievement was winning the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, then held on successive days, in both 1951 and 1952.

In an era of marathon races on poor roads, Kuebler also won the 1953 Bordeaux-to-Paris after 570 kilometers (356 miles) and more than 14 hours in the saddle.

Born July 24, 1919, into a poverty-stricken family near Zurich, Kuebler knew as a child that he wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Forced as a teenager to find work to support his family, he got a job delivering bread by bicycle.

“I had to climb the mountain up to four times a day. That was how I trained for my career. I told myself: one day you will be a cyclist,” Kuebler said in a 2003 television documentary.

Later, as a Zurich office worker, Kuebler cycled the 100-kilometer (63-mile) round trip from home.

World War II broke out as he was starting to make his name as a cyclist. Kuebler was drafted into the Swiss army.

“I lost five or six of my best years,” he said.

An accident in 1946 that hospitalized him for two months almost ended his postwar career.

He came back in 1947 and started his first Tour, aged 28. He won the first stage, becoming the first post-war wearer of the famed yellow jersey.

In 1950, third-placed Kuebler took over the race lead when Italy’s team of riders withdrew, accusing spectators of assaulting them.

He finished the 4,773 kilometers (2,983 miles) 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead of Belgium’s Stan Ockers, with Bobet third.

Kuebler chose not to race another Tour until 1954. He finished second, behind Bobet.

After retiring at age 38, Kuebler trained as a ski instructor and worked on the Swiss slopes for 25 winters. In summer he did publicity for the Tour de Suisse and traveled with the race as an official for 35 years.

Kuebler said there was never any other career for him except cycling.

“I always said if I came back to earth – which I hope will happen – I would be a cyclist again,” he said.

New Zealanders join Lance Armstrong in early morning ride

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Several hundred cyclists turned out Tuesday for an early morning ride with Lance Armstrong, who is in New Zealand to film a commercial for a local brewery.

Armstrong issued an invitation by social media to join him cycling around Auckland’s waterfront and a crowd estimated at up to 1,000 turned out.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2013 after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Armstrong told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he was glad to know he still has some support.

New Zealand’s Lion Breweries has confirmed it brought the 45-year-old Texan to New Zealand. In an internal staff email, the brewer said “we are using Lance to tell a cautionary tale called `The Consequence’, which depicts how much you stand to lose when you pursue success at all costs.”

“We wanted to highlight that actions have consequences and we couldn’t think of anyone better to demonstrate that than Lance,” the email said.

Armstrong arrived in Auckland on Sunday from Houston, telling reporters he is in New Zealand on business but has bought his bike and golf clubs.

He took part in a ride later that day with a small group including New Zealand Ironman triathlon champion Cameron Brown.