As Americans Fade From Tour de France, So Do American Flags

American flags were once ubiquitous on the Tour de France route, but they have become a somewhat rare sight.

BAGNÈRES de LUCHON, France — Chad Haga is an increasingly rare sight at the Tour de France: an American. The days when American teams and American riders were a dominant force at cycling’s biggest event have become a distant memory.

Of the 176 riders who started this year’s Tour de France, just five were American. Australia, a nation that came to European road racing during the 1980s like the United States, has 11 riders for its fans to cheer. While three teams at this year’s race are registered in the United States, only one retains much of its national identity.

As Haga stood outside the hulking, black bus of his team, Sunweb, he was largely overlooked by a horde of spectators behind a nearby barrier. The excitement and the attention were reserved for Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands who is the Sunweb team leader.

Like his fellow Americans still at the Tour, Haga cited a number of reasons for the faded status of the United States. But missing from his list is Lance Armstrong, whose name remains generally as unspoken at the Tour as Lord Voldemort’s is within the world of Harry Potter.

“It’s still a net positive, the effect that he’s had on cycling in America,” Haga, 29, said of Armstrong. “It dipped a little bit after the revelation of everything he did.”

He added, “I’m not sure what’s the best way to fix this problem.”

Men’s road racing is cycling’s outlier in the United States. Women’s racing, cyclocross (a fall-winter event that includes bits of running), races on gravel roads (arguably an American creation) and Gran Fondos (race-like events with large fields of mostly middle-aged amateurs of varying ability) are all growing rapidly, while even mountain biking is coming back from a slump.

Missing from the Tour along with the swaggering American teams and prominent stars like Greg LeMond and Armstrong are large numbers of American fans. During the peak years of American dominance, American flags could be seen all along the race route; only four were visible in the three stages leading up to Monday’s rest day — plus one Confederate flag.

When LeMond reached his first of three Tour victories, he did so on European teams and mostly with the support of European riders. The era of American teams began in 1986 when Jim Ochowicz showed up with a mostly American team known as 7-Eleven.

Ochowicz said that his policy with 7-Eleven, which was later sponsored by Motorola, was to come to the Tour with teams that were at least half made up of American riders. His BMC team this year carries just one: Tejay van Garderen.

“Americans are not here in numbers anymore,” Ochowicz said. “You can’t just pin it on any one issue.”

Europeans typically avoid college and seek poorly paid spots on Pro Continental teams that are somewhat like farm teams for the top-tier World Tour squads. But most riders don’t make that transition.

“Really talented riders that faced the real choice of going pro versus finishing the degree — that’s a tough one,” said Haga, who still bears the scars from surgery after he and six teammates were hit by a car while training in Spain in 2016. He is a rare cyclist who has had it both ways: He rode in college while working toward a degree in mechanical engineering and then found a Pro Continental spot that eventually led to Sunweb.

The decline in American participation is a major issue for a sport that involves a long, difficult and sometimes frustrating apprenticeship — one that most candidates will fail, said Bob Stapleton, a businessman who once owned a World Tour team and is now chairman of U.S.A. Cycling, the national governing body.

“We’ve had even a number of promising candidates you would expect to see in this race who have done very well internationally, gone off to college and now have a bunch of other career and personal options ahead of them,” Stapleton said. “And that happens a lot less in Europe.”

For those Americans who do stick with cycling, dwindling sponsorship has meant that several major races have vanished in the United States. Even an event that was widely viewed as good news, such as the elevation of the Tour of California to the World Tour calendar, has brought an unintended side effect: Small American teams made up of young riders can no longer enter it. Ochowicz said that he, and other team directors, once used the race for talent scouting.

Taylor Phinney, who is at the race with the American Education First-Drapac team, is a direct link to the glorious past. His father, Davis, was a sprinter who won stages at the 1986 and 1987 Tour while riding for 7-Eleven. Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Taylor’s mother, won the gold medal in the women’s road race at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

After doing a run of autographs for patient fans outside his team’s vivid, pink bus, Taylor Phinney said that the fading American presence might be more a matter of perception than anything else.

“There’s a lot more American riders now, I would say, that race for non-American teams, and for that reason they don’t get quite as much coverage or attention as opposed to back in the 7-Eleven days when they were just the American team and they were out there,” he said. (His team, the only one with predominantly American support staff, also brought Lawson Craddock to the Tour. Craddock hit a water bottle on the first stage and fractured a scapula. He was last overall following Tuesday’s stage.)

Ian Boswell, from Bend, Ore., who now rides for the Katusha-Alpecin team, said that American cycling may want to follow the lead of his previous employer: Team Sky of Britain.

While Sky has long mixed in riders from outside of Britain, it nevertheless casts itself as Britain’s team in pro cycling.

Americans are sprinkled on non-American teams, Boswell said, and are then usually assigned support roles, making it difficult for them to elevate themselves and American cycling in general.

“It would be very cool to start a team with predominantly North American riders,” he said. “I think you could do it. I just think that it takes a lot of foresight.”

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