Armstrong raises sport’s profile at home
By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nine years ago, most ordinaryAmericans would have asked “Lance who?” if you had mentionedLance Armstrong.
Today, even those who do not normally follow cycling knowhe survived cancer, won the Tour de France six times andlaunched a craze with his yellow LiveStrong wristbands.
Often referred to just as “Lance,” Armstrong ranked 15th onForbes Magazine’s list of the top 100 most powerful celebritiesthis year. He appears as comfortable on the red carpetarm-in-arm with rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow as he is onhis bicycle.
Armstrong — known for being as obsessive about his biketraining as he is about his many sponsor obligations andcancer-awareness efforts — made history last year with hissixth straight win at the Tour de France and hopes for one morebefore he retires after this year’s race, which starts onSaturday.
He has raised more than $50 million and sparked aninternational phenomenon over the past year with his LiveStrongwristbands; helped to revitalise the U.S. cycling world andleft a mark on the millions of cancer survivors in the UnitedStates.
Though Americans are nothing like cycling-mad Europeans,interest in cycle racing has grown with Armstrong’s success –at least during the three weeks of the Tour de France everyyear.
“Lance has brought about such a greater awareness of thesport,” said Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Cycling.
“The sport of cycling has enjoyed much more attention sinceLance’s reign,” he said.
Many fans admit they understand little of the intricaciesof road racing but they tune in to the television to watch theTour. There is even a new “Tour de France for Dummies” book outto help demystify the sport.
More Americans are getting into racing. According to USACycling, the number of registered road racers has risen to some31,300 from around 28,300 in 1999, when Armstrong first won theTour de France.
“A lot of other Americans have raised their game too andare consistently getting on the podium or winning major races,”said Lee. “It’s all part of Lance’s legacy — the number ofriders and the quality of riders.
“Greg LeMond opened the door for American cyclists inEurope in the ’80s,” said Lee, referring to the only otherAmerican to win a Tour de France. “Since LeMond opened thatdoor, Lance has blown it off its hinges and everyone else isgoing through now.”
The 33-year-old Armstrong, who in 1996 was diagnosed withtesticular cancer that spread to his brain and lungs, has alsogiven hope to millions of Americans with cancer.
“Lance’s extraordinary triumphs on the bike are well knownbut his contributions will never be limited to that successalone,” said Michelle Milford, spokeswoman for the LanceArmstrong Foundation.
“He has essentially changed the way an entire generation ofpeople regard a cancer diagnosis and provided inspiration for acountless number of people who are faced with one.”
Armstrong set up the foundation in 1997 to help cancerpatients deal with their disease, cope with fear and see thatcancer did not have to be a death sentence.
The foundation has taken off, helped by Armstrong’s highprofile and desire to improve awareness about cancer.
Its most successful effort has been the sale of yellow,silicone wristbands impressed with Armstrong’s motto –”LiveStrong.”
Originally, Nike sponsored the bracelets in 2004 tohighlight Armstrong’s attempt to win six Tour de France races.The company donated five million bracelets, to be sold at $1apiece, and added $1 million as a gift to the foundation toraise a total of $6 million.
Instead, the bracelets became a international craze andmore than 50 million have been sold. They have sparked a hugemarket for spinoff bracelets in all colors for all sorts ofcauses.
“He brought recognition to the fact that even with a veryadvanced type of cancer you can survive,” said Harmon Eyre,chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.
“Lance has become a national, and an international,rallying point around survivorship,” he said. “He has evenbegun to impact the U.S. government. He has the governmentlooking at survivorship.
“When a cancer patient sees someone like Lance Armstrong, Ipersonally believe it sends a real signal of hope to the cancerpatient and tends to diminish the fear…that the cancer mightcome back,” Eyre said.