June 29 – When the pack crosses the finish line on the Champs-Elysees on July 23,a new Tour de France champion will wear the traditional yellow shirt. But with seven-time defending champion Lance Armstrong now retired,will Americans care?
The Outdoor Life Network is banking that American interest won’t dip too much even without Armstrong competing. For the sixth year,the cable channel is broadcasting the Tour,which begins Saturday in Strasbourg,France.
Armstrong’s dominating Tour de France performances after beating cancer drew record numbers of Americans to watch the race,and they won’t turn away just because Armstrong retired,said Phil Liggett,an OLN commentator covering his 32nd Tour.
There is a “curiosity value,” Liggett said. “What happens after Lance leaves the race alone?”
Added Paul Sherwen,OLN commentator and seven-time Tour competitor: “There are six or seven people who have a serious chance to win,” so “interest in the Tour de France is still as big even without Lance.”
Nine American riders will compete,and three have a realistic chance at doing well – George Hincapie,Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis,said Neal Rogers,senior writer at Velo News,a cycling magazine based in Boulder,Colo.
If they’re in the hunt,Americans will watch,Rogers said.
Liggett said that Landis is formidable. But the question remains if he has the “killer attitude.” Though he’s fiercely competitive when he gets on the bike,he is friendly,humble and lacks the egocentric selfishness of a champion,Liggett added.
The American riders will contend with Armstrong’s former rivals,Italy’s Ivan Basso and Germany’s Jan Ullrich,who experts predict will dominate in Armstrong’s absence.
“It will be the closest finish since 1989,” said Liggett. That year American cycling legend Greg LeMond won by just 8 seconds,the narrowest margin in Tour history.
The winner is usually determined in the mountains after the second time trial on day seven,Liggett said. Basso has predicted he will be trailing Ullrich by a minute going into the first big mountain,so he needs to “climb like an angel,” if he expects to win,Liggett said.
Basso is attempting something Armstrong never accomplished: winning the Tour after winning the Giro d’Italia on May 28. Basso’s energy and will might be depleted,Liggett said,while Ullrich isn’t in the best shape because enjoys the “pork fries” too much during winter.
It’s going to be “a real free-for-all in three days of racing through the Alps,” Liggett added.
Armstrong dominated the stages in the Alps,shutting out the competition without the help of his team,but no rider this year can ride that kind of race,Liggett said. It will be a more psychological race,where riders will keep a close watch on each other,adjusting their efforts to match the competitors.
The French are just happy not to have Armstrong in the race,he added.
Though he will not be riding or commenting live at this year’s Tour,Armstrong still will be involved in the broadcast through taped OLN segments called “Lance On.”
Daily coverage begins Saturday at 8:30 a.m. EST on OLN. CBS picks up coverage on three Sundays: on July 9,at 5 pm.; July 16,at 1 p.m.; and the final day,July 23,at 5 p.m.