I was in high school when I started to follow professional cycling. Lance Armstrong was winning the Tour de France and I remember following live text updates of Tom Boonen's first Tour of Flanders win, sitting on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen, barely knowing the names on the screen but captivated by the action. I think half the reason cycling was so enthralling back in those early days was how foreign it was. The roads, hills, culture, personalities, ways of doing things... they were all vastly different from anything I was accustomed to. Every race was part sport, part cultural learning, and it was the latter that made it so intriguing.
Of course, I had heard of the old Tour DuPont and Coors Classic, the two stage races that were our contribution to the sport. Racing was not exclusively European, but those races, the pride of the United States, were relegated to the past years ago. Our brief flurry of affection with racing as a nation faded as the Seven-Eleven and Motorola teams came and went, leaving Europe as the undisputed focus of cycling's collective attention. Races came and went and the Tour of Georgia garnered attention for a few years before succumbing to the fiscal pressures that haunt our sport. There was a stage race in Missouri, but it never truly gained a foothold in the sport's history books before it died. Even when these races were in their prime, they seemed a sideshow, a playground for the greats of American cycling but rarely a target for the brightest of stars in the sport.
And so it continued for years. The Tour of California? Just a training race in February despite the presence of Pro Tour teams. Tour of Utah? That's just for domestic Pro Continental and Continental teams. At least, that was the case until a few years ago.
In the movie "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner's character hears a voice that whispers "If you build it, they will come." He heeds the urging and builds a baseball field in his corn fields, trusting that with time he will benefit from what seemed a ruinous move. One cannot help but see the parallels in the strategy of USA Cycling and American promoters. First was the bold decision to move California to May, putting it in competition with the Giro d'Italia. Instead of killing the race, the precocious move helped elevate the race, drawing a fitter, more motivated peloton. Then came the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, at first seen as an attempt to revive the Coors Classic but now forging its own identity. With growth in the Tour of Utah in the past years, there are now three major stage races in the United States with UCI classifications of 2.1 or above.
From a statistical viewpoint, the growth has been impressive and global participation in U.S. stage races is unprecedented. There were five World Tour teams at Utah this year, seven in Colorado for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and eight in town for California. And unlike Georgia and Missouri, whose sponsorship always seemed tenuous, these races appear here to stay. Durable sponsorship agreements have been in place for years now and the races' fan base continues to deepen. But does a mere presence of teams cement this as the golden age of American stage races?
The reason we look back at the Coors Classic with such fondness is because it grew beyond simply being an American race for American racers, something Missouri in particular had trouble with in its short lifespan. California, too, suffered from this even as it attracted a bevy of Pro Tour teams in its early years. But in 1986, Bernard Hinault - by then a five time Tour de France champion - won the Coors Classic. The next year, celebrated Mexican climber Rául Alcalá won. Though the race would be held for the last time in 1988, victories by overseas greats were what helped cement the Classic in the annals of cycling history.
Though the riders who have animated the prior editions of the Tour of California, Tour of Utah, and USA Pro Cycling Challenge have high profile ones, including top-5 finishers at the Tour of France, they have had one characteristic in common, an attribute which has to some extent stifled the growth in these races' reputations. Christian Vande Velde, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson, Chris Horner, and Tejay van Garderen are all American. The big hitters did not come to the United States, and when they did, it was more for post-Tour de France appearance fees and training than to fight for victory. Does anybody remember what Cadel Evans did in the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, or what Chris Froome did this year in the same race? In fairness, May and August are not when the strongest stage racers are going to be at the zenith of their powers, at least for those not aiming for the Giro d'Italia. June is already chock-full of major stage races with the Criterium Dauphine and Tour de Suisse and prior months are full too. Being an upstart in a sport so dominated by tradition is no easy feat.
But as the years pass - and as more American sponsorship dollars enter the top level of the sport - the biggest names in the sport are starting to pay these races more attention. Last year, Robert Gesink was the
first second foreign rider on a World Tour team to win the Tour of California. This year, Michael Rogers made a strong challenge for the overall classification in California. Michael Matthews, Greg Van Avermaet, Jens Voigt, Leopold König, and Peter Sagan have won stages in the United States this year alone, about as strong an advertisement for mondialization of the sport as you can find.
It seems axiomatic in this sport of ours to assume that the best races must attract contenders from a wide range of backgrounds. The Tour de France has in recent years seen winners from Spain, Australia, and Great Britain. But once we look past the brightest shining event in the sport, things become more nationalistic. For as much as we love the Giro d'Italia, it is dominated by Italian riders, as the Tour de Suisse is by Swiss riders and Paris-Nice is by Frenchmen and brethren from the nearby low countries. Is it so bad, then, that stage races in California, Utah, and Colorado are so dominated - at least on the general classification - by riders like Tejay van Garderen? With the prospects for great American stage racers getting stronger as van Garderen and Andrew Talansky develop, is having primarily them focusing on these races enough to build their credibility? Do we need Alberto Contador or Vincenzo Nibali to win stateside to elevate our races? Would that change the nature of our races or their status in the overall scheme of things? Somehow, it seems doubtful. Tradition changes ever so slowly and growth to the point where riders who have placed top five in the Tour de France will target these races as goals of their own is growth on its own. And does this sport truly need yet another stage race trying to emulate the Criterium Dauphine?
Paris-Nice has shorter climbs and crosswinds, the Dauphine has its longer alpine passes and previews of the Tour de France, Tirreno-Adriatico has Italian drama, and the Vuelta Cyclista al País Vasco has punchy climbs. Every race has something unique, a new draw for us. Even among the grand tours there is variation in the character of routes and races, and that is what draws us to them. The differences, though seemingly small on the surface, can be as distinct as the difference between Flanders and Roubaix. This variation is part of what makes American stage races - or the ones that exist now - unique. Both Utah and Colorado are at altitude, regularly going over peaks higher than we see in European races. All three races treat us to mountain after mountain, climbs on climbs on climbs, even on the flatter days. The racing is different, both because of the altitude and the logistical problems that prevent organizers from hosting all the summit finishes they may want to.
These races exist to showcase the rugged beauty of the United States, and perhaps this is why the Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge have been so successful - even less traditionally committed fans can jump at an excuse to travel to the mountains. The natural draw of these states is evident in the crowds that pack the sides of the roads on climb after climb. And though we may bemoan the absence of narrow, twisting climbs like the Passo Stelvio as we stare at yet another mild-mannered highway winding its way over a pass, we still tune in for the rugged scenery. We can't help ourselves.
This is perhaps why these races seem so durable - they offer something we have not yet had in the sport, and that helps ensure they will retain attention as the years progress. Though organizers and promoters will always have lofty ambitions, California, Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling challenge are not here to displace traditional European races. That is the beauty of these races. America will never host a grand tour or compete with France and Italy and Spain for the premier focus for racers and teams, nor should it. Instead, we have our own unique races that are already cementing themselves in the racing calendar as events with their own distinctive draws. American stage racing is back and bigger than it has ever been. This is the beginning of its golden age.