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Cycling After Armstrong

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

A Belgian rider, Tom Boonen, won today's third stage of the Tour de France, but an American still holds the lead overall, David Zabriskie. He's two seconds ahead of the most well-known cyclist from the US, Lance Armstrong. Still, Armstrong's dominance has made it hard for other US riders to elbow into the spotlight. But when the six-time Tour de France winner retires, several young Americans have hopes to take his place. Eric Niiler has this report.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

Armstrong hasn't won any races this year, but his performance on Saturday left no doubt as to his form. The Texan passed his chief rival, German Jan Ullrich, in a flash. Here's the action as called by Outdoor Life Network's Phil Liggett.

(Soundbite of Tour de France)

Mr. PHIL LIGGETT (Outdoor Life Network): Armstrong has galloped across a gap of almost one minute and he could be putting Jan Ullrich out of the tour on day number one. This is unthinkable.

NIILER: Armstrong likely won't make anymore big moves until the race moves to the Alps next week. But the real surprise is a 26-year-old from Salt Lake City, David Zabriskie, who rides for Danish Team CSC. Zabriskie is a shy kid, who's only the third American to wear the leader's yellow jersey.

Mr. DAVID ZABRISKIE (Cyclist): I was nervous for me, for everybody there. It's--but I think it was--with this on my shoulders, it's an experience I've never had. There is so much respect given to me from everybody; something I've never felt before.

NIILER: While European racers still dominate professional cycling, US riders are close behind. Four Americans are now in the Tour de France's top 10. None have rock star girlfriends or big endorsement deals like Armstrong, but they can still occasionally win a big race. Charles Pelkey is an editor at Velo News magazine.

Mr. CHARLES PELKEY (Editor, Velo News Magazine): There's a great depth in the American side right now and I don't--you know, his absence will be felt certainly, but it's certainly not going to be the end of American cycling.

NIILER: Besides Zabriskie, Americans Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer both have an outside chance of grabbing the yellow jersey. Several others are capable of winning at least one of the tour's 21 individual stages, including sprinter Freddie Rodriguez and Chris Horner, who won a stage of the Tour of Switzerland last month. Pelkey says that after Armstrong's retirement, the race will be wide open.

Mr. PELKEY: One of the things that's going to be a nice change from a fan's perspective, I would think, is that there won't be as dominant a rider contesting the Tour de France.

NIILER: Levi Leipheimer is not waiting around. The 30-year-old Montana resident says he's ready to duke it out against Armstrong when the race heads to the Alps.

Mr. LEVI LEIPHEIMER (Cyclist): If everything goes well and I have some luck, which you always need, then I can be standing on the podium in Paris as well.

NIILER: He says racing 2,300 miles over three weeks makes the Tour de France the world's toughest athletic event.

Mr. LEIPHEIMER: Some days you finish the stage and you don't think you're going to be able to recover for the next day, but somehow you do. And some days the weather is beautiful and some days it's, you know, freezing rain in the high mountains or gale force winds out by the coast or whatever that Mother Nature throws at you.

NIILER: It's the battle between cyclists, the elements and each other that attracts television viewers as well as seeing someone as tough as Armstrong beat the Europeans at their own game. Outdoor Life Network has been broadcasting the race since 2001, and will air more than 300 hours of tour coverage this year. The tour is the network's highest rated show, but President Gavin Harvey expects that casual bike fans will tune out when Armstrong leaves.

Mr. GAVIN HARVEY (President, Outdoor Life Network): This question has been omnipresent in our decision-making about what to do with the tour and how to produce it and how to position it. We have to have other programming ready to take up the slack if we see any sort of ratings fall-off.

NIILER: As to Armstrong's retirement plans, the Texan says he will join the Discovery Channel as a commentator. Given his popularity, however, some believe he may start his own bike team or perhaps even run for office. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eric Niiler
Eric Niiler reports for NPR's national desk. His work can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and other NPR newsmagazines. Before moving to his current post, Niiler was a reporter for NPR's Day to Day program, and also filed pieces for NPR's national and science desks.
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