RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - International Cycling Union chief Brian Cookson would not say his name but Lance Armstrong and a rogues’ gallery of disgraced cyclists remained on the lips of many at the cycling world championships.
Back on U.S. roads for the first time since 1986, the week-long event attracted nearly a half million flag-waving, cowbell clanging spectators and helped pour $128 million into the local economy by the time it ended on Sunday.
But despite the bright numbers, dark clouds from a decade of scandals still hang over the sport, particularly in the United States where Armstrong and fellow drug cheats and Americans Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie punctured cycling’s popularity.
”Because of Lance we have been at the center of that negativity and now we have this amazing event we are pulling off very well,“ USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall told Reuters. ”In the global cycling community it is a very helpful event to have at this time to get back on a positive side.
”The sport remains immensely popular and that is because the fans have been tolerant.
”They are pissed off and they are upset but they are out there still watching, still participating they just
want to see it better.
“What is interesting is that no matter how much we have disappointed the fans they still come back. It is amazing it has endured even though it was derailed from that growth trajectory it had for awhile.”
For Cookson, who has taken on the challenge of restoring cycling’s tarnished image, Armstrong remains the party pooper at the UCI’s most important event.
Once one of the United States’ most celebrated athletes, Armstrong became a worldwide sporting villain stripped of his seven Tour de France victories after admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs.
Already rocked by a string of doping scandals, Armstrong’s admission dealt cycling’s credibility a body blow from which it has yet to recover.
Such is the distain that Cookson could not even bring himself to mention Armstrong by name.
”(Doping) is still part of our history that casts a dark shadow, there is no doubt about that, but I think we are coming out of that shadow into the light,“ Cookson told Reuters. ”There will always be people who try to cheat. What we’ve got to do is try to keep that at a minimum and do it with that with integrity and independence.
”This is not acceptable anymore. We had to clean our act up. We had no alternative.
”Obviously I want to go forward and not dwell too much on the past. The person (Armstrong) you mentioned has had far too much publicity over the years.
“Clearly this was a very damaging era for us.”
While American cycling fans may not have forgotten about the sport’s doping problems they certainly appeared willing to forgive, coming out in huge numbers to cheer on riders during the world championships.
Race organizers were praised for their efforts while competitors seemed genuinely impressed by the enthusiasm shown by their American hosts and nearly 3,000 volunteers.
”There is no doubt we suffered a terrible black eye and we are recovering from that,“ said Bouchard-Hall. ”That is another reason why this event is important because the conversation is about the world championships here in America and that are a positive story about the sport.
”That is exactly what we need and why this is important.
”We have seen recently a growth in our membership, the sport continues to grow it has softened but is growing and I expect it to accelerate going forward.
“It has no doubt stalled the growth we saw in the past. I want to get us back on the track where we are growing strongly again and that has softened.”
Editing by Frank Pingue