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Cycling Support Falls Flat In The States

AP Photo/Michel Euler

It’s hard to ascribe “blink and you missed it” status to something that goes on for three weeks.

Yet, one of the world’s great sporting events, the Tour de France, ended last week with hardly a notice in the American press beyond NBC, the network that aired the event.

And even NBC restricted its coverage to the weekends, relegating the bulk of its telecasts to a streaming outlet and a cable channel.

In all honesty, I can’t claim to have been personally affected or offended, since I knew nothing about the race or that it had been decided until my doctor mentioned it late last week.

Had I been paying attention, I would have discovered that a Colombian, Egan Bernal, captured the yellow jersey, emblematic of a Tour de France victory, in a very close competition, with first and third places being separated by just a minute and a half at one of the later stages.

Bernal is not only the first South American to win the Tour, but, at 22, he is the youngest winner in the post-World War II era. We may be hearing the name Egan Bernal for many years to come.

The future looks incandescent for Bernal in particular. Too bad the same can’t be said for the sport of cycling in general.

According to a detailed piece from Bloomberg, cycling is suffering, with teams folding, in part because the sport’s framework lends itself to a system of the rich and the poor in the game competing with each other.

And we know how that usually turns out, don’t we?

Three of the top teams in cycling, Team Michelton Scott, Team Bahrain-Merida and Team Ineos, for whom Bernal rides, are owned by major investors, be they companies or individuals with big pockets.

Team Ineos, for example, is backed by a big British petrochemical company, whose CEO, Jim Ratcliffe, is worth nearly $19 billion.

Not surprisingly, that team has won seven Tours with four different riders, including the current winner, Bernal, and last year’s champ, Geraint Thomas.

Meanwhile, a Swiss team’s management told its riders that it won’t be backing them next year, while an Irish team folded last year and two other teams were forced to merge.

To its credit, cycling has cleaned up its act and is no longer ridden – no pun intended -- with competitors who dragged down its image through doping.

The biggest of those names was American Lance Armstrong, who had to walk away from seven Tour titles because of his prodigious cheating.

Purging Armstrong from the rolls may have cleansed cycling’s image, but the result put a serious dent in interest here in the United States, which, in truth, was never all that strong when Armstrong and predecessor Greg LeMond were winning.

But without a clean American at the top of the ranks, cycling has gone back to near irrelevancy. No, the United States is not the be-all end-all of any sport, but just ask soccer how important American awareness is to popularity.

Cycling may not be football here in the States in terms of acceptance, but it deserves more than three weeks in a dimming limelight.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.